An era has come to an end

An excerpt from an essay by E.F. Schumacher

AN ERA HAS COME TO AN END . There is the end of a certain phase in the thinking of Western humanity. We have discovered ourselves now to be in a very, very deep spiritual crisis. An era which been dominated by Cartesian thinking and which has lasted for some 250 or 300 years, has seen unbelievable developments in science and technology. This era is now drawing to a close. Having worked out the consequences of this type of thinking, we find it makes us spiritually bankrupt. This thinking can be called ‘preferring science to wisdom’. To illustrate it, here are two quotations. One comes from Aristotle via Thomas Aquinas. The other is from Huygens, following Descartes. The first one, which is the traditional wisdom of mankind, says, “The slenderest knowledge that may be obtained of the highest things is more desirable than the most certain knowledge obtained of lesser things.” The second quotation, this time from the 17th Century, says, “What gravity is; what heat, cold, the attraction of the magnet, light, colours are; what elements go to make up air, water, fire or other bodies; what the purpose of respiration in animals is; how metal, stones and plants develop; of all these things little or nothing is yet known. There is, however, nothing in the world, the knowledge of which would be more desirable and more useful.”

The total contrast is clear. Until the 17th Century they said that even the slightest, vaguest knowledge of the highest things was infinitely more desirable than the most precise knowledge of material things. Suddenly, there is a change and it is stated that there is nothing more desirable or useful in the world than the knowledge of material things. There is no longer a distinction between ‘higher’ and ‘lower’ things but only the thought of usefulness, desirability derived from usefulness. And so there has followed an era of violent dogmatism, a dogmatism which excludes from what may be considered real or scientifically acceptable everything except that which can be weighed and dealt with by that very small, useful instrument we call reason.

This change in the way of thinking has to be laid at the door of so-called ‘scientific development’. The senses for enjoyment count no longer as an instrument for gaining knowledge. The feelings affection, love, don’t count any more. Character and will—these are both out. And so everything in reality, every subject, whether it is politics, economics, or any particular science becomes an isolated and separate system, because the only thing that henceforth is acceptable is what Descartes called “clear, certain and distinct ideas” and there is nothing really clear, certain and distinct unless you can put it into mathematical terms. (…)

This is the era that is now coming to an end. It has also been described as the ‘reign of quantity’. I learned a lesson during the war when I was a farm labourer up in Northamptonshire and one of my jobs every morning before breakfast was to go up a hill to a field nearby and count the cattle. So I trotted there, half asleep, and counted thirty-two and then I went down to the farm, touched my cap to the bailiff and said, “Yes, sir, thirty-two”, and he said, “Go and have your breakfast.” One day, when I arrived there, there was an old farmer standing at the gate and he said, “Young man, what do you do here every morning?” I said, “Nothing much, I just count the cattle.” He shook his old head and said, “If you count them every day, they won’t flourish.” So I went back, murmuring to myself, “Those country yokels! How stupid can you get!” I mean, I am a professional statistician—he didn’t know that. One day I came up there and I counted; I counted again and again, and there were only thirty-one. I wanted my breakfast so I went down and said to the bailiff, “There are only thirty-one.” He was very angry and said, “Have your breakfast—we’ll go up there after breakfast.” We did and searched the place and, under one of the bushes, was a dead beast. I said to myself, “Wait a minute—why have I been here every morning counting them? That hasn’t stopped that beast dying, has it? Maybe that old farmer had a point here which I missed.” Perhaps he didn’t put it very cleverly, “If you count them every day, they won’t flourish!” What he may have meant was that if you train your mind on the quantity of them, you won’t stop them dying. What does the quantity matter? What could have happened if I hadn’t counted? A beast might have strayed away, but somebody would have brought it back. No, I ought to have looked for the qualitative factor, looked at every beast to see whether she was alright, whether she had a sheen on her coat, and so on. I ought to have been able to go back to the bailiff and say, “Oh, they seem alright except that one looks a bit mangy.” Then we would have gone up and done something sensible. Quantity had got the better of me and had filled my mind instead of what really mattered, which is the quality of things. (…)

We all need to realize that we need a different attitude to nature and we must practise a different attitude to nature in our gardening, our horticultural and agricultural activities. This is a very deep matter, not just a utilitarian matter. What has grown up, particularly over the past 30 years, is no longer a friendly co-operation with nature, but a battle against nature, a battle in which, if by chance we win it, we will find ourselves on the losing side. The much-praised modern agriculture has no long-term future, and there are material facts to support such a view.


This excerpt comes from E.F. Schumacher’s This I Believe, now available in e-book format from all the major retailers: Amazon , Kobo and iBooks  or in paperback from our website.


E.F. Schumacher (1911-1977), a groundbreaking economist and philosopher, is best known for his book Small is Beautiful: Economics as if people mattered, which introduced the idea of the human scale and became an international bestseller. A pioneer of sustainable development, E. F. Schumacher took a profound interest in education, farming, energy, industry and philosophical thought.

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