By Wendell Berry, from Our Only World, out this month from Counterpoint. Berry’s essay “Faustian Economics” appeared in the May 2008 issue of Harper’s Magazine.
We need to acknowledge the formlessness inherent in the analytic science that divides creatures into organs, cells, and ever smaller parts or particles according to its technological capacities.
I recognize the possibility and existence of this knowledge, even its usefulness, but I also recognize the narrowness of its usefulness and the damage it does. I can see that in a sense it is true, but also that its truth is small and far from complete.
In and by all my thoughts and acts, I am opposed to any claim that such knowledge is adequate to the sustenance of human life or the health of the ecosphere.
Do even the professionals and experts believe in it, in the sense of acting on it in their daily lives? I doubt that they do.
To this science, the body is an assembly of parts provisionally joined, a “basket case” sure enough. A mountain is a heap of “resources” unfortunately mixed with substances that are not marketable.
There is an always-significant difference between knowing and believing. We may know that the earth turns, but we believe, as we say, that the sun rises. We know by evidence, or by trust in people who have examined the evidence in a way that we trust is trustworthy. We may sometimes be persuaded to believe by reason, but within the welter of our experience reason is limited and weak. We believe always by coming, in some sense, to see. We believe in what is apparent, in what we can imagine or “picture” in our minds, in what we feel to be true, in what our hearts tell us, in experience, in stories — above all, perhaps, in stories.
We can, to be sure, see parts and so believe in them. But there has always been a higher seeing that informs us that parts, in themselves, are of no worth. Genesis is right: “It is not good that the man should be alone.” The phrase “be alone” is a contradiction in terms. A brain alone is a dead brain. A man alone is a dead man.
We are thus as likely to be wrong in what we know as in what we believe.
We may know, or think we know, and often say, that humans are “only” animals, but we teach our children specifically human virtues — evidently because we believe that they are not “only” animals.
Another question of knowledge and belief that keeps returning to my mind is this: Are there not some things that cannot be known apart from belief? This question refers not just to matters of religion — as in Job 19:25: “I know that my redeemer liveth, and that he shall stand at the latter day upon the earth” — but also to ordinary motives of family and community life, such as love, compassion, and forgiveness. Do people who believe that such motives are genetically determined have the same knowledge as people who believe that they are the results of choice, culture, cultivation, and discipline? Or: Do people who believe in the sanctity or intrinsic worth of the world and its creatures have the same knowledge as people who recognize only market value? If there is no way to measure or prove such differences of knowledge, that does at least prove one of my points: There is more to us than some of us suppose.
We may know the anatomy of the body down to the anatomy of atoms, and yet we love and instruct our children as whole persons. And we accept an obligation to help them to preserve their wholeness, which is to say their health. This is not an obligation that we can safely transfer to the subdivided and anatomizing medical industry, not even for the sake of cures. Cures, to industrial medicine, are marketable products extractable from bodies. To cure in this sense is not to heal. To heal is to make whole, and is not so ideologically definable or so technologically possible or so handily billable.
This applies as well to the industries of landscapes: agriculture, forestry, and mining. Once they have been industrialized, these enterprises no longer recognize landscapes as wholes, let alone as the homes of people and other creatures. They regard landscapes as sources of extractable products. They become forms of surface mining. They have “efficiently” shed any other interest or concern.
We have come to this by way of the disembodiment of thought — a mentalization, almost a puritanization, of thought — that deprives us of the physical basis for a sympathy that might join us kindly to landscapes and their creatures, including their human creatures. This purity or sublimity of thought is hard to understand, for it has come about under the sponsorship of materialism. Perhaps it happened because materialists, instead of assigning ultimate value to materiality as would have been reasonable, have abstracted “material” to “mechanical,” and thus have removed from it all bodily or creaturely attributes. Or perhaps the abstracting impulse branched in either of two directions: one toward the mechanical, the other toward the financial, which is to say toward the so-called economy of money as opposed to the actual economy (oikonomia, or “house-keeping”) of goods. Either way the result is the same: the scientific-industrial culture, founded nominally upon materialism, arrives at a sort of fundamentalist disdain for material reality. The living world is then treated as dead matter, the worth of which is determined exclusively by the market.
