Discipline and Hope

It turns out that I put down Wendell Berry in favor of Christopher Lasch exactly at the point where I was about to start on one of Berry’s very best (and longest, at eighty pages) essays, “Discipline and Hope.” Written in 1971, it covers much ground that Berry has revisited time and again in the following forty-five years. At the same time, there is a freshness to many of his observations here that made them stand out to me; some of them I’m probably just hearing for the first time, but I think others are “new”, i.e. I haven’t encountered them in his later writings. I think part of the freshness comes from bolder writing; not that Berry has lost confidence in his views, but his manner of presenting them has been tempered by time and experience.

I won’t try to summarize the thrust of the essay; instead, here are some of my favorite passages, from which I think the theme emerges:

  • “Nearly all the old standards, which implied and required rigorous disciplines, have now been replaced by a new standard of efficiency, which requires not discipline, not a mastery of means, but rather a carelessness of means, a relentless subjection of means to immediate ends. The standard of efficiency displaces and destroys the standards of quality because, by definition, it cannot even consider them. Instead of asking a man what he can do well, it asks him what he can do fast and cheap. […] What we have called efficiency has produced among us, and to our incalcuable cost, such unprcedented monuments of destructieness and waste as the strip-mining industry, the Pentagon, the federal bureaucracy, and the family car.”

  • “The fact is that farming is not a laboratory science, but a science of practice. It would be, I think, a good deal more accurate to call it an art, for it grows not only out of factual knowledge but out of cultural tradition’ it is learned not only by precept but by example, by apprenticeship’ and it requires not merely a competent knowledge of its facts and processes, but also a complex set of attitudes, a certain culturally evolved stance, in the face of the unexpected and the unknown [emphasis added]. That is to say, it requires style in the highest and richest sense of that term.”

  • “Training is a process of conditioning, an orderly and highly efficient procedure by which a man learns a prescribed pattern of facts and functions. Education, on the other hand, is an obscure process by which a person’s experience is brought into contact with his place and his history. A college can train a person in four years; it can barely begin his education in that time. A person’s education begins before his birth in the making of the disciplines, traditions, and attitudes of mind that he will inherit, and it continues until his death under the slow, expensive, uneasy tutelage of his experience. The process that produces astronauts may produce soldiers and factory workers and clerks; it will never produce good farmers or good artists or good citizens or good parents.”

  • “On September 10, 1814, Jefferson wrote to Dr. Thomas Cooper of the ‘condition of society; as he saw it at that time: ‘ … we have no paupers, the old and crippled among us, who possess nothing and have no families to take care of them, being too few to merit notice as a separate section of society…. The great mass of our population is of laborers; our rich … being few, and of moderate wealth. Most of the laboring classes possess property, cultivate their own lands … and from the demand for their labor are enabled … to be fed abundantly, clothed above mere decency, to labor moderately…. The wealthy … know nothing of what the Europeans call luxury.'”

  • “One of the common experiences of people who regularly do hard work that they enjoy is to find that they begin to ‘feel like it’ only after the task is begun. And one of the chief uses of discipline is to assure that the necessary work gets done even when the worker doesn’t feel like it.”

  • “A man who does meaningless work does not have his meaning at hand. He must go anxiously in search of it—and thus fail to find it. The farmer’s Sunday afternoon of sitting at home in the shade of a tree has been replaced by the ‘long weekend’ of a thousand miles. The difference is that the farmer was where he wanted to be, understood the value of being there, and therefore when he had no work to do could sit still. How much have we spent to obscure so simple and obvious a possibility? The point is that there is an indissoluble connection and dependence between work and leisure. The freedom from work must produce not leisure, but an ever more frantic search for something to do.”

  • “The change I am talking about appeals to me precisely because it need not wait upon ‘other people.’ Anybody who wants to do so 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.”

  • “A man who produces a fact or an idea has not completed his reponsibility until he sees that it is well used in the world.”

  • “A ‘labor-saving’ device that does the work it was intended to do is thought by its developers to be a success: in terms of their discipline and point of view, it works. That, in working, it considerably lowers the quality of a product and makes obsolete a considerable number of human beings is, to the specialists, merely an opportunity for other specialists.”

  • “If we all behaved as honorably and honestly and as industriously as we expect our representatives to behave, we would soon put the government out of work.”

  • “A person dependent on somebody else for everything from potatoes to opinions may declare that he is a free man, and his government may issue a certificate granting him his freedom, but he will not be free. […] Men are free precisely to the extent that they are equal to their own needs. The most able are the most free.”

  • “I believe that the closer we come to correct discipline, the less concerned we are with ends, and with questions of futurity in general. Correct discipline brings us into alignment with natural process, which has no explicity or deliberate concern for the future. We do not eat, for instance, because we want to live until tomorrow, but because we are hungry and it satisfies us to eat. Similarly, a good farmer plants, not because of the abstractions of demand or market or his financial condition, but because it is planting time and the ground is ready—that is, he plants in response to his discipline and his place. […] The man who works and behaves well today need take no thought for the morrow’ he has discharged today’s only obligation to the morrow.”

  • “The ameliorations of technology are largely illusory. They are always accompanied by penalties that are equal and opposite. Like the weather reports, they suggest the possibility of better solutions than they can provide; and by this suggestiveness—this glib and shallow optimism of gimcrackery—they have too often replaced older skills that were more serviceable to life in a misterious universe. The farmer whose weather eye has been usurped by the radio has become less observant, has lost his old judicious fatalism with respect to the elements—and he is no more certain of the weather.”

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2 thoughts on “Discipline and Hope

  1. Interesting thoughts to ponder, all of them. I recently read *Home Economics* and enjoyed it. It was my first complete Berry book. Now my husband is considering reading it, too. I particularly liked Berry’s point that you have to have a skill in order to help someone. (But maybe I said this already.)

    I think I’m going to go ponder and pray about point #6, on leisure and work, for a while.

    Number 7 on change reminds me of Ghandi’s “Be the change you want to see in the world.”

    Regarding point #4, I like the main idea, but there remains the problem of slavery where the wealthy were concerned. I don’t think it destroys the whole argument, but it does remind us that sin mars every era.

    I also liked the Lasch points below. Some of them are so new to me that I may have to read the book–but when, I don’t know!

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