Leopold Kohr – An Invaluable Teacher

Leopold Kohr drawn by Anton Thuswaldner

The announcement of David Cayley’s new book Ivan Illich: An Intellectual Journey, reminded me of Cayley’s 1989 interview of Leopold Kohr for the Canadian Broadcasting Company’s “Ideas” program. Both Illich and E. F. Schumacher credit Kohr as a major influence on their thinking. Illich’s 1994 E. F. Schumacher Lecture honored Kohr.

Kohr was in Great Barrington in 1989 to deliver the Ninth Annual E. F. Schumacher Lecture Why Small Is Beautiful: The Size Interpretation of History.  He was a guest in our small home and was, by far, our favorite guest ever. He took easy pleasure in all aspects of daily life. Cooking, serving, and cleaning-up were all a delight when sprinkled with the good conversation and genuine appreciation that Kohr brought to the table.

However, for all of his influence, his writings are not widely known. He spent more time celebrating others than promoting himself. But his seminal work, The Breakdown of Nations, published in 1957, can be read in its entirety courtesy of the Anarchist Library. In it, Kohr protested against the “cult of bigness” and economic growth and promoted the concept of human scale and small community life. He argued that massive external aid to poorer nations stifled local initiatives and participation. His vision called for a dissolution of centralized political and economic structures in favor of local control.

Leopold Kohr was born in 1909 in Oberndorf outside of Salzburg. He studied law in Austria and political theory at the London School of Economics. He served as a correspondent in the Spanish Civil War and left Austria in 1938 when it was annexed by Nazi Germany. Kohr taught economics and political philosophy at Rutgers University from 1943 to 1955 and from 1955 to 1973 was professor of Economics and Public Administration in the Univerity of Puerto Rico in San Juan. He later retired to Wales where he died in 1994.

Following the 1989 E. F. Schumacher Lectures, Bob Swann, Kohr, and I traveled to Toronto to attend a conference of the Fourth World Review which promoted “small nations, governed by small communities”. John Papworth, the founder of Resurgence magazine, was the force behind the Fourth World Review. It was there in Toronto that David Cayley interviewed Kohr. The following is excerpted from the transcript of that interview.


David Cayley: Kohr’s thought rests on the idea that nature, including our own human nature, must finally be our guide. The scale on which we can happily live is given by our own embodied being. It is the scale of feet and hands and eyes, the scale of what we can see and touch, and walk towards. It is the scale of beauty, which must always recognizably reflect our own proportions. Beyond this scale, we quite literally take leave of our senses and arrive at something which is ultimately monstrous and inhuman. What we can love, what we can know, what can be beautiful for us, all depend on there being a limit, a certain measure, Kohr says. Smallness is good because it is necessary, and necessary because it is the only scale on which we can actually grasp the world around us.

Leopold Kohr: In a small community, everything happens as in a large community, with the difference that there you can grasp it. As in Gulliver’s Travels: there is a phrase that in a small circle are just as many degrees as in a large one. But in a large one you get lost, you don’t see the others, you become a specialist, alien. In the small one, you see them all. That is the essence of universalism.

In little Athens, Aristotle wouldn’t have had the chance of seeing only philosophers. There were not enough. So he had to talk with politicians, with maids, with servants, with shoemakers, with dramatists, with literary people—and out of this came the universalist civilization of our time, which is ninety per cent Greek.

David Cayley: Leopold Kohr insists on smallness, but his thought is always supple and cosmopolitan, never rigid or parochial. Today many of his once heretical ideas receive lip service, but often they are appropriated in a purely utilitarian way. It is Kohr’s strength that he resists this easy appropriation. He sees that smallness, applied as a mechanical principle, could result in a world even uglier and more stifling than the one we live in now. It is only through ethical and aesthetic feeling, he says, that we can rediscover the proper scale of things. And because this illusive sense can never be specified, but only lived, Leopold Kohr remains, in both his life and his thought, an invaluable teacher.

David Cayley also recently shared the link to an interview he did with Bob Swann for a 1990 CBC series on Redefining Development (see Part 4). Cayley added it to his website in 2017. It is a rare treat to hear Bob, in his own voice, speaking of the ideas that motivated his life and that came to shape the work of the Schumacher Center.

Warm wishes,
Susan Witt