Hero Among the Wounded
The Humane Vision of Wendell Berry
reviewed by Arthur W. Hunt III
"Your books seem conservative. They are actually profoundly revolutionary," wrote the American novelist and essayist Wallace Stegner in appreciation of Wendell Berry. "Readers respond to them as lost dogs in hope of rescue turn toward some friendly stranger." Stegner's open letter begins The Humane Vision of Wendell Berry, a collection of essays intended to probe the ideas of America's farmer-philosopher and to situate his work within the larger context of conservative thought.
Berry himself does not stray far from his 125-acre spread in Port Royal, Kentucky, so "lost dogs" seeking him out have occasionally been able to find him sitting on his front porch on Sunday afternoons. That is where editors Mark T. Mitchell and Nathan Schlueter found him, prior to assembling this collection. Liberals publish me, he told them. But conservatives come to visit. The remark is something of an indictment of those who wear the conservative label but do not value what Berry is defending—things like the household, fidelity to place, and functional local communities. For Berry, the remarkable incongruity of modern conservatism is that it does not want to conserve anything. Or, as Christopher Lasch put it, "What is traditional about the rejection of tradition, continuity, and rootedness?"
Berry's books are radical, asserts Stegner, because we no longer recognize age-old wisdom, the foundation of true conservatism: "They reassert values so commonly forgotten or repudiated that, reasserted, they have the force of novelty." Stegner calls Berry a hero to those who have been wounded by industrialism. Berry's books give solace to those longing for a simpler way of life, one in harmony with nature's prescriptions.
The vision of Wendell Berry is humane because it advances the virtues of love, loyalty, and self-restraint in the context of what he calls "good local culture." Indeed, only a local culture can be deemed good. "Global thinkers have been and will be dangerous people," says Berry. He avers that there can be no such thing as a "global village" because, no matter how much one may love the idea of it, one can only live fully in the world by living responsibly in some small part of it.
Berry is not just a farmer; he is an agrarian, someone who believes there should be more caretakers of the land, more people who have a spot on earth to love, cultivate, and nourish. Jason Peters describes how Berry has sought to distance himself from environmentalists and conservationists who do not see the presence of property-owning stewards as a part of their restorative vision. "What I stand for is what I stand on," says Berry. He has little patience for "progressive sophisticates" who rage about the environment from their computers or who find "husbandry" an embarrassing word.
A Wide-Ranging Vision
But Schlueter notes that Berry's essays, fiction, and poetry are not limited to farm life. His wide range of topics—marriage, education, democracy, technology, the market—form an integrated vision. Like C. S. Lewis, Berry sees the tragedy of our age as the separation of reason and imagination, a dualism exemplified in the divide between modern science and romanticism. This split ignores the fact that human experience is mediated through the body, the senses, the memory, history, and the imagination. The author with dirt under his fingernails is able to write eloquently about place because, unlike most of us, he is not a displaced person. "Berry himself is a model of integral wholeness," says Schlueter.
In Berry's writings, the marriage relationship has its full meaning in the context of local community. Marriage is not a private matter, notes Anne Husted Burleigh in her essay, but exists among others who sanction it, witness its commencement, and hold it accountable. Neither is sex a private matter, writes Allan Carlson, because it cannot be separated from procreation. Berry insists that there is no such thing as safe sex: "Sex was never safe, and it is less safe now than it has ever been." Sex is what joins us to the world and is the foundation of the household and the source of children. To cheapen it or "liberate" it from its elevated position in marriage squanders the moral capital it has had for centuries.
Richard Gamble investigates -Berry's view of education, writing that it, too, must be understood within the framework of communal membership. The problem with the universities is that they offer only one serious major: upward mobility. The one thing educators drum into the heads of students—and perhaps this is why students are so convinced of it themselves—is that the best thing for them to do upon graduation is to get on in the world, and that means leaving the place where they are now. For rural areas, this is a community-destroying proposition.
Patrick J. Deneen explains how Berry's vision of democracy is to be found in Aristotle rather than in Hobbes or Locke. The latter called for a new order that would increase man's power over nature, enabling him to provide the goods necessary for an indolent body. The goal was to liberate individuals from the limits of nature, time, and space. Nature would be reshaped for commodious living.
While the liberal democracy of Hobbes and Locke is predicated on maximum human autonomy, Aristotle's concept of democracy emphasizes the virtue of self-restraint for the purpose of exercising good citizenship. Berry says, "A man who would not be the slave of other men must be master of himself—that is the real meaning of self-government."
Unlike Aristotle, Hobbes and Locke do not recognize the household as a primary social unit. For them, human beings are individuals, with no connection to larger entities. This notion, says Mark Shiffman, originates with medieval nominalism—an outlook that "reduces life to a perpetual competitive pursuit of power among atomistic individuals who have no natural belonging to any larger order."
Berry is not opposed to thinking in national or international terms, but he understands that these wider concepts tend to encourage abstractionism, absenteeism, and anonymity. Anthony Esolen observes that Berry's fictitious town of Port William does not even have a mayor or a police department. In a scene redolent of Tolkien's "Scouring of the Shire," government regulators come to Port William, disrupting its local pastimes, customs, and businesses. A gang of vandals destroys the town's moonshine stills so they can corner the market themselves.
Neither is Berry opposed to the free market. To the contrary, Mark T. Mitchell shows that Berry actually favors a truly free market, one that is humane, pro-community, and sustainable. We now live under what Berry calls a "total economy," one where everything has a price. The market no longer serves the culture; rather, the culture serves the market. William Edmund Fahey traces Berry's agrarianism back to the Southern Agrarian tradition and its British version, distributism, as advocated by G. K. Chesterton and Hilaire Belloc. Distributism calls for the widest possible use of private productive property. In contrast, unchecked capitalism tends to produce monopolies and to create situations where an unfree majority of non-owners works for the pleasure of free minority owners.
As for technology, Berry believes there are boundaries on the manipulation of nature that ought to be respected but that instead are increasingly being crossed, as technicians and scientists radically alter the external world or seek to tamper with the biological makeup of human beings. In similar fashion to Lewis in The Abolition of Man, he argues that this manipulation will not nullify the laws of nature, but only delay their effects until a future day of reckoning.
Thus, Berry is not anti-technology per se, but he believes that man was made to use tools rather than to be somebody else's tool. For example, Berry does not use a tractor on his farm, because it is a form of technology that symbolizes the industrial project. The tractor's touted "efficiencies" drove millions of people from rural areas to the cities, where we now complain of "urban decay" or the "crisis of the American city." "First, they come for the horses," says Caleb Stegall, reflecting on one of Berry's essays, "and the next thing you know, the bit is in your mouth."
Both Democrats and Republicans seem hopelessly given over to autonomous individualism: Democrats to sexual autonomy and Republicans to economic autonomy. Rod Dreher protests that neither party offers a credible solution to our current crisis because neither is able to address Berry's penetrating question: "What are people for?"
Since Americans cannot agree on a common good, Dreher suggests that traditionalists who long for community should consider the "Benedict Option" as described in Alasdair MacIntyre's After Virtue. That is, they should start constructing "new forms of community to repair and redeem the moral imagination distorted by modern life." The homeschooling movement, the growth of local agriculture, and the renewed interest in craftsmanship are examples of ways in which new, creative minorities are bringing healing to the wounded.
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“Hero Among the Wounded” first appeared in the July/August 2012 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue.
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