The Way of Wendell Berry

Americans know how to talk of progress in terms of consumer goods, individual liberties, and power over nature, but have no use for the language of communal health and the idea of discipline. Wendell Berry provides a way forward.

Wendell Berry has not been blessed in his admirers. They tend to be less acute and measured than their hero, whose prophetic authority they use to underwrite expressions of mere hysteria or fogeyish irritability. Thinking they have found the whole truth in their hero, they read him like an oracle and quote him like scripture. Indeed, Berry’s clinical clarity sometimes suggests divine arrogance. Still, arrogant geniuses are not unheard of, and it is in any case worth knowing why this man’s thought has resonated with many people who do not seem foolish.

Berry’s oeuvre is large and rich, including numerous essays on a wide variety of topics, as well as poetry and fiction of a high order. A short essay cannot pretend to exhaust him, even in summary, so I restrict my discussion to a single fruitful notion: Discipline.

Because he finds politicians’ triumphalist comparisons between the U.S. and other countries meaningless and evasive, Berry is sometimes considered anti-American. But he is, in truth, no more anti-American than Dante was anti-Florentine. Only the loving anger of a true patriot could sustain five decades of elegant invective. In “Discipline and Hope,” his seminal exercise in critical patriotism, Berry diagnoses the contemporary United States with chronic despair and prescribes discipline as a remedy. To understand what he means, it will help to forget glib abstract arguments for or against “modernity.” Take the concrete example of the family meal. Why do we feel, intuitively, that gratitude, propriety, and other even vaguer things, oblige members of a household to be present at the major meal of the day?

Berry would say that we still recognize the power and desirability of a certain social discipline called family dinner. This discipline enacts an ideal many of us still believe in, and still hope to achieve—the ideal of the family as the basic human community of mutual care. The family members harmoniously enact the relations of their shared life: they draw on a common store of sustenance (ideally grown or prepared by some of them), they talk, educate and amuse each other, air and solve problems, cement bonds of affection and understanding, and so on.

There are often faster, or more flexible, or more focused ways of doing each of the individual things that family dinner achieves, but the harmonious way in which family dinner achieves them has a different and ultimately superior “efficiency” of its own.

Once such harmonies are broken we reap a host of seemingly unconnected problems that require expensive and complex individual solutions, which themselves create fresh problems. So, for instance, the breakdown of family dinner will probably mean increased recourse to unbearable family meetings or even expensive family therapy sessions to solve family quarrels, which may nevertheless lead to family breakups that fatten the wallets of family lawyers. And since mom’s cooking is usually cheap and healthy, the lack of family dinner should alarm the family accountant and the family doctor.

Berry has spent much of his career explaining why creating and preserving appropriate, harmonious disciplines is a political imperative that may require a severe and painful break with our current habits, culture, and policies. He is emphatically opposed to the Bush dictum that “the American way of life is non-negotiable.” He believes that our society secures a number of attractive things (cheap food, cheap energy, national self-esteem, the culture of the car) at an unacceptable price, and it is an elementary civic duty to expose the hidden costs of our practices and sketch superior alternatives.

One excellent example of Berry’s critical strategy is his essay “The Body and the Earth,” where he responds to the triumphant declaration by a former deputy assistant secretary of agriculture that, thanks to industrial agriculture and the free market “95 percent of people can be freed from the drudgery of preparing their own food”:

Connection is health…We lose our health—and create profitable diseases and dependencies—by failing to see the direct connections between living and eating, eating and working, working and loving. In gardening, for instance, one works with the body to feed the body. The work, if it is knowledgeable, makes for excellent food. And it makes one hungry. The work thus makes eating both nourishing and joyful, not consumptive, and keeps the eater from getting fat and weak. . . . And such a solution, unlike the typical industrial solution, does not cause new problems….

