The Art of the Commonplace gathers twenty-one essays by Wendell Berry that offer an agrarian alternative to our dominant urban culture. These essays promote a clearly defined and compelling vision important to all people dissatisfied with the stress, anxiety, disease, and destructiveness of... read more
“<Salesmanship is> the craft of persuading people to buy what they do not need and do not want, for more than it is worth.”
“<Faith in new energy sources> is fantastical because the basic cause of the energy crisis is not scarcity; it is moral ignorance and weakness of character.”
“…the root of our racial problem in America is not racism. The root is in our inordinate desire to be superior — not to some inferior or subject people, though this desire leads to the subjection of people — but to our condition. We wish to rise above the sweat and bother of taking care of anything — of ourselves, each other, or our country. We did not enslave African blacks because they were black, but because their labor promised to free us of the obligations of stewardship, and because they were unable to prevent us from enslaving them. They were economically valuable and militarily weak.”
“And it should not be necessary to point out the connection between the oppression of women and the general contempt for household work.”
“The aims and standards of the oppressors become the aims and standards of the oppressed, and so our ills and evils survive our successive ‘liberations’.”
“There is no safety in belonging to the select few, for minority people or anyone else. If we are looking for insurance against want and oppression, we will find it only in our neighbors’ prosperity and goodwill and, beyond that, in the good health of our worldly places, our homelands.”
“Our present idea of freedom is only the freedom to do as we please: to sell ourselves for a high salary, a house in the suburbs, and idle weekends….The other kind of freedom is the freedom to take care of ourselves and each other. The freedom of affluence opposes and contradicts the freedom of community life.”
“It should tell us something that in healthy societies drug use is celebrative, convivial, and occasional, whereas among us it is lonely, shameful and addictive. We need drugs, apparently, because we have lost each other.”
“A proper community, we should remember also, is a commonwealth: a place, a resource, and an economy. It answers the needs, practical as well as social and spiritual, of its members — among them the need to need one another.”
“Marriage, in what is evidently its most popular version, is now on the one hand an intimate ‘relationship’ involving (ideally) two successful careerists in the same bed, and on the other hand a sort of private political system in which rights and interests must be constantly asserted and defended. Marriage, in other words, has now taken the form of divorce: a prolonged and impassioned negotiation as to how things should be divided.”
“There are, however, still some married couples who understand themselves as belonging to their marriage, to each other, and to their children. What they have in common, and so, to them, helping each other does not seem merely to damage their ability to compete against each other. To them, ‘mine’ is not so powerful or necessary a pronoun as ‘ours’.”
“Men in general were the first to hold <the self-reliant household> in contempt as they departed from it for the sake of the professional salary or the hourly wage, and now it is held in contempt by…feminists…”
“How, I am asking, can women improve themselves by submitting to the same specialization, degradation, trivialization, and tyrannization of work that men have submitted to?…The answer is that men have not, and women cannot, improve themselves by submitting to it.”
“They <modern workers> know that their ability to be useful is precisely defined by their willingness to be someone else’s tool.”
“The problem is not just the exploitation of women by men. A greater problem is that women and men alike are consenting to an economy that exploits women and men and everything else.”
“Industrial war, except by the most fanatically narrow standards, is worse than war used to be. Industrial agriculture, except by the standards of quantity and mechanical efficiency, diminishes everything it affects. Industrial workmanship is certainly worse than traditional workmanship, and is getting shoddier every day. After forty-odd years, the evidence is everywhere that television, far from proving a great tool of education, is a tool of stupefaction and disintegration. Industrial education has abandoned the old duty of passing on the cultural and intellectual inheritance in favor of baby-sitting and career preparation.”
“We do not need to plan or devise a ‘world of the future’; if we take care of the world of the present, the future will have received full justice from us.”
“In fact, our ‘sexual revolution’ is mostly an industrial phenomenon, in which the body is used as an idea of pleasure or a pleasure machine with the aim of ‘freeing’ natural pleasure from natural consequence.”
“All good human work remembers its history.”
“The body characterizes everything it touches. What it makes it traces over with the marks of its pulses and breathings, its excitements, hesitations, flaws, and mistakes. On its good work, it leaves the marks of skill, care, and love persisting through hesitations, flaws, and mistakes. And to those of us who love and honor the life of the body in this world, these marks are precious things, necessities of life.”
“I knew a man who, in the age of chainsaws, went right on cutting his wood with a handsaw and an axe. He was a healthier and a saner man than I am. I shall let his memory trouble my thoughts.”
