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The Loneliness of Wendell Berry

The rural prophet goes out of his way to pick fights with his natural allies.

Old,Farm,Gate,With,Stone,Chimney
(By Patrick Jennings/Shutterstock)

Everyone has heard the line from Pascal: “All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.” And we assume he’s just offering us some good life advice. Put down the smartphone. Turn off the PlayStation. Spend more time with your thoughts. Drink a cup of tea, take a walk, etc.

The thing is, he doesn’t actually say, “in a room.” He says, “in his own room.” It’s an important distinction, as the rest of the passage makes clear:

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A man who has enough to live on, if he knew how to stay with pleasure at home, would not leave it to go to sea or to besiege a town. A commission in the army would not be bought so dearly, but that it is found insufferable not to budge from the town; and men only seek conversation and entering games, because they cannot remain with pleasure at home.

And “there is one very real reason for this restlessness,” Pascal says, “namely, the natural poverty of our feeble and mortal condition, so miserable that nothing can comfort us when we think of it closely.” 

That’s why everyone wants to be rich and famous. “The king is surrounded by persons whose only thought is to divert the king, and to prevent his thinking of self. For he is unhappy, king though he be, if he think of himself.” It’s not really about the wealth and the fame. We want courtiers, henchmen, groupies. We want to be surrounded by people who exist only for our own pleasure.

The bit about smartphones isn’t far off the mark. But Pascal is making a much larger point. 

Men who don’t like to be alone with themselves generally don’t like to be alone with their wives or children, either. They outsource quality-time to the TV. They certainly resent having to visit their sick parents and aged aunts. Every chance they get, they go out with their friends—though their friends are usually more like cronies. 

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Being a good husband, a good father, a good son, a good friend, a good neighbor—it’s all very hard work. (Or so I’m told.) It means we have to sacrifice our own pleasure for the good of others. When they suffer, we suffer, whether we want to or not. When they die, we mourn. We can’t help it. And when they go, they take a piece of us with them.

This the elephant in the room of American politics. When we ask, “How do we make America great again?” we mean, “How do we make America great again for me?” That goes for both Democrats and Republicans. And we don’t really mean great so much as comfortable, pleasant, diverting. 

As for the 300 million other people who live in this country, they exist for our pleasure. Almost all of them fail abjectly. They vote for candidates we don’t like, or cut us off in traffic, or make us wait half an hour for a table at Applebee’s so they can have their supper first.

America is our home, but we take no pleasure in it as a home—the sort of place we could live quietly and happily. Our countrymen aren’t our family, or even our neighbors. They’re our courtiers and our cronies, only most of them are pretty bad at their jobs. 

This is the problem Wendell Berry has been trying to solve in the dozens of books he’s published over the last sixty years. Americans are miserable, he argues, because we don’t love each other. We don’t even love ourselves, really. We don’t want what’s best for ourselves, much less others. We want what’s pleasant for ourselves, and we want everyone else to facilitate that pleasure.

The result is the great American pig-pile. We climb all over each other. We grab onto the belts and collars of those above us and throw kicks at those below us. Most of us are measurably worse off than we were a hundred years ago, but there are three times as many of us now. The guys at the top are three times higher than the Rockefellers and Vanderbilts. The folks at the bottom are shouldering more and more weight. Still, the pig-pile is getting taller. To us that looks like progress.

Berry’s solution is simple. In fact, it’s obvious. He wants us all to climb down, to make do with less. 

Well, that’s not quite true. We already make do with less. He wants us to be content with less. Each new generation of Americans owns less property and controls a smaller percentage of wealth than the previous generation. Income inequality is skyrocketing. Prices continue to rise as real wages fall. Yet we all buy into this system. Why? 

For some, it’s ambition. Someday, it could be me at the top of the pig-pile. I could be the one getting fat off the Millennials and the Mexicans. For most of us, though, it’s just laziness. The folks at the very bottom of the pig-pile are in China and Colombia. It’s easier to ignore their suffering because we can’t see it. Meanwhile, we’ve got A/C and DoorDash. Sure, a revolution would be nice, but wouldn’t we have to put on pants first?

The two-party system exists to prop up this broken system. At least, that’s what Berry says:

A properly educated conservative, who has neither approved of abortion nor supported a tax or regulation, can destroy a mountain or poison a river and sleep like a baby. A well-instructed liberal, who has behaved with the prescribed delicacy toward women and people of color, can consent to the plunder of the land and people of rural America and sleep like a conservative.

The solution is not to vote Republican or Democrat. I think Berry would agree with Russell Kirk: the solution is “what Aristotle called friendship, and Christians call love of neighbor.” It sounds like a cliché, but it’s true: to make America great, we need love. We have to want what’s best for ourselves and our countrymen. We have to desire their good—and our own.

What’s best is not A/C, or DoorDash, or the kinds of jobs you can do at home in your underwear. First of all, we need real work—what Bertie Wooster called honest toil. Berry argues that most of us exist in a state of virtual slavery:

If you belong to the “labor pool” or the “job market,” and you and your family are dependent on the only job available to you, though you are now not owned in fee simple as a marketable property, you are what rightly has been called a “wage slave.” You are free of your present employer only if another employer offers a higher bid for your work, or if you are willing to live on the street. Your connection to a place or a community, perhaps your “home,” is counted as worthless—when, like the land, it ought to be counted as priceless or beyond price.

One of the recurring themes of Berry’s work is that slavery is worse for the slaver than the slave. The slave loses his freedom, his dignity, his wealth—but the slaver loses his soul. What was true of chattel slavery (he argues) is now true of wage slavery. 

