“Our task is to look at the world and see it whole.”
A Guide for the Perplexed
If I were asked to put together a list of the great but underappreciated and little-known characters of twentieth-century fiction, I would almost certainly Oswald Hendryks Cornelius (deceased) near the top. He is the protagonist of Roald Dahl’s second and last adult novel My Uncle Oswald and is introduced at the beginning with the following words:
…I mean, of course, Oswald Hendryks Cornelius deceased, the connoisseur, the bon vivant, the collector of spiders, scorpions and walking-sticks, the lover of opera, the expert on Chinese porcelain, the seducer of women, and without much doubt the greatest fornicator of all time.
Is your interest piqued? It should be.
Which Book Would You Choose?
Now the reason I mention good old Oswald – that’s as much attention as he’s going to get in this little review – is because of a unique habit he had. Whenever he travelled he carried with him a box of his most beloved books. I’ll leave you to seek out the novel itself to discover their titles, but it got me thinking: if I were a vagabond, with or without the same sexual prowess as Dahl’s uncle, which books would my box contain?
My Choice – A Guide for the Perplexed
Blame it on a lack of reading experience or an unrefined literary palette, but after considering this question I decided that I would include only one: A Guide for the Perplexed by E.F. Schumacher. Since discovering a worn copy of it on my parents’ bookshelf nearly ten years ago, it has become almost something of a companion.
Ray Bradbury (if I can paraphrase another literary great) once said, in a discussion about Farenheit 451, that when he heard about the book burnings of Nazi Germany, he felt as though it had been people that were set aflame. A tad dramatic, perhaps. Yet I recall the story of Schumacher and how, on his deathbed, he handed a draft of A Guide to the Perplexed to his daughter and said, “…this is what my life has been leading to.”
So maybe there can be a life in a book.
Constructing a Philosophical Map
Schumacher’s intention is to offer what he calls a philosophical map – an understanding of the world, and the knowledge contained within it, that we can use to orient ourselves. It is constructed on the foundation of four truths he believes to be so all-consuming that they can be seen from wherever we find ourselves.
The question that arises, of course, is, “Where is it that I’m meant to be navigating to?”
Well, if you have ever asked questions along the lines of, “What does it all mean?” or, “What am I supposed to do with my life?” then you have your answer. What Schumacher has crafted is a guidebook, an outline that, “…shows where various things are to be found – not all things…but the things that are most prominent, most important for orientation – outstanding landmarks as it were….”
And that is exactly what he puts forward. In just over a hundred pages he sets out to offer a map that will enable us to seek three things. First, “A philosophy comprehensive enough to embrace the whole of knowledge;” second, “A system of meditation which will produce the power of concentrating the mind on anything whatsoever;” and finally, “An art of living which will enable one to utilise each activity (of body, speech and mind) an an aid on the Path.”
The Map Itself…
After a short section decrying the pervasiveness of material scientism, the journey begins with an acknowledgement of the various “levels of being”. Looking at the physical world, Schumacher notes that we see a great hierarchy of being, a succession of objects, plants and animals all displaying different characteristics. Human beings, he argues, sit at the top of this pyramid as the only living creatures possessing self-awareness.
I felt a huge sense of discovery, of page-bound wanderlust, when reading the first chapters. It was as though I were being given permission to imagine the world anew, to view myself as a stranger and cast off any presuppositions – allowed to investigate and draw conclusions about the world that existed in my own direct experience.
After looking at both the nature of progression through this hierarchy, and of man’s ability to correctly perceive the world, the author then proceeds to outline the four types of knowledge. Beginning by splitting human comprehension into four categories – self-knowledge (inner), knowledge of the world, of other people, and of oneself from the perspective of others – he then explores what the great thinkers, from Plato to Aquinas to Gurdjieff, have to say about each of these divisions.
The penultimate chapter is dedicated to the two types of problem present in the world – divergent and convergent. These terms essentially refer to those which can be solved absolutely (such as a maths equation) and those which do not have a definite answer (such as the question of right or wrong in a given situation) and which must be transcended.
What is the Purpose of Life?
You might not agree with it, but he does provide an answer. In just over a hundred words on a page towards the end of the book he outlines a three-part explanation of what he believes “…constitutes the true progress of a human being.” I won’t tell you what he says, you’ll have to find out for yourself, but I will say this: it’s not typical. It’s not about following your passion or helping to change the world or any other of the well-intentioned but trite cliches that pass as insights nowadays.
In a world where information is cheap and wisdom scarce, I believe that A Guide for the Perplexed is as relevant now as when it was published. It’s not a daunting book – you can read it in a few nights – nor is it particularly difficult to understand. Yet for the right person, at the right time, it can almost certainly act as an aid in navigating this unusual and poorly charted territory in which we find ourselves. Do give it a go.