March 30, 2022 Editor

Is the digital age confirming Ivan Illich’s once radical ideas?

WN: Here’s a friendly new review of Ivan Illich: An Intellectual Journey by Robert Inchausti. He is the author of Subversive Orthodoxy: Outlaws, Revolutionaries, and other Christians in Disguise 1, a survey of radical Christian thought–20 thinkers who greatly impacted the modern era, including a section on Illich. The review appeared in Angelus, the “multi-media news platform” of the archdiocese of Los Angeles. It is used by permission of the author, who participated with a group of us in Ivan Illich: An Intellectual Journey Discussion Group with David Cayley . We called it the Illich/Cayley Friendship Circle.

The new form of Christian prophecy Illich declared has migrated to friendship — honesty communicated one to one, heart to heart, friend to friend. –Robert Inchausti

Indeed, “friendship” was at the heart of Illich’s life, of the Gospel, for Illich. David Cayley recounts an early encounter:

I found Illich in the middle of what he called a “living room consultation,” a small gathering in which food, drink, and friendship were the setting for intellectual interchange. Illich taught, on and off, at universities for much of his life, but he generally camped at their margins, refusing any regular appointment and, as he said, “soberly milking that sacred cow” in order to support the more intimate and convivial academic style that he preferred.

For Illich,

“. . . friendship [is] inseparable from the love of wisdom.” In turn, it connects “directly with the love of Christ and with his presence.”

You may click on the following link to be taken to where the review below first appeared. Is the digital age confirming Ivan Illich’s once radical ideas?


David Cayley is a Canadian writer and broadcast journalist who has made a career interviewing and explaining notable Christian intellectuals, including Marshall McLuhan, Northrop Frye, George Grant and Rene Girard.

In his new book “Ivan Illich: An Intellectual Journey” (Penn State University Press, $42.75(USD) ), Cayley offers us the fruits of his 32-year relationship with Illich as his friend and student.

Ivan Illich (not to be confused with Tolstoy’s famous character of a very similar name) was a one time Catholic priest and controversial social theorist in the ’60s and ’70s, whose radical ideas are only now beginning to receive their due.

A historian of the Middle Ages, Illich saw the institutions of the modern world largely growing out of the early and medieval Roman Catholic Church. But over time this process distorted and corrupted the original teachings and inverted the virtues and values of Christ, transforming hospitality into hospitals, know-how into schooling, health care into a commodity, and death into a disease.

Ivan Illich (Wikimedia Commons)

As a consequence, modern men and women have made impressive demographic advances in terms of life spans and mortality rates, but lost their self-sufficiency, personal integrity, and religious faith.

These, Illich theorized, have been replaced by economic dependence, collective thinking, and a distorted sense of personal entitlement, making good on Chesterton’s witticism: “We live in a time when it is harder for a free man to make a home than it was for a medieval ascetic to do without one.”

It may sound like a pretty outrageous assessment — until we listen with care to what Illich actually meant by these charges. Dismissed as an anarchist by the liberal left and falsely appropriated by the extreme right, Illich saw himself as bringing the good news of the gospel to bear on the many crises afflicting our institutions, from church to school to government.

For him, the way forward was backward, back to the original virtues that predated modernity and shaped and defined both classical civilization and the Medieval Synthesis.

Cayley’s serious dive into Illich’s life as a cultural critic and social activist is a deep one — 560 pages deep, to be precise. For Cayley, who posthumously published a series of interviews conducted late in Illich’s life in 2005, it is the latest valuable contribution to a figure whose radical ideas were not fairly understood the first time around.

We now can see the Christian sources of Illich’s views. Not to mention that much of what Illich warned us about has come true — including our increasing inability to fathom what has happened to us!

Take Illich’s most infamous book “Deschooling Society” (1971). As absurd as that title may (still) sound to those of us who depend upon schools to help raise our children and prepare them for jobs in an increasingly technological and professionalized workplace, public education must take at least some responsibility for our increased dependence on secondhand thinking (aka “the non-thought of received ideas”) that make us so vulnerable to demagogues — including the hustles of robo-calls and the extortions of conspiracy theorists.

Increasingly our authorities are being replaced by social media “influencers,” artists by entertainers, ideas by fads, reflection by distraction, and faith by false optimism.

But Illich wasn’t just saying that standards have dropped or that values have changed. His critique of modernity goes much deeper than that. The way we think and the words we think with have themselves been so corrupted by new disciplines and systems that their common meaning no longer gives us a way out from the ideologies within which they have become embedded. Try to talk to a school superintendent about curriculum or a politician about legislation without using jargon; it’s impossible.

