Notes from Wendell Berry's Home Economics

Wendell Berry is a great writer on community, the local, and how to organize a life. These  notes are from his collection of essays Home Economics. I also recommend What are people for?.

  • To call the unknown by its right name, “mystery”, is to suggest that we had better respect the possibility of a larger, unseen pattern that can be damaged or destroyed and, with it, the smaller patterns.This respecting of mystery obviously has something or other to do with religion, and we moderns have defended ourselves against it by turning it over to religion specialists, who take advantage of out indifference by claiming to know a lot about it.

    What impresses me about it, however, is the insistent practicality implicit in it. If we are up against mystery, then we dare act only on the most modest assumptions. The modern scientific program has held that we must act on the basis of knowledge, which, because its effects are so manifestly large, we have assumed to be ample. But if we are up against mystery, then knowledge is relatively small, and the ancient program is the right one: Act on the basis of ignorance. Acting on the basis of ignorance, paradoxically, requires one to know things, remember things — for instance, that failure is possible, that error is possible, that second chances are desirable (so don’t risk everything on the first chance), and so on. (p. 4-5)

  • Both the Greeks and the Hebrews told us to watch out for humans who assume that they make all the patterns. (p. 5)
  • Ignorance of where to stop is a modern epidemic; it is the basis of “industrial progress” and “economic growth”. The most obvious practical result of this ignorance is a critical disproportion of scale between the scale of human enterprises and their sources in nature. (p. 15-16)
  • The proper scale confers freedom and simplicity…and doubtless leads to long life and health. I think that it also confers joy. (p. 16)
  • No good thing is destroyed by goodness; good things are destroyed by wickedness. We may identify that insight as Biblical, but it is taken for granted by both the Greek and the Biblical lineages of our culture, from Homer to Moses to William Blake. Since the start of the industrial revolution, there have been voices urging that this inheritance [nature] may be safely replaced by intelligence, information, energy and money. No idea, I believe, could be more dangerous. (p. 20)
  • Everywhere, every day, local life is being discomforted, disrupted, endangered, or destroyed by powerful people who live, or who are privileged to think that they live, beyond the bad effects of their bad work. (p. 50)
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