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Revolution Without Marx or Rand

ISSUE:  Autumn 2001
Life Is a Miracle: An Essay Against Modern Superstition. By Wendell Berry. Counterpoint Press. $21.00.

In his book The Prospect of Immortality, a work which made a minor splash upon its publication in 1968, Robert C.W. Ettinger shared his vision of a coming world in which humanity would be freed by beneficent scientists from all the failings to which human flesh is heir—and much else besides. He was convinced that “in a few hundred years the words of Shakespeare, for example, will interest us no more than the grunting of swine in a wallow. (Shakespeare scholars, along with censors, snuff grinders, and wig makers, will have to find new, perhaps unimaginable occupations.) Not only will his work be far too weak in intellect, and written in too vague and puny a language, but the problems which concerned him will be, in the main, no more than historical curiosities. Neither greed, nor lust, nor ambition will in that society have any recognizable similarity to the qualities we know. With the virtually unlimited resources of that era, all ordinary wants will be readily satisfied, either by supplying them or removing them in the mind of the individual. . . . Competitive drives, in the inter-personal sense, may or may not persist; but if they do, it will be in a radically modified form.”

This vision of a great big beautiful tomorrow is almost self-parodic; yet in essence it reveals a mindset that is not uncommon. Anyone who would devise an ideology to bring about the fulfillment of man must begin by adopting a materialist view of homo sapiens and, further, recognize that man is essentially an economic creature. So believed Karl Marx and his various imitators on the left, and so believed Ayn Rand and her adherents on the right. Further, the reasoning goes, since the human body is basically a fairly fragile bag of electrical impulses and chemical components, driven by a combination of mixed and predictably self-serving reductionist motives, it only makes sense to look away from the spiritual and religious (concepts held over from the childhood of the race) and toward science to realize the fulfillment of humanity. If Ettinger’s sentence beginning with the words “Neither greed, nor lust, nor ambition will in that society . . .” sounds remarkably like a passage from the Book of Revelation describing the Kingdom of Heaven—”Neither shall there be death nor mourning nor crying nor pain, for the former things have passed away”—this is no accident. Religion has served its purpose, and now science, or more accurately scientism, will take it from here, thank you very much.

Few people would state their worldview in such stark terms, but in truth many individuals hold to just such a belief to a greater or lesser extent, their differences being more jurisdictional than philosophical. Edward O. Wilson, entomologist, sociobiologist, and author of many books on the promise of science to the world at large, is one such individual. The worldview depicted in his book Consilience has drawn the fire of Wendell Berry—poet, short story writer, conservationist, and farmer—whose latest work is one of the more articulate, well-argued, and convincing counterblasts to the claims of scientism written in some time. “I am aware of the several objections to treating any one book as representative,” he writes, “but I am encouraged to do so, not only by the advantage of economy, but also by my belief that Mr. Wilson’s assumptions are widely shared both by his colleagues and by non-scientists, and that there is no idea in his book that would be surprising to any fairly regular reader of articles on science in a daily newspaper. I think, in short, that despite his pretensions to iconoclasm, Mr. Wilson speaks for a popular scientific orthodoxy. His book reads as though it was written to confirm the popular belief that science is entirely good, that it leads to unlimited progress, and that it has (or will have) all the answers.” To Berry, life is more than increased longevity in one’s life-span, more than good health and meaningful work, more than getting and spending, and more than any material progress: In short, life is a miracle.

Any writer who sets out those four words as the title of his book had better have convincing arguments to marshal and an articulate and intelligent manner of saying it. Berry meets these criteria in Life Is a Miracle. “For quite a while it has been possible for a free and thoughtful person to see that to treat life as mechanical or predictable or understandable is to reduce it,” he says. “Now almost suddenly, it is becoming clear that to reduce life to the scope of our understanding (whatever “model” we use) is inevitably to enslave it, make property of it, and put it up for sale.” This Berry will not abide, for it is “to give up on life, to carry it beyond change and redemption, and to increase the proximity of despair.”

Berry’s issue with Wilson’s Consilience (the word means “a jumping together,” specifically a blending of the many branches and disciplines of human knowledge) is that it posits human life as existing on a plane in which there is no mystery; rather, there are only scientific riddles yet to be worked out. The problem with this worldview lies in the pridefulness at its base, the predecessor to self-aggrandizement and intellectual blindness—and, in time, to destruction of the world of community, faith, and reason. At one point in his own work, writing of the mysteries of faith and the metaphysical, Wilson claims, “The belief in the possibility of consilience beyond science and across the great branches of learning is not yet science. . . . It cannot be proved from logic from first principles or grounded in any definitive set of empirical tests, at least by any yet conceived.” Berry responds, writing sardonically:

What is the possibility of “consilience beyond science and across
 the great branches of learning”?
We don’t know yet.
Why do the innocent suffer?
We don’t know yet

To attempt to define the mysteries of life in scientific terms is tantamount to using the wrong tool for a job: like using a saw to measure out flour, or a thermometer to assess a building’s height. Applied science has its own laudable purposes, but when it crosses disciplines into realms of philosophical thought, the spirit, and the nature of culture and community, it oversteps its bounds. This is not anti-intellectualism or anti-science; it is wholly defensible common sense.

