Ivan Illich: When medicine claims the same public license reserved for military matters

Bruce Dickson
14 min readApr 22, 2020

Ivan Illich 101

In the 1960s-1970s I remember him as a popular figure among progressive intellectuals. His writing style, extremely dense, ten new ideas each paragraph, is no longer popular nor easy to read by anyone. Still his ideas remain seminal and extremely on point for the medical-political powerplays rampant in the 2020 pandemic.

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The Sidebar below, “Who was Ivan Illich?” is available or can be skipped.

The following April 2020 essay by a Canadian professor, David Cayley, summarizes much of Illich’s relevance and timeliness for 2020. Here it is reduced, paragraphing added for readability and slightly revised for clarity.

Full original April 8, 2020 text of 8,800 words: http://www.DavidCayley.com/blog/2020/4/8/questions-about-the-current-pandemic-from-the-point-of-view-of-ivan-illich-1

Ivan Illich and the “medicalisation of life”

Ivan Illich has many original idea many concepts relevant and timely to our current pandemic discussion.

Last week I began an essay on the current pandemic in which I tried to address the central question the pandemic raises: Is a massive and costly effort to contain and limit the harm a virus will do, the only choice we have?

Are we being prudent? Protecting the most vulnerable? Or is the economic shutdown a disastrous effort to maintain control of what is already out of control? Is this an effort compounding damage being done by the disease, with new troubles which reverberate far into our future?

Once I began writing, I realized many assumptions I had, came from my prolonged conversation with the work of Ivan Illich.

To speak intelligibly about our present circumstances, I go back to sketch the attitudes towards health, medicine and well-being Illich developed over a lifetime of reflection on these themes.

I start with a brief account of the evolution of Illich’s critique of bio-medicine; then, in this light, answer the questions posed by the pandemic.

Bruce Dickson

Health Intuitive, author in Los Angeles, CA