nourishing words to read while helen rests

From dear Sarah.

Excerpted from Wendell Berry’s “Discipline and Hope.”

The principle was stated by Thoreau in his journal: “Hard and steady and engrossing labor with the hands, especially out of doors, is invaluable to the literary man and serves him directly. Here I have been for six days surveying in the woods, and yet when I get home at evening, somewhat weary at last… I find myself more susceptible than usual to the finest influences, as music and poetry.” That is, certainly, the testimony of an exceptional man, a man of the rarest genius, and it will be asked if such work could produce such satisfaction in an ordinary man. My answer is that we do not have to look far or long for evidence that all the fundamental tasks for feeding and clothing and housing—farming, gardening, cooking, spinning, weaving, sewing, shoemaking, carpentry, cabinetwork, stonemasonry—were once done with consummate skill by ordinary people, and as that skill indisputably involved a high measure of pride, it can confidently be said to have produced a high measure of satisfaction.

We are being saved from work, then, for what? The answer can only be that we are being saved from work that is meaningful and ennobling and comely in order to be put to work that is unmeaning and degrading and ugly.

In 1930, the Twelve Southerners of I’ll Take My Stand issued an introduction to their book “A State of Principles,” in which they declared for the agrarian way of life as opposed to the industrial. The book, I believe, was never very popular. At the time, and during the three decades that followed, it might have been almost routinely dismissed by the dominant cultural factions as an act of sentimental allegiance to a lost cause. But now it has begun to be possible to say that the cause for which the Twelve Southerners spoke in their introduction was not a lost but a threatened cause: the cause of human culture. “The regular act of applied science,” they said, “is to introduce into labor a labor-saving device or a machine. Whether this is a benefit depends on how far it is advisable to save labor. The philosophy of applied science is generally quite sure that the saving of labor is a pure gain, and that the more of it the better. This is to assume that labor is an evil, that only the end of labor or the material product is good. On this assumption, labor becomes mercenary and servile… The act of labor as one of the happy functions of human life has been in effect abandoned… Turning to consumption as the grand end which justifies the evil of modern labor, we find that we have been deceived. We have more time in which to consume, and many more products to be consumed. But the tempo of our labors communicates itself to our satisfactions, and these also become brutal and hurried. The constitution of the natural man probably does not permit him to shorten his labor-time and enlarge his consuming-time indefinitely. He has to pay the penalty in satiety and aimlessness.”

The outcry in the face of such obvious truths is always that if they were implemented they would ruin the economy. The peculiarity of our condition would appear to be that the implementation of any truth would ruin the economy. If the Golden Rule were generally observed among us, the economy would not last a week. We have made our false economy a false god, and it has made blasphemy of the truth. So I have met the economy in the road, and am expected to yield it right of way. But I will not get over. My reason is that I am a man, and have a better right to the ground than the economy. The economy is no god for me, for I have had too close a look at its wheels. I have seen it at work in the strip mines and coal camps of Kentucky, and I know that it has no moral limits. It has emptied the country of the independent and the proud, and has crowded the cities with the dependent and the abject. It has always sacrificed the small to the large, the personal to the impersonal, the good to the cheap… I see it teaching my students to give themselves a price before they can give themselves a value.

… A better economy, to my way of thinking, would be one that would place its emphasis not upon the quantity of notions and luxuries but upon the quality of necessities. Such an economy would, for example, produce an automobile that would last as least as long, and be at least as easy to maintain, as a horse. It would encourage workmanship to be as durable as its materials; thus a piece of furniture would have the durability not of glue but of wood. It would substitute for the pleasure of frivolity a pleasure in the high quality of essential work…

… The change I am talking about appeals to me precisely because it need not wait upon “other people.”Anybody who wants to do it can begin it in himself and in his household as soon as he is ready—by becoming answerable to at least some of his own needs, by acquiring skills and tools, by learning what his real needs are, by refusing the glamorous and the frivolous. When a person learns to act on his best hopes he enfranchises and validates them as no government or public policy ever will. And by his action the possibility that other people will do the same is made a likelihood.

But I must concede that there is also a sense in which I am tilting at windmills. While we have been preoccupied by various ideological menaces, we have been invaded and nearly overrun by windmills. They are drawing the nourishment from our soil and the lifeblood out of our veins. Let us tilt against the windmills. Though we have not conquered them, if we do not keep going at them they will surely conquer us.


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