Saturday, January 3, 2009

First Principles - Wendell Berry, Virtue, and Technology

"Wendell Berry, Virtue, and Technology
Patrick Deneen - 04/03/08

This essay was first delivered as a lecture at Berry College on March 26, 2008.

We live in the Age of Technology. It will surprise no one to state this obvious fact. Everywhere technologies are the mark of modern life. Transportation, science, engineering, entertainment, finance, warfare, communication, sports, art, medicine—and the list could expand almost without limit—every sphere of human life is influenced, even shaped by the modern technologies that continually change and in turn change us and the way we live. No other age has seen such a rapid and profound transformation of their way of life in the course of only several generations. Some of us can still remember an age without computers or the internet—not to mention cable television or cell phones—while the grandparents of many of us can still tell tales of an era before automobiles, telephones, even, for some, electricity. Within the span of a human lifetime our world has been transformed, and would be largely unrecognizable to the grandparents of the oldest person alive today.

However, if we reflect for even more than a moment about the role of technology in human life, we will realize that human beings have always been the technological creature. Consider the phrases of this ode from the play Antigone by Sophocles, written in 442 B.C.—nearly 2,500 years ago:

Numberless wonders (deina)
Terrible wonders walk the world but none the match for man–
That great wonder crossing the heaving gray sea,
Driven on by the blasts of winter
On through breakers crashing left and right,
Holds his steady course
And the oldest of the gods he wears away–
The Earth, the immortal, the inexhaustible–
As his plows go back and forth, year in, year out
With the breed of stallions turning up the furrows.

And the blithe, lighthearted race of birds he snares,
The tribes of savage beasts, the life that swarms the depths–
With one fling of his nets
Woven and coiled tight, he takes them all,
Man the skilled, the brilliant!
He conquers all, taming with his techniques
The prey that roams the cliffs and wild lairs,
Training the stallion, clamping the yoke across
His shaggy neck, and the tireless mountain bull.
And speech and thought, quick as the wind
And the mood and mind for law that rules the city–
All these he has taught himself
And shelter from the arrows of frost
When there’s rough lodging under the cold clear sky
And the shafts of lashing rain–
Ready, resourceful man!
Never without resources . . .

We might better understand ourselves by calling our species “homo techne,” rather than “homo sapiens”—for many creatures know things, but few use tools, and none have transformed themselves and their world through the use of tools to the thoroughgoing extent of the human creature. While we rightly consider ours an age of technology, we should recognize that humanity has always altered their world through technology. The historical record tells us this—a record that is itself the result of the technologies of writing and reading.

Myth and storytelling have long recognized that human beings would not exist—would have long ago perished, perhaps without a trace—without our capacity to employ technologies that make up—indeed, that more than compensate—for our absence of natural tools. Updating myths from ancient Greece, the Renaissance thinker Pico della Mirandola composed an oration in 1487 titled “On the Dignity of Man,” in which he described God’s fashioning of all creatures at the time of Creation. Pico relates that God bestowed a succession of talents or abilities or natural “tools” upon each species—great speed and the ability to burrow to the rabbit, flight to the birds, size and the trunk to the elephant, and so on. But, God decided as an afterthought to fashion a creature that could understand and admire His handiwork, but found that He had assigned all tools and talents to the other creatures. To this creature he therefore bestowed the ability to make himself.

The Great Artisan . . . made man a creature of indeterminate and indifferent nature, and, placing him in the middle of the world, said to him “Adam, we give you no fixed place to live, no form that is peculiar to you, nor any function that is yours alone. According to your desires and judgment, you will have and possess whatever place to live, whatever form, and whatever functions you yourself choose. All other things have a limited and fixed nature prescribed and bounded by Our laws. You, with no limit or no bound, may choose for yourself the limits and bounds of your nature. We have placed you at the world’s center so that you may survey everything else in the world. We have made you neither of heavenly nor of earthly stuff, neither mortal nor immortal, so that with free choice and dignity, you may fashion yourself into whatever form you choose.”

Lacking natural tools, humanity has employed its intelligence to manipulate its world—through such inventions as agriculture, irrigation, weaponry, the ability to start and keep fire, shelter, language. We are truly the self-fashioning creature.

This basic and extraordinary fact about human beings means another thing: we survive and flourish not by instinct, but by behavior that is learned, preserved and transmitted. Unlike all other species that walk upon, fly above or burrow below the earth, we are almost wholly instinct deficient: left to our own devices without even our most basic technological achievements, most of us couldn’t survive for even several weeks. Lacking agricultural knowledge and the tools used to hunt, we would starve, if first we didn’t freeze or become the dinner of wild beasts. Lest our race be forced to begin anew discovering the most basic activities necessary for our survival—how to cultivate crops, how to build shelters, how to communicate, not to mention such other extraordinary accomplishments and discoveries that we might not discover again for centuries or thousands of years were our memories to be wiped out, such as how to write, how to make cheese, how to brew beer—lest we be forced to start this knowledge anew with each generation, there can be little doubt that the greatest technology of human origin and making is culture itself. Culture is the repository of memory and the medium of transmission of human accomplishment as well as human failings. It is the conduit of past to future, the vessel of memory of countless generations of the past to countless generations in the future, an inheritance and a memorial. The Greeks understood this well, counting the nine muses as the primary goddesses of culture—of music, theater, writing, history, astronomy, among the human arts—and understanding even more that they were the daughters of Mnemosyne, or Memory. Culture, in a sense, is literally the offspring of memory, the collective wisdom of humanity that allows us not merely to survive, but to flourish—essentially, to become human.

