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The Skill of Hospitality

Ivan Illich on technology and the human future.

L.M. Sacasas
L.M. Sacasas
L.M. Sacasas is associate director of the Christian Study Center of Gainesville, Florida, and author of The Convivial Society, a newsletter about technology and society.

Long ago, in the mid-1990s, between stints as governor of California, Jerry Brown hosted a talk-radio show called We the People. The show featured an eclectic set of guests including Noam Chomsky, Gore Vidal, and Allen Ginsberg. On March 22, 1996, however, Brown aired a remarkable conversation with two guests one would hardly expect to appear on a politically oriented talk show: the philosopher of technology Carl Mitcham and Ivan Illich, a scholar and social critic best known for his wide-ranging critiques of industrial society in the early 1970s.

We no longer live in the early 1970s, or the mid-90s for that matter. We live in what can seem like a different world altogether, marked chiefly by the rise of digital technologies, which appear to raise very different issues than those raised by the industrial-age tools and institutions that were the target of Illich’s critical acumen. Nonetheless, in this interview, and in his larger body of work, Illich offers us both a trenchant and a helpful diagnosis of our social disorders as well as glimpses of a way forward. Illich’s diagnosis remains pertinent because he saw better than most the deep-rooted and ultimately theological sources of our disorders. The path forward, he suggested, and that he embodied in his practice, was the path of hospitality. As he put it to Brown, “I do think that if I had to choose one word to which hope can be tied, it is hospitality.”

* * *

Although in the 70s Illich had achieved a measure of celebrity—he packed lecture halls; his short but dense, demanding books were best sellers; and he frequently wrote for outlets like the New York Review of Books—by the 1980s, his work had fallen out of fashion. This was an unfortunate if not altogether surprising development. Illich was an unsparing critic of industrial society, and he took aim not only at its obvious ills like pollution and the degradation of the environment but even at what most would assume were its most salient successes: education and medicine. In the early 70s, he hoped that people would rediscover “the value of joyful sobriety and liberating austerity” by relearning how to depend on each other. The message was lost on the culture of excess and individualism that came to define the 1980s.

“I do think that if I had to choose one word to which hope can be tied, it is hospitality.”
—Ivan Illich

As a young man Illich had not set out to become a social critic. Instead, he pursued a religious and scholarly vocation. By the early 1950s, he had earned a doctorate in history from the University of Salzburg, had studied the work of Thomas Aquinas with Jacques Maritain, and was ordained a priest in the Roman Catholic Church. Illich’s brilliance and linguistic skills—he was by most accounts fluent in at least eight languages, both modern and classical—marked him as a uniquely gifted rising star in the hierarchy of the church. But for just this reason Illich, who eschewed power throughout his career, set off for a more reclusive scholarly life in the United States, where he intended to study the writings of the medieval theologian and philosopher Albert the Great at Princeton.

As it turned out, another path was marked for him. Beginning with his encounter in the early 1950s with people in the recently arrived Puerto Rican community in New York, Illich stepped out of the proverbial ivory tower and into the life of the poor, the strangers, the outcasts. His service among Puerto Rican immigrants eventually landed him an administrative position at the Pontifical Catholic University of Puerto Rico, where he served until he ran afoul of the church hierarchy with his public comments opposing the church’s stance on contraception. In 1961, Illich then set off on the next phase of his career when he founded the Center for Intercultural Documentation (CIDOC) in Cuernavaca, Mexico. CIDOC functioned as a language school and training center for North American priests sent to minister in Latin America. It also served as an intellectual hub for Illich and the often radical writers, scholars, and thinkers he gathered around him.

Illich’s best-known books came out of his collaborations at CIDOC: Deschooling Society, Tools for Conviviality, The Limits of Medicine, and Energy and Equity. Each of these works took critical aim at key elements of modern industrial society. And it is in this work that we can still find a prescient analysis of our current experience of institutional failure. In Tools for Conviviality (1973) he wrote of a “world-wide crisis of world-wide institutions.” With both industrial technologies and institutions in mind, Illich went on to warn that “if tools are not controlled politically, they will be managed in a belated technocratic response to disaster. Freedom and dignity will continue to dissolve into an unprecedented enslavement of man to his tools.”

What is most resonant in Illich’s early writing, then, is the understanding that a certain set of modern institutions and the way of life they sustained had played themselves out, and that a deep and thoroughgoing renewal of the social order was needed, beginning with a renewed appreciation for the human person.

It is sometimes assumed that Illich simply disliked institutions of all sorts or that his critique was grounded principally in an anti-institutional ideology. But this is not quite right. Illich was principally concerned with institutions that had passed through what he called a second watershed, which often involved achieving a particular size or scale or level of complexity. Beyond this watershed or threshold, Illich argued, tools and institutions become counterproductive and eventually destructive.

