Wendell Berry—Kentucky farmer, poet, essayist and contrarian who’s skeptical of just about everything in corporate America—is nevertheless a man full of hope.
Just don’t call him an optimist.
“Optimism is a kind of program, a belief in some theory of progress,” he said recently. “Hope is based on the possibility of knowing something better in the future, learning a better example, a better way. You have to have hope. Hope is a virtue. Optimism is not.”
Berry, author of more than 30 books, had reason for hope last week. A standing-room-only gathering of college students and teachers came to hear his defense of religious values and local landscapes against the corrosions of today’s “rational mind.”
The rational mind is the attitude that swamps modern-day business life, science and government, he said. It reduces life to cold equations of efficiency and productivity. It values abstraction, it scorns human limitation and refuses to admit the vast unpredictability of the future. It assumes unlimited resources and unlimited profits, with disastrous consequences for nature and human life.
“In the rational mind, truth and money are nearly the same pursuit,” he said. “It’s the master superstition of the modern age.”
Berry, now nearly 70, is a man of Baptist heritage with deep roots in the north-central Kentucky rural landscape of his ancestors. At The University of the South, he lectured on themes that have given his writing urgency for nearly 40 years—the threat of modern technologies to obliterate the values of local economies, memories and traditions, values of true patriotism.
“We’re involved today in a kind of lostness, in which most people are participating unconsciously in the destruction of the natural world and thus the source of their own lives,” he said.
The efficient rationalism of agribusiness, pesticide use, automobile production and other polluting industries is so ingrained that people are scarcely aware of it or know how to criticize it or escape it, he said.
Against the rational mind, Berry pits the “sympathetic mind,” which values compassion, thanksgiving, humility, loyalty to the local landscape, care for animals, old-fashioned remedies, satisfaction in work that doesn’t damage the world. It views big technological promises and solutions with suspicion.
In Jesus’ parable of the lost sheep, Berry said, the shepherd is an example of the sympathetic mind in action. With compassion he seeks the one lost sheep. To the rational mind, his actions make no sense. In any cost-benefit analysis, an all-out search for one lost sheep isn’t worth putting the rest of the herd at risk.
The shepherd of the parable would, in today’s scheme, be eliminated in a totalitarian economy “with its neat logical concepts of the world as factory and life as commodity,” Berry declared.
All religious values—mercy, kindness, hospitality to stranger, forgiveness, love of neighbor and enemy—find a home in the sympathetic mind, Berry suggested. The rational mind can view them only with bafflement and hostility.
In the end, Berry said, the trouble with the rational mind is that its presumptions and procedures lead to irrational consequences—nuclear waste, soil erosion, global warming—and have no remedy except even bigger, more “rational” clean-up solutions.
“The rational mind fails in bewilderment and catastrophe because it so isolates itself that it goes beyond its limits without knowing it,” said Berry, whose newest book is The Art of the Commonplace: The Agrarian Essays of Wendell Berry.
In a question-answer session, students pressed Berry for ways to help urbanites break free of rationalist ideology. Their guest admitted it’s a complicated issue with no easy answers. After all, rational efficiencies of agriculture, for instance, lead to lower consumer prices. But he said skepticism—the habit of asking questions and resisting official ideologies of consumption—is vital.
“The idea is not for a lot of urban people to rush out into the country,” he said, provoking chuckles.
“The thing is to get people to take responsibility as eaters. Urban people have given their proxies of food production to people they don’t know. Find out what they’re doing. Ask questions. How responsible was the planter? What was put on it before it got here? The pitiful thing is these questions are largely unanswerable at today’s grocery store.”
Asked about the practicality of quitting one’s corporate job as a form of protest, Berry said quitting should always be an option if an industry is harmful.
“It’s almost certain we have somebody in an air polluting industry who has a beloved child suffering from asthma caused by polluted air,” he said. “What does the sympathetic mind say about a situation like this? Quit your job! For God’s sake do something. Don’t make this an acceptable tradeoff for the status quo. What does the rational mind say? The rational mind says there’s nothing you can do. It’s been determined by technology and the economy. … But there comes a time when you have to act on feeling.”
He also urged the students to do something else: Turn off the television.
“We need better critics of the media, and we need people who can get along without it,” he said. “It’s an easier thing for literate people to give up TV, and I think you ought to do it. You’ve got to refuse that voice. If you really listen to that official commercial tone of voice that that box brings into the house, it’ll make you sick. What is literature for if it isn’t to give you resistance to that official voice? We ought to cut their water off.”
Ray Waddle, former religion editor of The Tennessean, is a writer based in Nashville.
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