This highly credentialed, highly politicized disdain, now allied with the similar disdain of highly spiritualized religions, is limitlessly destructive. We cannot say that its destructiveness has been unnoticed as it has been happening, or that the dissolutions, and the dissoluteness, of mechanical thought have not been, by some, well understood. The poet William Butler Yeats prayed: “God guard me from the thoughts men think / In the mind alone” (“A Prayer for Old Age”). He wrote in 1916: “We only believe in those thoughts which have been conceived not in the brain but in the whole body” (introduction to Ezra Pound and Ernest Fenollosa’s Certain Noble Plays of Japan). In the same essay he spoke with foreboding of “a mechanical sequence of ideas.”
As another example, more explicit, here is the poet and translator Philip Sherrard on the Greek poet Anghelos Sikelianos: “He saw [the Western world of his time] as increasingly alienated from those principles which give life significance and beauty and as approaching the condition of a machine out of control and hastening towards destruction. . . . The organic sense of life was being shattered into countless unconnected fragments. . . . A system of learning which made extreme demands on the purely mechanical and sterile processes of memory had the effect of absorbing all the spontaneous movements of body and soul of the younger generations” (The Wound of Greece).
Or here is a passage, by the poet and critic John Crowe Ransom, pointed more directly at our specialist system, which he identified as a phase of the Puritanism that began in religion: “You may dissociate the elements of experience and exploit them separately. But then at the best you go on a schedule of small experiences, taking them in turn, and trusting that when the rotation is complete you will have missed nothing. And at the worst you will become so absorbed in some one small experience that you will forget to go on and complete the schedule; in that case you will have missed something. The theory that excellence lies in the perfection of the single functions, and that society should demand that its members be hard specialists, assumes that there is no particular harm in missing something” (The World’s Body).
A proper attention to our language, moreover, informs us that the Greek root of “anatomy” means “dissection,” and that of “analysis” means “to undo.” The two words have essentially the same meaning. Neither suggests a respect for formal integrity. I suppose that the nearest antonym to both is a word we borrow directly from Greek: poiesis, “making” or “creation,” which suggests that the work of the poet, the composer or maker, is the necessary opposite to that of the analyst and the anatomist. Some scientists, I think, are in this sense poets.
But we appear to be deficient in learning or teaching a competent concern for the way that parts are joined. We certainly are not learning or teaching adequately the arts of forming parts into wholes, or the arts of preserving the formal integrity of the things we receive as wholes already formed.
Without this concern and these arts, our efforts of conservation are probably futile. Without some sense of necessary connections and a competent awareness of human and natural limits, the issue of scale is not only pointless but cannot even enter our consciousness.
My premise is that there is a scale of work at which our minds are as effective and even as harmless as they ought to be, at which we can be fully responsible for consequences and there are no catastrophic surprises. But such a possibility does not excite us.
What excites us is some sort of technological revolution: the fossil-fuel revolution, the automotive revolution, the assembly-line revolution, the antibiotic revolution, the sexual revolution, the computer revolution, the “green revolution,” the genomic revolution, and so on. But these revolutions — all with something to sell that people or their government “must” buy — are all mere episodes of the one truly revolutionary revolution perhaps in the history of the human race, the Industrial Revolution, which has proceeded from the beginning with only two purposes: to replace human workers with machines, and to market its products, regardless of their usefulness or their effects, to generate the highest possible profit — and so to concentrate wealth into ever fewer hands.
This revolution has, so far, fulfilled its purposes with remarkably few checks or thwarts. I say “so far” because its great weakness is obviously its dependence on what it calls “natural resources,” which it has used ignorantly and foolishly, and which it has progressively destroyed. Its weakness, in short, is that its days are numbered.
