Ivan Illich died in Bremen on December 2, 2002 at the age of seventy-six. As a German friend of his put it: “God gave him a beautiful death.” Illich suddenly collapsed while at work in his study and died immediately. The New York Times obituary noted, quite correctly, that Illich’s influence was long past. A young colleague to whom I mentioned his passing, for example, had never heard of him. But the stature of a man must not be measured by the shifting winds of fashion. At one time Illich had been an important figure in the intellectual world—no less than in my life.
Illich was born in Vienna, the son of a Croatian father and a German-Jewish mother. He studied in Salzburg and in Rome, finished with a doctorate in history, and was ordained as a Roman Catholic priest. Contrary to what many people assumed, he wanted it known that he had never ceased to be a priest. He did not write about theology, but his thought and his piety were marked by a very conservative Catholicism. Once, when he was sick, I visited him in his bedroom in Cuernavaca. It was spartan, reminiscent of a monastic cell. Over his bed hung an enormous crucifix.
Illich moved to New York in 1951, serving in a largely Latino parish. In 1956 he became vice-rector of the Catholic University of Puerto Rico, where he got into trouble with the local hierarchy because he criticized the role of the Church in Puerto Rican politics. In 1960 he moved to Cuernavaca, Mexico, where he founded the institution that served as his base for many years—the Centro Intercultural de Documentación (CIDOC). It was a most unusual place. Located on an attractive rented estate, it was a think tank bringing together for lectures and innumerable conversations a highly heterogeneous group of bright people—North and Latin Americans, Europeans, Catholics and non-Catholics, from the left and the right. CIDOC had no outside funding. It sustained itself in an uncommon way—by operating a very successful program of instruction in Spanish, charging the usual rates for this kind of activity.
Illich wrote and published continuously. His book Celebration of Awareness: A Call for Institutional Revolution (1969) was an injunction to think and live autonomously, in defiance of convention. Illich quickly became a celebrity, especially in circles identified with the burgeoning counterculture. He spoke to large audiences in the Americas and in Europe. One book followed another. Deschooling Society (1971), a frontal assault on modern education, probably his best-known work. Tools for Conviviality (1973), a call for human relations freed from the constraints of status and consumership. Energy and Equity (1974), a work in tune with many of the themes of the emergent environmental movement. Medical Nemesis (1976), an attack on the technologization and impersonality of modern medicine, which opened with the lapidary sentence: “The medical establishment has become a major threat to health.” Toward the end of the 1970s came an influential essay, “Shadow-Work,” which criticized the downgrading of unpaid labor, especially that of women—needless to say, it was hailed by feminists.
It is easy to see why Illich’s ideas resonated well in the cultural climate of the time. But he disappointed, one by one, most of the groups who first believed him to be one of them. Catholics were irritated when he criticized missionaries in Latin America as cultural imperialists. The counterculture discovered that he found repugnant many if not most of their proclivities, from drugs to promiscuous sex. He upset the left when, after a visit to Cuba, he described the Castro regime as an odious tyranny. And feminists were deeply offended when he argued, some years after “Shadow-Work,” that women had been better off in traditional societies in which they devoted themselves to the life of the family. Illich was a genie who could not be kept in any bottle. Like Goethe’s Mephistopheles, he was a “spirit who ever negates.”
What impressed most about Illich was his enormous vitality, personal as well as intellectual. Switching easily between languages, he delved into conversations with zest. But he was a respectful and enthusiastic listener, especially when he encountered a new idea. He dominated the intellectual life at CIDOC, not by imposing his ideas on others, but by the sheer force of his own. Once, with his friend the Brazilian bishop Helder Camara, he traveled throughout Latin America from one carnival festival to another. To get a sense of Africa, he went on a walking tour through the southern Sahara. He repeatedly visited Benares, where he stayed in Hindu temples.
CIDOC declined along with Illich’s influence as the cultural climate changed. Opposed to anything that smacked of “schooling,” he made almost no effort to control the program. All sorts of people were allowed to lecture, some of them with quite outlandish ideas. A sort of intellectual Gresham’s Law ensued: the good people increasingly stayed away. When this became evident to Illich, he made what must have been a difficult decision—he shut the place down, keeping only an archive of materials on topics that had concerned CIDOC, managed by his long-time collaborator Valentina Borremans.
