Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1265
Ernst Friedrich Fritz Schumacher (SHEW-mahk-ur), a British economist and social philosopher, was born on August 16, 1911, in Bonn, Germany, where his father was a professor of economics at the university. In 1917 the elder Schumacher accepted a post at the University of Berlin, and young Fritz was raised in...
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Ernst Friedrich Fritz Schumacher (SHEW-mahk-ur), a British economist and social philosopher, was born on August 16, 1911, in Bonn, Germany, where his father was a professor of economics at the university. In 1917 the elder Schumacher accepted a post at the University of Berlin, and young Fritz was raised in the comfortable middle-class atmosphere of the cosmopolitan German capital. In 1929 Schumacher enrolled at the University of Bonn, where he was influenced to study economics by Joseph Schumpeter, who later taught at Harvard University. In 1930 he continued his studies at the London School of Economics and attended lectures at the University of Cambridge given by the famous British economist John Maynard Keynes. In October, 1930, Schumacher was awarded a Rhodes scholarship and enrolled at New College, Oxford. In late 1932, he went to New York, where he did research and lectured on economics at Columbia University during the 1933-1934 term.
Returning to Germany, he was effectively blocked from an academic career by his opposition to the Nazi regime but finally found employment as a financial consultant to a director of the Unilever Corporation in England. In October, 1936, he married and immediately left Germany for his new job in London, resolving never to return while the Nazis remained in power.
When World War II started, Schumacher and his wife were interned as enemy aliens and assigned to work on a farm, an experience which led to a lifelong interest in organic farming and conservation. (He became president of the British Soil Association in 1970.) His friends came to his aid, and in March, 1942, he was hired by the Institute of Statistics at Oxford and began to contribute articles on economic matters to various journals and newspapers. During this period, Schumacher became a socialist and supported such socialist policies as state-controlled central planning of the economy and nationalization of industries. Though worried about abuses of personal freedom in the Soviet Union, he looked forward to the socialization of postwar Germany. He also abandoned his Christian religious heritage and became a militant atheist.
Professionally, an article Schumacher published in the spring of 1942 in the journal Economica on multilateral international payments was incorporated into an important postwar planning report authored by Lord Keynes. In 1944 Schumacher was asked to assist William Beveridge in planning postwar employment policies for the British government. Lord Beveridge’s economic policies were dominated by his moral principles, an attitude that Schumacher, a scientific rationalist, despised. However, he was moved by Lord Beveridge’s liberal insistence that the state’s power be used for the social benefit of the powerless.
In 1945 Schumacher returned to Germany as a member of an Allied team, headed by American economist John Kenneth Galbraith, that was investigating the effectiveness of Allied bombing of industrial targets. In 1946 he was granted British citizenship and joined the Labour Party. While working as an economic adviser for the British Control Commission for Germany, he began a systematic program of reading in philosophy and history. Particularly influenced by the Spanish philosopher José Ortega y Gasset, he became convinced that many of the world’s problems were created by a lack of clear philosophical thinking.
In 1950 Schumacher was appointed economic adviser to the National Coal Board, his principal occupation for the next twenty years. His reading program now turned to the study of Eastern civilizations and new ways of viewing reality. He became convinced that the extreme rationalism of the Western culture was a disease leading to personal and societal disaster and that the spiritual dimension of life was the primary element in human existence. Under the influence of G. I. Gurdjieff, Gurdjieff’s disciple Maurice Nicholl, and the English Buddhist Edward Conze, his whole way of thinking began to change. He studied Buddhism and began to practice yoga. In 1954 a mystical breakthrough while meditating confirmed his new faith in the spiritual dimensions of reality. In 1955 he served as economic adviser to the Burmese government, an experience that led him to write his most famous essay, on Buddhist economics, a social critique of Western economic science, subsequently published in his collected essays Small Is Beautiful. Upon returning to England, Schumacher declared himself a Buddhist and then, paradoxically, began to study the works of Saint Thomas Aquinas and other Catholic mystics and philosophers. Eventually, he found the philosophical framework he was seeking in Thomism and in 1971 converted to Catholicism.
In 1959 Schumacher lectured on the nature of humankind and the meaning of life in the Extramural Studies Department of London University and later at Imperial College. When his first wife died in 1960, leaving him with four children, he married again a year later. He had four more children with his second wife.
In the 1960’s Schumacher turned his attention to the economic problems of development in developing nations. He criticized Western foreign aid advisers for promoting large-scale, capital-intensive, high technology for people of developing nations who suffered massive underemployment, low levels of technical education, and a shortage of local capital. He advocated the use of “appropriate technology”—that which would promote employment, utilize actual levels of skills, and improve the living standards of the poor. In 1965 he founded the Intermediate Technology Development Group, designed to offer practical advice to policymakers in developing nations on the kinds of intermediate technology that were practical, cheap, and sufficient for their needs at their current stage of economic development. While he traveled and lectured in India, South Africa, Zambia, Peru, and Tanzania, in England his attacks on the prevailing development theories of his fellow economists created a furor and much discussion.
After he was retired in 1970 from the National Coal Board, Schumacher decided to publish his essays on economics and social organization in Small Is Beautiful, which appeared in 1973. The book was received with little interest in England, but when published in the United States, it became a huge success, selling more than one million copies. Its author toured the United States, speaking to some sixty thousand people. Schumacher was profiled and interviewed, and his books were reviewed widely in the American media.
Many of the lectures he gave in the United States were published in Good Work. Schumacher expressed concern about the role of work in the development of the individual. He saw work as necessary not only to produce goods and services but also to develop the individual’s full talents to make one better able to serve one’s neighbors—liberating one from the inborn human tendency toward egocentricity. He proposed that people be educated to understand that work serves a moral and spiritual role in the development of personhood. Quoting Saint Thomas Aquinas, Schumacher pointed out that there can be no joy in life without the joy of work. Modern utilitarianism and materialism treat work as a burden, an unpleasant necessity, and the worker as a “factor of production” to be used and discarded as profits or efficiency dictate. Neither good work nor good people could flourish in such an atmosphere, Schumacher posited. His arguments were drawn from both Catholic social thought and his personal experience as a director of the Scott-Bader Company, a British plastics company owned and managed by its entire working force, famous as a model of a creative, humane socioeconomic community.
A Guide for the Perplexed expressed Schumacher’s belief that the modern experiment of living without religion had failed and that in the postmodern era each person must engage in new philosophical “mapmaking,” the old philosophy of scientific materialism and positivism having failed. Based on his own philosophical and religious study and experience, A Guide for the Perplexed sets forth the philosophical foundations of Schumacher’s social, ethical, and economic theories.