Happy 88th birthday, Wendell Berry!


No one needs me to recount the greatness of a living legend like Wendell Berry. I’ll limit myself to describing his impact on my life.

I heard of him about twenty years ago through the newsletter/website Christian CounterCulture. The first book of his I read was What Are People For?. 

But let’s back up for a second. As with many people, my intellectual life began in college. Up to that point, my thoughts and opinions were merely echoes of the adults in my life. In college I had access to a computer lab with an internet connection for the first time. I used that connection to read wild-eyed fundamentalist Baptist websites (which I won’t bother linking) and the anarcho-capitalist/libertarian website of Lew Rockwell. Reading those sites took my young, know-it-all attitude to a whole new level. I arrogantly dismissed my dad’s worries about NAFTA. Free trade was the answer to all of the world’s problems, said the college boy to the middle-aged factory worker. People just needed to retrain for the jobs of the future.

Now back to Wendell Berry. Christian CounterCulture pried open my mind and dropped in What Are People For?. I was forever cured of libertarianism by the strong medicine of Wendell Berry:

The danger of the ideal of competition is that it neither proposes nor implies any limits. It proposes simply to lower costs at any cost, and to raise profits at any cost. It does not hesitate at the destruction of the life of a family or the life of a community. It pits neighbor against neighbor as readily as it pits buyer against seller. Every transaction is meant to involve a winner and a loser. And for this reason the human economy is pitted without limit against nature. For in the unlimited competition of neighbor and neighbor, buyer and seller, all available means must be used; none may be spared.

I will be told that indeed there are limits to economic competitiveness as now practiced — that, for instance, one is not allowed to kill one’s competitor. But, leaving aside the issue of whether or not murder would be acceptable as an economic means if the stakes were high enough, it is a fact that the destruction of life is a part of the daily business of economic competition as now practiced. If one person is willing to take another’s property or to accept another’s ruin as a normal result of economic enterprise, then he is willing to destroy that other person’s life as it is and as it desires to be. That this person’s biological existence has been spared seems merely incidental; it was spared because it was not worth anything. That this person is now “free” to “seek retraining and get into another line of work” signifies only that his life as it was has been destroyed.

Wendell Berry would be my steady diet for years to come. I called myself an agrarian and even considered becoming a smallholding farmer. (Yeah, I tend to do that sort of thing when I’m overtaken by an idea.) Then I realized that I actually hated yard work, much less farming, and moved into town. I stopped reading him for a few years because any idea, singularly pursued, becomes distorted.

I’ve come back to him over the past few years, especially his poetry. What I admire about him is the same thing I admire in all my heroes (because it represents my own aspiration): a consistent life, lived according to deeply-held, sincere principles.

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