In explaining the purpose of Tools for Conviviality, for example, Illich proposed the concept of “a multidimensional balance of human life which can serve as a framework for evaluating man’s relation to his tools.” “In each of several dimensions of this balance,” Illich wrote, “it is possible to identify a natural scale.” He goes on to add that “when an enterprise grows beyond a certain point on this scale, it first frustrates the end for which it was originally designed, and then rapidly becomes a threat to society itself.”

In discussions of Illich’s work, interpreters have occasionally missed the underlying ethic of his critique. Illich was specifically concerned with the manner in which counterproductive institutions deskill human beings. But he was not just concerned with the loss of our vocational skills—the skills that a worker loses when their labor is automated, for example; or our inability to make repairs when it is so easy to buy something new. He was also concerned about a great social deskilling: the loss of the capacity to relate to and care for one another.


“Progress should mean growing competence in self-care rather than growing dependence,” Illich wrote. He believed, too, that the liberation promised by modern industrial society amounted to a consequent dependence on institutions that increasingly dictated the terms of human worth relative to standards and criteria that had little or nothing to do with the good of the people they claimed to serve. By contrast, the freedom men and women need, according to Illich, is “the freedom to make the things among which they can live, to give shape to them according to their own tastes, and to put them to use in caring for and about others.”

In Illich’s view, we are increasingly caught in networks designed ostensibly to empower us but that, in fact, make us all the more dependent on their operations. Having outsourced care to institutions (preschools, nursing homes) and the service industry, we are more helpless and more adrift, bereft not only of a measure of dignity but also of the human consolations of giving and receiving help and comfort.

Illich believed that people have “a native capacity for healing, consoling, moving, learning, building their houses, and burying their dead.” Unfortunately, we had, in his view, ceded each of these capacities to the professional classes. What is most troubling about this development is not merely the loss of personal satisfactions and the sense of purpose that might arise from being useful to another. Rather, it is that these practices, which we hardly ever now undertake for one another, were also what we might think of as binding agents. Through my care for another I reach out beyond myself and even beyond the confines of my home to the wider community, to my neighbors.

Jesus’s story about the good Samaritan was incredibly important to Illich. As Illich always observed, Jesus is not answering the question, How shall I treat my neighbor? He is answering a deeper question: Who is my neighbor? Illich recognized that Jesus, “that most upsetting guy,” as he put it to Jerry Brown on that show in the 90s, was abolishing “the limitation of hospitality to the in-group.” The point of the story, as Illich went on to explain to Brown, is this: “I can choose. I have to choose. I have to make my mind up whom I will take into my arms, to whom I will lose myself, whom I will treat as that vis-a-vis, that face into which I look . . . from whom I accept being who I am as a gift.” The intimacy of the encounter was critical for Illich.

“I can choose. I have to choose. I have to make my mind up whom I will take into my arms, to whom I will lose myself, whom I will treat as that vis-a-vis, that face into which I look . . . from whom I accept being who I am as a gift.”
—Ivan Illich

An experience of community is not so much a state to be inhabited as it is a condition to be achieved, and it is achieved by constant practice. By caring for my neighbor in a time of need, I forge a communal bond. My neighbor becomes less of an abstraction: he or she takes on flesh and blood. Their history and my history intertwine. We build up a narrative stock over time that further binds us in memory. But when we have outsourced all of our mutual care to institutions and professionals, these ties atrophy. We recede from a common world of mutual interdependence into our own private enclaves of consumption, becoming as Illich put it slaves of envy or slaves of addiction, unable either to care for ourselves or for our neighbors.

* * *

In 1975, Illich disbanded CIDOC. This marked the beginning of the third phase of his career, during which he assumed the role of itinerant scholar, splitting his time among universities in the United States and abroad, chiefly Penn State and Bremen. It was during this latter phase of his life that Illich’s intellectual interests shifted to questions related to media and their effect on human perception, culminating in his last major work, In the Vineyard of the Text, an exploration of the emergence of the scholastic culture of the book. He framed it as a commentary on the work of twelfth-century theologian Hugh of St. Victor. Another theme, always latent in Illich’s thought and practice, becomes increasingly prominent as well during this time: hospitality and friendship.

While Illich made his name as a critic of industrial technology, he early on recognized the significance of computer technology and digital communication tools. One prominent theme in Illich’s work, which appears at various junctures in his conversation with Brown, is the significance of the body. It is clear that Illich worried about the degree to which the body, and as a result the person, was lost through the use of modern means of communication. In his exchange with Brown, these concerns come across through a poignant reflection on how the gift we receive from the other is our own self, which turns on a discussion of the etymology of the word “pupil.”

“I want to just go back to a great rabbinical and also as you see, monastic, Christian development beyond what the Greeks like Plato or Cicero already knew about friendship,” Illich tells Brown about midway through their conversation. “There’s a little thing there. They called it pupilla, puppet, which I can see in your eye. The black thing in your eye.”

