Responsibly at home in the Great Economy
Home Economics, by Wendell Berry. Berkeley: North Point Press. 208 pp. $20, cloth; $9.95, paper. `HOME ECONOMICS'' (a great title) is a collection of Wendell Berry's recent essays. The main difficulty in reviewing this book is the inclination to quote it all. Like Emerson, Berry is a master of the quotable sentence. But he is, of course, much more than that. He is, in the opinion of this reviewer, the prophetic American voice of our day. He is clearly in the tradition of Emerson, Whitman, and Thoreau, with more than a dash of Melville, but he is also in the grand Southern tradition of Faulkner, Robert Penn Warren, and Flannery O'Connor. And while Berry speaks in accents that are often reminiscent of Emerson, he goes substantially beyond the New Englander in his awareness of the tragic ironies and paradoxes of the human condition (that, indeed, is the Southern part of him). He is strong at just the point where Emerson is weak.
Berry's poems and essays serve, among other things, to remind us of how few American literary figures (or any other figures) speak with what was once called moral authority. As a people, Americans are so obsessed with the acquisition of knowledge that they have little regard for wisdom. Hardly know what it means, in fact. The thought of our best minds was once quite generally available to us all. I have written elsewhere of what I have called the ``preacherly tradition,'' represented by individuals like Emerson, William Ellery Channing, Washington Gladden, and Walter Rauschenbusch (not to mention figures like William James, Charles Sanders Peirce, and Richard Ely, the economist), who spoke and wrote for their fellow citizens. By the end of the century, Chautauqua Institute was their arena and their influence was widely felt.
The preacherly tradition was replaced in this century by the ``priestly tradition'' of academics who spoke to and wrote for each other and who scorned the very notion of reaching out beyond the walls of academe. Wendell Berry, in my view, has revived that earlier and more genuinely American tradition. He is certainly one of the most penetrating critics (the most, I would say) of the assumptions on which modern industrial society rests.
In the ``Two Economies,'' Berry recalls a conversation with his friend Wes Jackson about an ``economy ... more benign and comprehensive'' than an economy based, as ours is, on money. Berry suggests energy, but Jackson rejects that too. Then what? Jackson replies, ``grinning, ... `The Kingdom of God.'''
For the Buddhists, Muslims, and agnostics, Berry offers the ``Great Economy'' as an easier phrase to swallow, but the point is still clear: ``that we live within order and that this order is both greater and more intricate than we can know.'' The ``little,'' painfully fallible man-made economies (a narrow circle within which things are manageable by use of our wits) exist under and must ultimately answer to the Great Economy.
For example: The preservation and restoration of topsoil is, for Berry, a kind of metaphor for a responsible little economy. Unhappily, our industrial economy ``is based on invasion and pillage of the Great Economy.'' The fact that we live ``outside'' the Great Economy, which is to say without any notion of a moral order in the universe, means that we are condemned ``to a life without a standard. ... If we do not serve what coheres and endures, we serve what disintegrates and destroys,'' Berry concludes.
Berry speaks wisely and eloquently of such classic themes as the relation of man to nature, of ``wilderness'' to ``wildness,'' of the transient to the constant, and always with illuminating insights that enlarge the terms of these continuing debates. At the end of ``Getting Along With Nature'' he notes that the modern spirit has assumed it can replace the lessons of ``nature and our cultural tradition'' with ``intelligence, information, energy, and money. No idea,'' he adds, ``...could be more dangerous.''
In ``The Loss of the University,'' Berry reminds us that the university's misguided passion for objectivity fatally compromises what should be its true mission: to graduate young men and women with a clear vision of the good and the true and a dedication to serving those ideals.
Agriculture is of paramount importance to Berry because (the inner city perhaps aside) it is the stress point of modern industrial society. The farm is where we can see demonstrated most vividly the consequences of our improvidence, of our ignorance of the imperatives of the Great Economy, of our disregard for what we owe the past and for what we should be concerned with bequeathing to the future.
I think Berry would say that his truths, all truths, are simple truths - things we know in our bones, things that, in our better moments, we yearn for and aspire to. But there is so much ``noise'' around us, so much confusion and disorder, so many experts advising us on how to make money or love (``good sex'' which has now become ``safe sex'') or whatever, that we need constantly to be reminded that, experts to the contrary, wisdom is far more important than knowledge, and truth more enduring than information.
There was once in every respectable college in America a professor of moral philosophy. Although Berry has (wisely in my view) abandoned the university for the farm, I, by the authority vested in me as president of the Penny University, hereby declare Wendell Berry ``Professor of Moral Philosophy at Large'' (much as the Anglican Church has bishops ``without the walls''), a teacher whose classroom is these United States.
Page Smith is author of the eight-volume ``A People's History of the United States.''