Having squandered nature’s “resources,” it will finally yield to nature’s correction, which in prospect grows ever harsher.
We have formed our present life, including our economic and intellectual life, on specialization, professionalism, and competition. Certified smart people expect to solve all problems by analysis, dividing wholes into ever smaller parts. Science and industry do give room to synthesis, but by that they do not mean putting back together the things that they have taken apart; they mean making something “synthetic.” They mean engineering the disassembled parts, by some manner of violence, into profitable new commodities. In such a state of things we don’t see or, apparently, suspect the complexity of connections among ecology, agriculture, food, health, and medicine (if by “medicine” we mean healing). Nor can we see how this complexity is necessarily contained within, and at the mercy of, human culture, which in turn is necessarily contained within the not very expandable limits of human knowledge and human intelligence.
We have accumulated a massive collection of “information” to which we may have “access.” But this information does not become knowledge by being accessible. We might find, if such a computation were possible, that the amount of human knowledge over many millennia has remained more or less constant — that is, it has always filled the available mental capacity — and therefore that learning invariably involves forgetting. To have the Renaissance, we had to forget the Middle Ages. To the extent that we have learned about machines, we have forgotten about plants and animals. Every nail we drive in, as I believe C. S. Lewis said, drives another out.
The thing most overlooked by scientists, and by the enviers and emulators of science in the humanities, is the complicity of science in the Industrial Revolution, which science has served not by supplying the “scientific” checks of skepticism, doubt, criticism, and correction, but by developing marketable products, from refined fuels to nuclear bombs to computers to poisons to pills.
It has been remarkable how often science has hired out to the ready-made markets of depravity, as when it has served the military-industrial complex, which is solidly founded on the hopeless logic of revenge, or the medical and pharmaceutical industries, which are based somewhat on the relief of suffering but also on greed, on the vicious circles of hypochondria, and on the inducible fear of suffering yet to come. The commodification of genome-reading rides upon the same fears of the future that palmistry and phrenology rode upon.
We may say with some confidence that the most apparently beneficent products of science and industry should be held in suspicion if they are costly to consumers or bring power to governments or profits to corporations.
There are, we know, scientists who are properly scrupulous, responsible, and critical, who call attention to the dangers of oversold and under-tested products, and who are almost customarily ignored. They are often called “independent scientists,” and the adjective is significant, for it implies not only certain moral virtues but also political weakness. The combination of expertise, prestige, wealth, and power, incapable of self-doubt or self-criticism, is hardly to be deterred by a few independent scientists.
Scientists in general, like humanists and artists in general, have accepted the industrialists’ habit, or principle, of ignoring the contexts of life, of place, of community, and even of economy.
The capitalization of fear, weakness, ignorance, bloodthirst, and disease is certainly financial, but it is not, properly speaking, economic.
Criticism of scientific-industrial “progress” need not be balked by the question of how we would like to do without anesthetics or immunizations or antibiotics. Of course there have been benefits. Of course there have been advantages — at least to the advantaged. But valid criticism does not deal in categorical approvals and condemnations. Valid criticism attempts a just description of our condition. It weighs advantages against disadvantages, gains against losses, using standards more general and reliable than corporate profit or economic growth. If criticism involves computation, then it aims at a full accounting and an honest net result, whether a net gain or a net loss. If we are to hope to live sensibly, correcting mistakes that need correcting, we need a valid general criticism.
Scared for health, afraid of death, bored, dissatisfied, vengeful, greedy, ignorant, and gullible — these are the qualities of the ideal consumer. Can we imagine an education that would turn passive consumers into active and informed critics, capable of using their minds in their own defense? It will not be the purely technical education-for-employment now advocated by the most influential “educators” and “leaders.”
We have good technical or specialized criticism: A given thing is either a good specimen of its kind or it is not. A valid general criticism would measure work against its context. The health of the context — the body, the community, the ecosystem — would reveal the health of the work.