The former deputy assistant secretary cannot see work as a vital connection; he can see it only as a trade of time for money, and so of course he believes in doing as little of it as possible, especially if it involves the use of the body. . . . But the society that is so glad to be free of the drudgery of growing and preparing food also boasts a thriving medical industry to which it is paying $500 per person per year. And that is only the down payment.

In agribusiness, as in strip-mining, the university, and countless other areas of modern life, Berry sees our unthinking cultural preference for the usually specious efficiencies of free markets, industrialization, and specialization reinforced by public policy and even public moral and religious authorities. This amounts to the blithe, energetic destruction of all the complex, harmonious patterns of production and exchange that do not merely support but constitute communal health.

But even assuming Berry’s critique is right, what should we do? Here Berry’s thinking is far more nuanced, humble, and “realistic” than many of his critics allege. Although he believes, for example, that the agricultural society of the past was in many important respects more human than our present form of civilization, his vision is not nostalgic. He insists that “we can only begin where we are,” with our particular diseases and particular opportunities to seek health..

Nor, as Michael Stevens and J. Matthew Bonzo point out does Berry anywhere suggest, as some universal remedy, that we “forsake technology and join up in rural communes.” Indeed, to enact such a brutally simple solution that could only reap massive unintended and unforeseen consequences and break life-giving relationships would be to indulge in the same thoughtless violence that Berry sees everywhere in industrial society.

What Berry wants, to put it at its plainest, is for Americans to adopt the discipline of sustained ethical reflection, by which we come to understand what constitutes health for our particular communities (without which, Berry argues in Aristotelian fashion, the idea of individual health is simply meaningless) and the disciplines needed to achieve it. We should take inspiration from the past, but we are always left with the hard work of discerning what is appropriate and possible for us.

Everyone deals with complexities and compromises—Berry makes no secret of his own. This leading “agrarian” freely admits that his farm has never been the sole support for his family, and this enemy of the auto industry admits that without his car he could not be “useful to other people.” But although he sees why we cannot altogether separate ourselves from unhealthy practices and technologies, he insists on the honest and intelligent struggle to expand the zone of health as far as possible. He insists that we individually and communally determine whether each new practice or technology can be properly integrated into other life-giving disciplines. Berry himself, in one of his most stimulating essays, proposes a useful test for evaluating tools, and in his charming essay “A Good Scythe,” he convincingly (and altogether without nostalgia) defends the reasonableness of his belief  that the scythe is superior to the lawnmower.

Romano Guardini explained in The End of the Modern World that man’s increasing mastery of nature and himself requires a new and heroic effort at moral earnestness. He said that the “in the coming epoch, the essential problem will no longer be that of increasing power—though power will continue to increase at an ever swifter tempo—but of curbing it. The core of the new epoch’s intellectual task will be to integrate power into life in such a way that man can employ power without forfeiting his humanity.” Widespread dislike of the idea of gas chambers and nuclear winter is, though reassuring, not sufficient proof that we have achieved the moral seriousness demanded by our power.  To judge by public debates and most private conversations, the American people know how to talk of progress in terms of consumer goods, individual liberties, and power over nature, but have no use for the language of communal health, and certainly no use for the idea of discipline. So, if there is cheap fuel in a mountain, there can be no reason not to decapitate the mountain and scoop it out. The possible damage to nature and to local communities can be addressed later, if one is sentimental enough to think they matter at all. And it would be unthinkable (and spell death for any politician who proposed it) for us to limit our consumption of fuel and slow the brainless behemoth called Progress.

It is this corporate inability of the American people to form an adequate political ideal and to adopt disciplines that might occasionally deny us a convenience or quick fix that frustrates Berry. If he is sometimes guilty of what the late Richard John Neuhaus criticized as “moral smugness,” it is because he is convinced that only through the discipline of the examined life does man rise to the dignity of his nature and the seriousness of his responsibility. So far, few Democrats or Republicans seem to understand, let alone accept the results of his examination; but he has, in true Socratic fashion, begun to corrupt the youth.

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