Thereafter Illich led an itinerant life between Cuernavaca and Bremen (where he had a devoted group of collaborators around Barbara Duden), with brief teaching stints in the United States. His publications dealt with increasingly idiosyncratic topics, many of them concerned with a search for the origins of modernity in medieval thought. The last book of his that came to my attention was In the Vineyard of the Text (1993), a commentary on the twelfth-century writer Hugh of Saint Victor.
There are, I think, two threads that run through Illich’s opus from the beginning. There is a radical critique of all aspects of modernity, grounded in a profoundly conservative view of the human condition. And there is a deep respect for what Illich called the “vernacular”—the wisdom of ordinary people and their ways of coping with life.
My first contact with Illich occurred in 1969. He phoned me, opening with the sentence: “This is Ivan Illich. You probably don’t know who I am.” I assured him that I did know. He told me that he had heard, correctly, that I was planning to spend the summer in Cuernavaca with my family, then added: “Come to CIDOC. We need you.” I subsequently understood what he meant. He had read some of my writings on the relation of society and consciousness, and he thought that they contained ideas he could use. The invitation was irresistible. During the following months I lectured at CIDOC to a very responsive audience. Much more important for me was my being part of the ongoing conversation there. It turned out to be a very important period for me, opening up the entire topic of modernization and development, which has occupied me ever since. It also prompted a turn from the theoretical concerns of my early work to much more empirical issues. In my own recollection of this time there is an inextricable linkage between the excitement of new ideas, the powerful impact of the Mexican milieu, and the image of Illich himself—talking, listening, laughing, offering both physical and intellectual hospitality.
Between 1969 and 1972 I spent three summers in Cuernavaca. I started work, with Brigitte Berger and Hansfried Kellner, on a book dealing with modern consciousness (it eventually became The Homeless Mind ). Originally this was to be a book coauthored with Illich. The project was aborted, for practical rather than intellectual reasons. But it had become increasingly clear that there were significant differences between his view of things and my own. However much I appreciated many of Illich’s criticisms of modern life, I could not agree with his view of education, technology, capitalism, or the role of women. Underlying all these disagreements was a basic one: Illich did not really like modernity; I did, and I do. What is more, as I became more involved with practical policy matters, I came to think that many of Illich’s visions of a desirable society were not realizable. In the 1970s I directed a study for the Vienna Institute of Development, a creation of then-Chancellor Bruno Kreisky. In my one conversation with him I mentioned Illich. He responded impatiently: “One cannot use this” (“Damit kann man nichts anfangen”). I disputed him but had to admit to myself that I did not really disagree. Still, none of these disagreements affected either my intellectual or personal regard for Illich.
After the mid-1970s our contacts became intermittent. Illich often called me from some airport, announced that he was coming through Boston, and informed me that he would come by the house for a short visit. One time he kept a taxi waiting outside while we talked. Then there was the surreal episode of the migrant scarf. Illich possessed a rare scarf, made from both llama and alpaca hair, which had been given to him by a Peruvian philosopher. Illich called me from New York, telling me that he had forgotten the scarf in the office of his publisher, who was going to mail it to me; he would then pick it up on a forthcoming visit to Boston. Illich arrived, but the scarf did not. Next, he asked me to forward it to Atlanta where, he informed me, he spent every New Year’s Eve with the widow of Erich Fromm (Fromm lived in Cuernavaca for a while and had become a friend). The scarf arrived, some days after Illich’s visit, and I duly sent it on to Atlanta. But a quick recapitulation of Illich’s itinerary made me doubt that the scarf would reach him in Atlanta either. I then had a vision of the scarf following Illich, from continent to continent, never reaching him—a metaphor of unending pilgrimage. (I never did learn where the scarf ended up.)
About two years ago I received a short letter from Illich. He regretted that we had seen so little of each other in recent years and thanked me for having given him some ideas that he had not had before. It read like a goodbye letter. I knew that he had been seriously ill, and I phoned him in Mexico. It was a brief conversation. He said that he was quite well, that he was working. Then he added: “I am ready for departure” (we spoke in German—“abreisebereit”). May his journey be full of glory.
Peter L. Berger is Director of the Institute for the Study of Economic Culture at Boston University.
We launched the First Things 2023 Year-End Campaign to keep articles like the one you just read free of charge to everyone.
Measured in dollars and cents, this doesn't make sense. But consider who is able to read First Things: pastors and priests, college students and professors, young professionals and families. Last year, we had more than three million unique readers on firstthings.com.
Informing and inspiring these people is why First Things doesn't only think in terms of dollars and cents. And it's why we urgently need your year-end support.
Will you give today?