The Humane Vision of Wendell Berry,
edited by Mark T. Mitchell and Nathan Schlueter.
ISI Books, 2011.

Cloth, 336 pages, $30.

Reviewed by Tobias J. Lanz

Wendell Berry is one of America’s most ardent defenders of the humane tradition—one of the few viable alternatives to liberalism. He has written countless essays, poems, and novels articulating this tradition in a career that has spanned almost fifty years. This volume, a collection of seventeen essays is both appreciative and critical of Berry’s vision, captures the essence of his oeuvre.

The book begins with a letter to Berry from the poet Wallace Stegner (Berry’s former literature professor). Stegner praises Berry’s commitment to principles and for not succumbing—like so many writers—to trends, addictions, or a lust for danger. In this sense Berry is truly countercultural, one who champions stability and continuity in a world that promotes constant change. Anne Husted Burleigh writes that this sense of stability begins with Berry’s idea of marriage. Marriage is never private, to just a spouse. Rather it is also a public commitment to God and community. Commitment, and fidelity to that commitment, is the basis of marriage. And to Berry, this is the foundation of all social relations.

As Jason Peters writes, in “The Third Landscape: Wendell Berry and American Conservation,” Berry’s idea of nature also conforms to his idea of commitment. Berry rejects the label “environmentalist” because modern environmentalists are too narrow. They perpetuate a dualism between people and their surroundings. More importantly they neglect the important role of culture which mediates human behavior between individual members of the community and the surrounding environment—or Creation, the term Berry prefers.

To be effective, conservation must be a cultural issue that carries specific commitments. Berry is also critical of the focus on conserving wilderness at the expense of the agrarian world, where most real conservationists—farmers, loggers, hunters—actually live. The agrarian world is the only real alternative to mass industrial society and by neglecting its conservation modern environmentalists never really challenge the status quo.

Some of Berry’s most controversial ideas have been on technology. Caleb Stegall explores the technological theme in “First They Came for the Horses—Wendell Berry and a Technology of Wholeness.” Stegall writes that Berry sees people being made for utility, freedom, and membership. But all can be undermined by technology. People lose their utility or “usefulness” when replaced by machines. They lose their freedom when they become dependent on tools or become tools in the industrial system. Membership is threatened when technology isolates people or fragments human relationships.

Berry is not opposed (as many believe) to technology. Rather he upholds the classical Christian idea of subsidiarity. To be useful, technology must serve human purposes. Technology must enhance the human condition, or bring one closer to God or nature. If not, it must be rejected. The prudent use of technology remains one of the pressing issues of our time, something Berry anticipated long ago. However, the proper use and understanding of technology becomes ever more difficult as technologies proliferate and become more complex.

The book contains several excellent pieces on Berry’s politics. Berry has famously eschewed political labels, making him admired across the ideological spectrum. He defines himself simply as a Jeffersonian agrarian. Yet Patrick Deneen, in “Wendell Berry and Democratic Self Governance,” shows the author’s political vision is profoundly influenced by classical and Christian thought and is thus at odds with modern liberalism (in both its right and left variants).

The focus of modern liberal democracy is individual liberation. It is a pursuit that requires overcoming all natural and social constraints. Ironically, the result is not human freedom, but the unleashing of power. Berry, following Aristotle, holds that true democracy is incompatible with the quest for power.

True democracy is about commitment and membership. To become a member of a democratic society requires a commitment to the community and the authority invested therein. One must first submit to the authority of the community and its traditions before learning how to use authority wisely. True democracy also teaches self-restraint, something that modern Americans categorically reject. Those on the political right reject restraints on the use of their money; those on the left on the use of their body.

To Berry the idea of self-restraint is severely compromised by the ever-growing menu of choices Americans now have before them. He believes that people are not “choosers.” Rather, they are chosen by their culture, heredity, and natural surroundings. People have a commitment to sustain these intimate connections. This requires the cultivation of virtue, which can only occur when people have commitments to a culture and its traditions.

Mark Shiffman adds to this argument, exploring Berry’s idea of the good life, which is again influenced by Aristotle’s notion of limits to wealth and power. The household was once economically and politically autonomous and was thus a bulwark against excessive political and economic power. The duties and commitments of the household also limited the individual quest for power. Today these household functions have vanished as the household has become completely subservient to market and state. Worse yet, this has created a society without limits. Without limits there is no completion, hence no wholeness, hence no happiness.

Berry believes higher education has greatly facilitated the growth of state and market power at the expense of the household and community. Richard Gamble, in “An Education for Membership: Wendell Berry on Schools and Communities,” explores this relationship. Berry once stated that the modern universities are “bank pimps”—harsh words, but not untrue. The main goal of the modern university and its faculty is funding—which comes largely from commerce and industry. The university reciprocates by producing students—employees—for commerce and industry. The older idea of cultivating virtue in students, which leads to wisdom and a good society, has vanished almost completely.

Rod Dreher, of “Crunchy Cons” fame, provides a good ending to the book. He likens Wendell Berry to a latter day Saint Benedict. Benedict (480–547) established monasteries during a turbulent time in Western history. These communities were guided by Benedict’s rule, which required monks to remain in one place to promote the stability necessary to rejuvenate spiritual and cultural life. This stability eventually revitalized economics and politics, which led to the establishment of many of Europe’s great cities. Similarly Berry advocates a commitment to a spouse, a community, a culture, and a place. To Berry, it is only stable communities—not government or the marketplace—that can ever overcome the ills of modern society.

While most contributors agree with Berry’s humane vision, there are notable exceptions. Several contributors single out Berry’s anarchist views on institutions, which they believe are naive, even counterproductive in defending what remains of the humane tradition. With respect to politics, Nathan Schlueter, in “The Integral Imagination of Wendell Berry,” argues that Berry is essentially a “rational anarchist,” who sees institutional government as problematic at best. Government, because of its collusion with industry, is frequently criticized in Berry’s essays and there is little mention of government in his novels. The fictional characters in these stories all seem to govern themselves—which is Berry’s ideal. But Berry never explains how this ideal can be universally applied to vast and complex modern societies.

D. G. Hart thinks Berry’s humane vision is compatible with conservative Christianity. However, Berry alienates many Christians by his harsh criticisms of organized religion, thereby losing important allies. Despite the many failings of organized religion, Hart maintains that religious institutions are critical to a good society because they play key roles in salvation, by providing the means in which the spiritual can be realized in the material (sacramentality). Churches also provide a community to assist in that process. Paradoxically, salvation for Berry is essentially a private (individual) endeavor.

Berry is correct in criticizing organized religion for succumbing to the secular values of mass industrial society. Despite this shortcoming, religious institutions remain the only viable bulwarks against this system. They are the natural extension of household and community, and hence their best defender. Although a minority, there are still many members of institutional religion that support Christianity’s humane tradition against the status quo, as this volume of contributors proves.

The real problem in America and the West is not the presence of the secular, but the radical imbalance between secular and sacred. This imbalance allows secular ideas to influence all values and behavior. It is only by rejuvenating religion and its traditions that any balance can ever be restored. And Wendell Berry, in his vision of a society centered on marriage, family, community, and nature provides the best ground upon which the human tradition can again take root.  

Tobias J. Lanz teaches in the Political Science Department of the University of South Carolina.