In Life Is a Miracle, Berry makes much use of Wilson’s Consilience as an avenue to addressing what many readers will recognize as his common themes: the relationship between rootedness, faith, and community, and how modern, devil-take-the-hindmost capitalism breaks apart society’s “little platoons,” the small communities and their distinct cultures by scattering job prospects to the four winds and forcing families to uproot themselves and go where the jobs are (or, rather, where the jobs are for now); farming (not “agribusiness”) as a healthy way of life which adjusts the individual to the severe mercy of seasonal change and a life of faith lived close to the soil; and suspicion of machines and gadgetry of every sort, seeing many of them as snares and delusions which lead humanity away from a life of timeless, practical know-how and into a life of helpless dependence and needless expense. Berry’s vision of the good life—the life of virtue lived in harmony with one’s environment, one’s neighbors, and one’s God—is remarkably similar to that of Thomas Jefferson: an America of small farmers, small cities and towns, and small government. It is a vision which is, of course, remarkably out of the cultural mainstream of 21st-century America, but perhaps this is a reproach to the mainstream rather than an indictment of Berry’s “oddity.” The way of looking at economic matters and the way of life advocated by Berry require a looking back upon something that has not been discredited but simply lost over time, something whose practical apprehension by small numbers of people would effect a revolution without Marx or Rand—or, rather, not so much a revolution as a recovery.

Revolution without Marx or Rand is a phrase not chosen lightly. For in truth, Berry’s vision is one which transcends and mocks ideas of historic inevitability embraced by both the political left and right. Taking to task America’s conservatives, really the neoconservatives, with their belief that the market is the final arbiter of worth, he states an often-ignored but inevitable truth: that unrestrained competition between an individual farmer or storekeeper and a great corporation is neither democratic nor fair. “I suppose that our so-called conservatives have at least no inconsistency to apologize for; they have espoused the “freedom” of the corporations and their “global economy,” and they have no conflicting inhibitions in favor of democracy and fairness,” he writes. But neither can statist liberals claim Berry as an ally, for he has harsh words for them as well, for they “have made political correctness the measure of their social policy at the same time they advance the economic determinism of the conservatives.” Comparing the two wings of culture, he concludes, “Reconciling these “positions” is not rationally possible; you cannot preserve the traditional rights and liberties of a democracy by the mechanical principles of economic totalitarianism.”

Totalitarianism? The term is not inaccurate, for any philosophy or ideology which both views humans as machines (and, thus, to be used and replaced as their “owners” see fit) and advocates adaptation to the new order as the only alternative to destruction contains the seeds of ruthlessness which are the engine of the totalist impulse. “The message [of the economic determinists] is: “The machine is coming. If you are small and in the way, you must lie down and be run over.” So high a level of mental activity is readily achieved by terrapins,” Berry remarks dryly.

With this said, Life Is a Miracle is no simple jeremiad, for Berry sees the sciences and the arts not as antagonistic disciplines, but complementary ones; with one concerning knowing, the other concerning doing. It is the manner in which some scientists seek to usurp the prerogatives of artists, advocates of the humanities, and other makers of culture that draws his ire. Berry asks, then, how it would be if each learned its proper sphere and worked cooperatively. “Suppose we learned to ask of any proposed innovation the question that so far only the Amish have been wise enough to ask: What will these do to our community?” Further, suppose, in short, “that we should take seriously the proposition that our arts and sciences have the power to help us adapt and survive. What then?”

The answer is that we would certainly have a healthier, more beautiful, diverse, and interesting world, “a world less toxic and explosive, than we have now.” Berry has no ideologue’s master plan for bringing this about, as he mistrusts large, official programs of improvement and does not wish to invite any such thing. He does, though, provide a list of seven “suggestions” that “apply primarily to the thinking, work, and conduct of individuals.” Verbatim, though in abbreviated form, they include:

  • 1.

    Rather than the present economic hierarchy of the professions, which results in the denigration and undercompensation of essential jobs of work, particularly in the economies of land use, we should think and work toward an appropriate subordination of all the disciplines of the health of creatures, places, and communities.

  • 2.

    We should banish from our speech and writing any use of the word “machine” as an explanation or definition of anything that is not a machine. Our understanding of creatures and our use of them are not improved by calling them machines.

  • 3.

    We should abandon the idea that this world and our human life in it can be brought by science to some short of mechanical perfection or predictability. We are creatures whose intelligence and knowledge are not invariably equal to our circumstances. The radii of knowledge have only pushed back—and enlarged—the circumference of mystery.

  • 4.

    We should give up the frontier [of relentless land development] and its boomer “ethics” of greed, cunning, and violence, and, so near too late, accept settlement as our goal. [Berry’s friend, scientist] Wes Jackson says that our schools now have only one major, upward mobility, and that we need to offer a major in homecoming.

  • 5.

    We need to require from our teachers, researchers, and leaders—and attempt for ourselves—a responsible accounting of technological progress.

  • 6.

    We ought conscientiously to reduce our tolerance for ugliness. Why, if we are in fact “progressing,” should so much expense and effort have resulted in so much ugliness? We ought to begin to ask ourselves what are the limits—of scale, speed, and probably expense as well—beyond which human work is bound to be ugly.

  • 7.

    We should recognize the insufficiency, to our life here among living creatures, of the abstract categories of reductionist thought. Resist classification!

  • Some critics will doubtlessly see these “suggestions” as at best quaint, at worst counterproductive and a hindrance to “getting on.” Perhaps they are; however, their rightness is not determined by whether they are dismissed out of hand but by their truthfulness. Wendell Berry—subsistence farmer, tiller of the land with teams of horses, man of letters, social critic—has lived by his own “suggestions” in Port William, Kentucky long enough to walk the fields with his own son and grandson. Fields that he at one time walked and worked with his own father and grandfather. He holds that this procession through time is the record by which knowledge of the good life survives and is conveyed. “When the procession ends,” he writes, “so does the knowledge.”


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