“Pupil, puppet, person, eye. It is not my mirror,” Illich explains:

It is you making me the gift of that which Ivan is for you. That’s the one who says “I” here. I’m purposely not saying, this is my person, this is my individuality, this is my ego. No. I’m saying this is the one who answers you here, whom you have given to him. This is how Hugh [of St. Victor] explains it here. This is how the rabbinical tradition explains it. That I cannot come to be fully human unless I have received myself as a gift and accepted myself as a gift of somebody who has—well, today we say distorted me the way you distorted me by loving me.

This discovery of the gift that is the self we receive from the other occurs uniquely in the context of the face-to-face encounter, when two people are present to themselves in the fullness of their embodied reality, as the Samaritan who encountered the Jew by the side of the road.

This portion of the conversation then evolves into a broader discussion of the renewal of the political order. Illich believed that the ancient relationship among virtue, friendship, and politics had been undone. In the classical view, a good society fostered virtue in its citizens, and friendship was in turn the culmination of the virtuous life. Alluding to Brown’s political service, Illich laments, “I do not believe that friendship today can flower out, can come out, of political life.” But there was a measure of hope in recognizing that the ancient paradigm could be reversed.

“I do believe that if there is something like a political life to be, to remain for us, in this world of technology, then it begins with friendship,” Illich tells Brown. “Therefore my task is to cultivate disciplined, self-denying, careful, tasteful friendships.” He goes on to add,

Mutual friendships always. I and you and I hope a third one, out of which perhaps community can grow. Because perhaps here we can find what the good is. To make it short, while once friendship in our western tradition was the supreme flower of politics I do think that if community life if it exists at all today it is in some way the consequence of friendship cultivated by each one who initiates it.

But Illich recognizes in his prescription an implicit challenge to the way we ordinarily think about our obligations in an individualistic society: “This is of course a challenge to the idea of democracy which goes beyond anything which people usually talk about, saying each one of you is responsible for the friendships he can develop because society will be as good as the political result of these friendships will be.”

Nonetheless, it is the only way forward as far as Illich is concerned. There can be no substitute for the work of rediscovering our common humanity in the practice of hospitality, which, insofar as it flowers into friendship, will be the starting point of politics.

There can be no substitute for the work of rediscovering our common humanity in the practice of hospitality, which, insofar as it flowers into friendship, will be the starting point of politics.

Yet, here again, Illich is clearheaded about the obstacles thwarting hospitality. First, his earlier arguments about what I’ve called our social deskilling are still valid even if they have been unheeded. Illich often referred to these skills in the older formulation of an art we learn to practice. We have lost the art of dying and the art of suffering as well as the art of living. Specifically, we are unpracticed in the art of hospitality.

But there is a further complication. “Hospitality,” Illich insists, “requires a threshold over which I can lead you, and TV, internet, newspaper, the idea of communication, abolished the walls and therefore also the friendship, the possibility of leading somebody over the door.”

This may seem like an odd thing on which to insist, the necessity of leading someone over a threshold, but it reflects Illich’s conviction that we must encounter one another in the fullness of our humanity, which can only happen when we meet face-to-face, when we can behold ourselves in the pupil of the other. So Illich tells Brown, “Hospitality requires a table around which you can sit and if people get tired they can sleep.”

Two years later, in a lecture at Bremen, Illich warned in a similar vein that “the quest for truth cannot thrive outside the nourishment of mutual trust flowering into a commitment to friendship.” He then spoke of how he set out to identify the “atmosphere” that makes such a flowering possible and that which undermines such a flowering. “Only persons who face one another in trust can allow its emergence,” he concludes.

To drive the point home, in that same lecture, titled “The Cultivation of Conspiracy,” Illich drew on the ancient Christian practice of conspiratio, the holy kiss of the liturgy in which the participants “shared their breath or spirit with one another.” It was in this conspiracy, literally, this co-breathing, that the atmosphere conducive to pax, or peace, was established. It was in this practice that Illich found the sources of the practice of community that emerged in Christian Europe. “The shared breath,” Illich explained, “the con-spiratio is peace, understood as the community that arise from it.”

It is striking to observe the contrast between the altogether different kind of conspiracy that has in fact flourished in our midst. A spirit of conspiracy born out of our alienation, our distrust, and the cultivation of bad faith that seems to flourish in the disembodied spaces that now function as our public squares.

Perhaps it seems altogether impractical and inadequate to suggest that the crisis of our moment should be met with a practice so seemingly humble and fragile, whose results can’t be readily scaled up or optimized. Perhaps it even seems naive. But I would argue that the naivete lies with those who fail to recognize that our present crisis is so grave that to meet it adequately requires anything less than the slow, deliberate work of rebuilding not just our institutions but the recovery of an even more fundamental reality: the experience of a common world and shared humanity.

Near the end of his conversation with Brown, Illich told him that “a practice of hospitality recovering threshold, table, patience, listening” could generate the “seedbeds for virtue and friendship . . . [and] for rebirth of community.” We could do far worse than pursuing such hospitality even as we labor in other ways for our world and for our neighbor.