Illich’s motto “the corruption of the best is the worst” applies to the Church as much as it does to any other modern institution. We already see our culture being increasingly “de-churched” — or rather, we see churches being replaced by secular rituals and forms of worship from sporting events to foodie events to celebrity idolatry.

The new form of Christian prophecy Illich declared has migrated to friendship — honesty communicated one to one, heart to heart, friend to friend.

I must admit here that I am not doing justice to Illich as a stylist or to the “sparkle” of his prose, nor to the careful eloquence of Cayley’s analysis. As a friend of Illich, Cayley’s book carries forward and, in many ways, completes the vision Illich had not the time in his relatively short life to fully elaborate and explain.

Born in an Art Deco mansion in Vienna with four different languages as his mother tongue, Illich was exiled from Europe during World War II and wound up in the slums of New York and, later, in collectives in Mexico and Puerto Rico.

Watching him being interviewed by a French journalist on YouTube, Illich comes across as a charming, humble, and self-effacing man. To hear him propose surprisingly radical and liberating ideas made it sometimes hard to believe my own ears.

This is why Cayley’s book is so necessary: It is important for us to know who Illich was and what he truly stood for before his genius is mis-appropriated again by those with a superficial understanding of what he stood for and who did not know him personally.

Former California Governor (and one-time Jesuit seminarian) Jerry Brown described Illich, his friend and adviser, as “not your standard intellectual.”

“His home,” Brown tells us, “was not in the academy and his work forms no part of an approved curriculum. He issued no manifestos and his utterly original writings both confound and clarify as they examine one modern assumption after another. He is radical in the most fundamental sense of the word and therefore not welcome on any reading list.”

Surely David Cayley’s masterful new appreciation of Ivan Illich will help correct this inhospitality.

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  1. In his book, the author writes:

    Over the past seventy-five years, the Gospels have served as a pivot around which many of the most trenchant analyses of modern civilization have turned. And yet there remains a persistent misconception that Christianity is inherently reactionary, unconsciously wedded to class, race, and gender prejudices, bound by foundational metaphysics, and littered with outworn superstitions.

    This book attempts to correct this error by taking a hard and sustained look at those macrohistorians, social activists, and avant-garde novelists whose unique contributions to secular thought derive from their Christian worldviews. None of these figures is strictly speaking a theologian, and yet if there is any significant theological breakthrough on the horizon, it must be found here—in the refreshed, battle-hardened spirituality of Christian thinkers operating within secular contexts whose individual accomplishments testify against the worldwide acquiescence to economic “realities,” military “imperatives,” and so-called geopolitical necessities.

    The outstanding characters we meet are:

    William Blake, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Søren Kierkegaard, G. K. Chesterton, Nikolai Berdyaev, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Boris Pasternak, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Jack Kerouac, Walker Percy, Dorothy Day, Thomas Merton, Martin Luther King Jr., E. F. Schumacher, Wendell Berry,  Marshall McLuhan, Northrop Frye, Jacques Ellul, Ivan Illich, René Girard.

    Ward Maillard in the Forward explains:

    Robert Inchausti, in this original and deeply meaningful work, invites us to contemplate an important paradox that properly understood changes the world. In poetically articulate voice, he amplifies the revolutionary truth that when the principles of great ethical and spiritual traditions such as Christianity are ‘lived,’ they become both “subversive” and “orthodox.”

    Inchausti  writes, “That we must first demolish the omnipresent untruths that clutter out minds before we can search for alternatives.” He goes on to say, “Milan Kundera called this cluttered intellectual environment  ‘the non-thought of received ideas,’ and saw it as the defining feature of ‘the modernization of stupidity.’ “As in the rest of this important work, Inchausti asks us to reengage with our most difficult and valuable feature as human beings; that is our capacity to intelligently question the dominant order. Subversive Orthodoxy is an elegant weaving of the ideas of those who have done so, regardless of the price.[]


Wayne Northey was Director of Man-to-Man/Woman-to-Woman – Restorative Christian Ministries (M2/W2) in British Columbia, Canada from 1998 to 2014, when he retired. He has been active in the criminal justice arena and a keen promoter of Restorative Justice since 1974. He has published widely on peacemaking and justice themes. You will find more about that on this website: a work in progress.

Always appreciate constructive feedback! Thanks.