The Second of Those Other Things

In order to continue the history of my engagement with ideas of ethical responsibility, I indicated in The First of Those Other Things that I would turn next to Ivan Illich’s Rivers North of the Future (Toronto: House of Anansi Press, 2005), which is what I intend to do in this post. Unfortunately, except for those who were reading radical literature in the sixties and seventies, relatively few people recognize Illich’s name any more, so perhaps something of an introduction is required.

Ivan Illich was a Catholic Priest who rejected a promising career in the church hierarchy and chose to work most often on the fringes of the church and the university. He served for several years with the Puerto Rican community in New York. He became the director of the Catholic University in Puerto Rico until he was forced to resign over a political disagreement with the Vatican. Having become highly critical of institutionalized education, he founded the Center for Intercultural Formation in Cuernavaca, Mexico, which provided language training for people wishing to work in international development, and which received intense criticism for its rejection of traditional development strategies and organizations. He taught and lectured widely, though never took a permanent position, living mostly in Mexico and Germany.

The majority of his books are focused on analyzing the central social institutions of Western culture: the educational system in Deschooling Society; the medical system in Medical Nemesis; transportation and energy in Energy and Equity, and several others. Tools for Conviviality, which sets out a somewhat broader philosophy on the function of tools and systems in society remains one of my favourite books. To understand Illich more broadly, however, it is his later books that I find most helpful, especially Rivers North of the Future and Ivan Illich In Conversation, both of which are transcribed interviews with David Cayley of the CBC. Where his earlier works are focused on analysing a particular subject, his interviews with Cayley range more widely and provide both the context of Illich’s broader philosophy and the perspective of thirty years on his earlier work.

I first encountered Ivan Illich, as I have first encountered several authors, through Dave Humphrey, who gave me a recording of the CBC Radio interviews that formed part of Rivers North of the Future. Illich fascinated me immediately. Not only was his approach to theology and philosophy remarkably different than I had encountered in anyone else, but his voice, with its vaguely European accent that bears the inflections of the many languages he speaks, has a kind of slow precision and gravity that captivated me. I bought several of his books, read them all, read some of them twice, and have been greatly influenced by his ideas.

Of Illich’s texts, however, it was Rivers North of the Future that influenced me most in regard to this little history that I am telling. Working through the story of the Good Samaritan, Illich basically argues that what causes the Samaritan to know his responsibility is not some abstract idea of the neighbour but a “movement in the belly.” He says that the key phrase, usually translated from the Greek as something like, “He was moved to pity,” would be more accurately rendered as something like, “He was moved in his belly,” or “He felt it in his bowls,” akin to the English phrase, “He had a feeling in the pit of his stomach.” The one who acts as a neighbour, therefore, is not the one who renders a predetermined duty to anyone, nor even the one who renders a predetermined duty to the one who appears as a neighbour. The one who acts as a neighbour is the one who renders the duty that is moved in the belly, according to the bond of the neighbour. The neighbour is the one who is open to the movement of the belly, who attends to this movement, and who renders the duty that it requires.

This understanding of ethical responsibility is essentially theological. It is not comprehensible within the logic of a philosophy or of a legality or of a religiosity. It is never determined by a premise or by a law or by a commandment. It is in every case determined by an attentiveness to this movement in my belly that does not come from myself but from elsewhere, from I can never guarantee where, but that I nevertheless believe to be my right and proper duty. However I construe this elsewhere, its movement in me bears the structure of a revelation and, therefore, of a theology.

This revelatory and theological approach to ethical responsibility satisfied the question with which I had been struggling since reading King Lear; that is, how do I determine my duty as a neighbour in any given situation. It accorded with my experience of responding to others that often, beyond any sort of rule or commandment, I knew what was required of me, sometimes in ways for which I could not find satisfactory explanation. To this extent, Illich’s interpretation of the Good Samaritan story seemed to me proper and right.

Still, Illich’s interpretation did contain one point of concern for me that I could never quite resolve: If the neighbour is the one who acts according to the movement in the belly, how can Christ’s story of the Good Samaritan portray the Levite and the Priest as not acting as neighbours? After all, perhaps their bellies were not moved. Perhaps they looked at the man beside the road and felt nothing. Perhaps a situation might occur where everyone who passed by felt no such movement and the man beside the road would die unaided. How could any understanding of ethical duty permit this possibility? In other words, if ethical responsibility depends on the movement in the belly, what happens when there is no movement? This question, at last, brings me to Jean-Luc Marion’s Prolegomena to Charity, which I will take up in a later post.


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