If we really loved our neighbor, we wouldn’t want to see him bound as a wage-slave. If we really loved ourselves, we sure as Hell wouldn’t want to be a wage-slaver. Love is the truth, and the truth will make us free.

This sounds like a cliché. But it’s not. It’s the Gospel truth. What’s tragic is that Berry doesn’t quite see that.

On the one hand, he says that “our present economy and way of life have about entirely inverted the order of heavenly and neighborly love prescribed by the Ten Commandments and the Gospels.” That’s correct. And he (rightly) credits old-school Mennonites for defying those dark satanic mills. “As I think the Amish, almost alone among us, have understood,” he writes, “love must be a practice, an economic practice, the basis of what some have called ‘the beloved community’.”

But then he quickly offers this clarification: “I do not intend at all the provincialism of saying that only the biblical tradition can teach us about loving our neighbors.” He gives the Buddha’s Ten Grave Precepts as another possible source.

Well, all right. But I’m not quite sure what this throat-clearing is supposed to accomplish. Short of a mass conversion to Christianity (or Judaism, or maybe Buddhism), how are Americans supposed to rediscover that neighborly spirit?

Berry is intentionally vague about his religious commitments, maybe because his religious commitments are themselves vague. I don’t know; it’s none of my business. But he refuses to be pegged down as a Christian thinker. He carefully cultivates this persona as a thinker deeply influenced by Jesus Christ but accessible to all people of good will. Tolstoy used the same shtick, as did Gandhi. 

Here’s the thing, though: When was the last time you met a Tolstoyan? 

India is not a Gandhist state. Just the opposite. Gandhi’s assassin, Nathuram Godse, was a member of a political party called Hindu Mahasabha. The Mahasabha espoused Hindutva, or militant Hindu nationalism—just like Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party. Modern India is, if anything, anti-Gandhist.

So with the possible exception of Bhutan, I can’t think of any non-Christian society that lives up to Berry’s ideals. And that’s not a coincidence. 

Keen though he is to play the moderate, I think Berry knows this. He’s deeply disturbed by the heartland’s turn to Trumpism: a “synthesis of sexual and economic laissez-faire.” (I don’t know if I’d call that Trumpism, but whatever it is, it’s disturbing.) And he recognizes that Trumpism has grown as Christianity declines. 

We’re left with quite a conundrum. Do we hope for another Great Awakening—a return to the faith of our fathers? Or do we try to convert Americans to a sort of neo-Tolstoyan quasi-secular agro-communitarianism? Who’s going to save us: Jesus Christ or Wendell Berry?

Much as I love him, this is my constant complaint with Berry’s work. In the one hand, he is a deeply Christian thinker. On the other, he seems to go out of his way to disagree with Christianity just for the sake of being “nonsectarian.” 

If those disagreements are honest, that’s one thing. There’s much to admire in Gandhi, and even Tolstoy. The trouble with Berry is that it feels forced. I really can’t see any reason to bring in the Buddha’s Ten Grave Principles except to be sure that state colleges can still host Wendell Berry Conferences without being accused of promoting Christian nationalism.

Anyway, you can never fully trust an agrarian who uses “provincialism” as a slur.

Take the example of abortion. Berry is firmly in the “personally opposed, but” camp. He believes that abortion is a sin, but he argues that mere laws can’t heal the social wounds that lead women to choose abortion. Instead, we have to undo the damage done by the Sexual Revolution. We have to disincentivize abortion. As Berry himself puts it,

The whole drama of abortion, including the public exposure and opprobrium, ought to be construed as a sexual aggression against women. For this the only remedy would be to remove it from the capitals, courts, and other public places, and thus remand it to private life where it belongs, along with other sexual matters that by nature are personal and private, none of the government’s business.

That's nonsense, as arguments by the personally-opposedniks always are. If you believe that abortion is the taking of an innocent life, and that the taking of innocent lives (i.e., murder) should be against the law, then how can you support legal abortion? 

And this is more than a mere disagreement. Once again, Berry is clearly striking a centrist pose. He writes:

Also abortion is committed only by women (and some male doctors, who anyhow are not Christian conservatives), leaving the men uninvolved and therefore innocent. We might be justified in supposing that all aborted babies are conceived by immaculate conception. 

He goes on to say that “The scarlet A in Hawthorne’s novel of righteous old New England would now stand for abortion.”

This is cruel, first and foremost, to the unborn children whose lives he himself believes are unjustly taken. But it’s also a weak, tired caricature of the pro-life movement. I’ve never heard anyone in pro-life circles disparage women who procure abortions, ever—not even as a joke. That kind of language is strictly taboo, in part because it so badly undermines the cause. 

Why would Berry make this outrageous claim? I can’t think of any explanation, except that (again) he has a compulsive need to disagree with his own side—in this case, pro-lifers.

Berry sees himself as a prophet, and a very particular kind of prophet: the lone voice crying out in the wilderness. He’s lonely as a matter of principle. A common refrain among his fanboys is, “Nobody’s pure enough for Wendell,” but it’s more than that. He’ll always make up some excuse to disagree with everyone and anyone, even himself.

What’s tragic is that Berry really is a prophet. The Need to Be Whole is the best nonfiction book of the year. Yet even as he celebrates ruralism and rootedness, he’s pandering to high-brow city folks. Even as he calls us to embrace community, he’s pushing us away. And his zeal for the law of love can be downright cruel. 

We should all be more like Wendell Berry. I don’t doubt that for a second. But I’m afraid he’ll always be lonely—and that’s just the way he likes it.

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