"Life is a Miracle" by Wendell Berry

Wendell Berry. Life Is a Miracle: An Essay Against Modern Superstition. Counterpoint, 2001. 176 pgs. 

Wendell Berry is a poet, novelist, essayist, and farmer. He has consistently worked and written in favor of traditions over the new and rejected the notion that the modern, progressive, way is always better. In this essay Berry takes particular issue with "Consilience" by E.O. Wilson. Berry does so because he sees Wilson as a representative of modern superstition in the form of faith in human progress and knowledge and the belief that our best hope lies in placing all things under the hegemony of the natural sciences. 

One by one, Berry cogently and powerfully argues against materialism, imperialism, and reductionism. "To reduce the mystery and miracle of life to something that can be figured out is inevitably to enslave it, make property of it and put it up for sale." Berry argues that we must evaluate our choices, behavior, and technology with a focus on the health and durability of our communities; communities which are much deeper, more particular, and more local than the modern mind assumes. Berry adds to this: "it is impossible to prefigure the salvation of the world in teh same language by which the world has been dismembered and defaced." In other words, we need a different, older, understanding of knowledge, the good, and our world.

This is, hands down, one of the best books I have read in a long time. I have known of Wendell Berry for some time now but, seemingly inevitably, he has not been at the top of my reading list. This is the first of his books I have read and if the rest of his works are of this caliber then I have just discovered one of my new favorite authors. 

Berry is an incredibly good writer who shares wisdom and passion in exquisite balance. His arguments have given me much to think upon, and the list of quotations and notes I have marked in this book will take my a goodly number of days to digest. Let me give you a few examples:

"What I am against - and without a minute's hesitation or apology - is our slovenly willingness to allow machines and the idea of he machine to prescribe the terms and conditions of the lives of creatures, which we have allowed increasingly for the last two centuries, and are still allowing, at an incaclulable cost to the other creatures and to ourselves... It is easy for me to imagine that the next great division of the world will be between people who wish to live as creatures and people who wish to live as machines."

"The worth of freedom depends upon how it is used. The value of freedom is probably not intrinsic and is certainly not limitless... That is true freedom. It means simply that beyond all error we can begin again; redemption is possible... Work that diminishes the possibility of a new start, of 'making it new,' is bad work."

"People follow religion, he says (referring to Wislon), because it is 'easier' than empiricism, the lab evidently being harder to bear than the cross."

"You cannot serve both God and Mammon, and you cannot work without serving one or the other."

"The religion of professionalism is progress, and this means that, in spite of its vocal bias in favor of practicality and realism, professionalism forsakes both past and present in favor of the future, which is never present or practical or real. Professionalism is always offering up the past and the present as sacrifices to the future, in which all our problems will be solved and our tears wiped away - and which, being the future, never arrives."

"The anti-smoking campaign, by its insistent reference to the expensiveness to government and society of death by smoking, has raised a question that it has not answered: What is the best and cheapest disease to die from, and how can the best and cheapest disease best be promoted?"

Conclusion: 5 of 5 stars. Recommended. As I have already said, I may have found one of my new favorite authors. In any case, this book is certainly worth reading and pondering. 


Dana Ouellette said...

"To reduce the mystery and miracle of life to something that can be figured out is inevitably to enslave it, make property of it and put it up for sale."

This might be one of the more inane statements I've read in a long time. I can't see how any logic or reasonable argument could be behind it except that he doesn't like biological/life sciences.

I could not disagree more. I am interested in understanding life and reading from scientists that are figuring it out.I hope it can be figured out, and so is anyone who as ever needed a doctor.

Dana Ouellette said...

Also for a very interesting perspective on the inconsistencies of a completely mechanistic/reductionistic view i like this video.

none other than maybe the worlds more famous atheist (who is all about reductionism) Richard Dawkins. He talks about a lot if you can invest 23 minutes in it. Particularly intersting is his wondering about why scientists are more consistant because no scientist responds to a pedophile you a malfunctioning we should replace your circuits. They say something more like "you evil pervert jail is too good for you."

It's in interesting problem. While it is true that we are nothing more than a series of electrical and chimical reactions, there is something more going on and we don't live life on that truth.

Plus it's just a really good lecture.

Andrew said...

The danger of posting a quote out of context is always that it will be misunderstood. Berry does not argue that there is no value in science or medicine; he is careful on that point. What he argues against is that these things are exhaustive in their explanatory power of life, and if we treat life as if it could be exhaustively explained and figured out then we will have enslaved it, etc.