“We have delegated all our vital functions and responsibilities to salesmen and agents and bureaus and experts of all sorts. We cannot feed or clothe ourselves, or entertain ourselves, or communicate with each other, or be charitable or neighborly or loving, or even respect ourselves, without recourse to a merchant or a corporation or a public-service organization or an agency of the government or a style-setter or an expert.”
“We do not understand the earth in terms either of what it offers us or of what it requires of us, and I think it is the rule that people inevitably destroy what they do not understand.”
“Our model citizen is a sophisticate who before puberty understands how to produce a baby, but who at the age of thirty will not know how to produce a potato. And for this condition we have elaborate rationalizations, instructing us that dependence for everything on somebody else is efficient and economical and a scientific miracle....I believe that the death of the world is breeding in such minds much more certainly and much faster than in any political capital or atomic arsenal.”
“Thought affects or afflicts substance neither by intention nor by accident, but because, occurring in the Creation that is unified and whole, it must; there is no help for it.”
“There is, in practice, no such thing as autonomy. Practically, there is only a distinction between responsible and irresponsible dependence.”
“Furthermore, in this situation the traditional nurturing role of men — that of provisioning the household, which in an agricultural society had become as constant and as complex as the woman’s role — became completely abstract; the man’s duty to the household came to be simply to provide money. The only remaining task of provisioning — purchasing food — was turned over to women. This determination that nurturing should become exclusively a concern of women served to signify to both sexes that neither nurture nor womanhood was very important.”
“The industrial economy had changed the criterion of housekeeping from thrift to convenience. Thrift was a complex standard, requiring skill, intelligence, and moral character, and private thrift was rightly considered a public value. Once thrift was destroyed as a value, housekeeping became simply a corrupt function of a corrupt economy: its public ‘value’ lay in the wearing out or using up of commodities.”
“A sexual difference is not a wound, or it need not be; a sexual division is.”
“There is no doubt that women have been deformed by the degenerate housewifery that is now called their ‘role’ — but not, I think, for any man’s benefit. If women are deformed by their role, then, insofar as the roles are divided, men are deformed by theirs. Degenerate housewifery is indivisible from degenerate husbandry. There is no escape. This is the justice that we are learning from the ecologists: you cannot damage what you are dependent upon without damaging yourself. The suffering of women is noticed now, is noticeable now, because it is not given any considerable status or compensation. If we removed the status and compensation from the destructive exploits we classify as ‘manly,’ men would be found to be suffering as much as women. They would be found to be suffering for the same reason: they are in exile from the communion of men and women, which is their deepest connection with the communion of all creatures.”
“Without the household — not just as a unifying ideal, but as a practical circumstance of mutual dependence and obligation, requiring skill, moral discipline, and work — husband and wife find it less and less possible to imagine and enact their marriage. Without much in particular that they can do for each other, they have a scarcity of practical reasons to be together. They may ‘like each other’s company,’ but that is a reason for friendship, not for marriage. Aside from affection for any children they may have and their abstract legal and economic obligations to each other, their union has to be empowered by sexual energy alone.”
“The division of sexual energy from the functions of household and community that it ought both to empower and to grace is analogous to that other modern division between hunger and the earth. When it is no longer allied by proximity and analogy to the nurturing disciplines that bound the household to the cycles of fertility and the seasons, life and death, then sexual love loses its symbolic or ritualistic force, its deepest solemnity and its highest joy. It loses the sense of consequence and responsibility. It becomes ‘autonomous,’ to be valued only for its own sake, therefore frivolous, therefore destructive — even of itself. Those who speak of sex as ‘recreation,’ thinking to claim for it ‘a new place,’ only acknowledge its displacement from Creation.”
Introduction: The Challenges of Berry's Agrarian Vision, by Norman Wirzba
Part I: A Geobiography
"A Native Hill"
Part II: Understanding Our Cultural Crisis
"The Unsettling of America"
"Racism and the Economy"
"Feminism, the Body and the Machine"
Part III: The Agrarian Basis for an Authentic Culture
"The Body and the Earth"
"Men and Women in Search of Common Ground"
"Health Is Membership"
"Sex, Economy, Freedom, and Community"
"Conservation and Local Economy
Part IV: Agrarian Economics
"Economy and Pleasure"
"The Whole Horse"
"The Idea of a Local Economy"
"A Bad Big Idea"
"Solving for Pattern"
Part V: Agrarian Religion
"The Use of Energy"
"The Gift of Good Land"
"Christianity and the Survival of Creation"
"The Pleasures of Eating"
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