The essential necessity of culture for human survival and flourishing also demanded a human vessel in which such memory could be transmitted—namely the city, itself a masterpiece of technology. Indeed, for this reason Aristotle writes that “man is by nature the political animal,” understanding that humans would not be human but for our capacity to govern ourselves in concert with one another, to create stable and longstanding human communities. Culture couldn’t perpetuate itself in the absence of politics, and thus politics and culture are mutually reinforcing, a politics and polis shaped by culture just as culture shapes the polity and the people who inhabit the city.

While Pico undoubtedly understood rightly that humanity thus in a sense “makes itself,” we should be cautious about the more Promethean inclinations of his assertion about the primacy of human choice and freedom. Culture is not an amorphous or infinitely flexible creation of humanity. Culture—as the word suggests, so closely related to “agriculture”—is deeply related to, and dependent upon, the facts of the natural world, including human nature. This stands to reason, since culture arose as a way for us to preserve and transmit our inheritance of how to survive and even thrive in a world at once replete with gifts and dangers. Culture has always centered on the most elemental—our relationship to the earth and the plants that spring from it; our relationship to the beasts, both their bounty and the threats they pose; our relationship to one another, through marriage, in raising children, making families, forging lasting communities that remember the past and are mindful of the future; and our relationship to the divine, the mysterious powers that order and govern a universe that we did not create and that we do not own. Human culture, itself a technology, and the technologies that have been preserved in those cultures, have worked alongside nature. To use the language of the poet, novelist, essayist, and farmer Wendell Berry—who guides my thinking tonight—culture “proposes an atonement between ourselves and the world, between economy and ecology, between the domestic and the wild.” Culture, in a sense, is the intermediate realm between nature and the human, at once keeping us tethered to the natural world even as we are somewhat apart from it in our capacity to use and alter it.


According to my argument thus far, then, we have always lived in an age of technology, since, for as long as humans have been human, we have been creatures that exist only in cultures, and culture is itself a technology. Yet, at the outset of my talk I suggested that it was self-evident that we lived in an “Age of Technology”—not now referring to the vast epochal history of humankind, but to very recent times, perhaps no longer than several decades at most. In what sense can both these claims be true?

When we speak of living currently, and only during a short historical period, in an Age of Technology, I think we mean something rather more specific and often largely undetected by most of us. While we might think of airplanes and IPODs and computers and cell phones as the mark of our age, we miss a deeper and truer point that distinguishes this age from all those that have preceded. Our current technological age is marked, above all, by the expansion of technologies that have increasingly, and quite purposively, undermined and destroyed culture.

Technology, until recent times, has largely been devised to work with and alongside nature, even as it has allowed humanity a degree of control over the natural world. Agriculture, husbandry, the harnessing of the power of rivers and wind to power rudimentary machines were all examples of ways that previous cultures at once used nature even while recognizing that the bounty of culture was dependent upon nature. Berry is here instructive of the simultaneity of our interaction with nature being at once independence and dependence: “We must know both how to use and how to care for what we use. This knowledge is the basis of human culture.”

Our recent times have divided these two preconditions for culture—the knowledge of how to use, and how to care for what we use. We have done this, in particular, through the replacement of culture by industrial production. Industrial processes above all stress efficiency and productivity, prizing the ability to produce maximally by means of uniformity and repetition. Industrial processes are oblivious to local conditions—machines and processes are designed to ignore or overcome obstacles of local conditions. Local conditions are forced to conform to industrial processes—and thus, if we consider the example of farming, whatever the acidity of the soil, whatever the lay of the land, whatever the availability of local water and fertilizer, whatever the climate, whatever the kinds of insects that might help or threaten a crop, industrial farming homogenizes production and pursues the most efficient agricultural monocultures. The same holds true for the industrial production of meat, of music, of housing, of entertainment, of education—in all these instances and many more, industrial processes ignore or obliterate local conditions. Everywhere our strip malls are the same, an endless national repetition of Wal-Marts and McDonalds, Starbucks and Home Depots. Dying or gone are local general stores, restaurants, cafes and hardware stores, and along with them, a connection between production and consumption, local knowledge, and the willingness to care for and invest in one’s own communities because the owners live there too.

Culture is inescapably local. The knowledge of local conditions is the precondition and the very essence of culture. And it is the localness of culture that ensures that nature is the standard for work and production; as Berry argues, “in a sound local economy . . . producers and consumers . . . will not tolerate the destruction of the local soil or ecosystem or watershed as a cost of production. Only a healthy local economy can keep nature and work together in the consciousness of the community.” By contrast, he writes, “the global economy institutionalizes global ignorance, in which producers and consumers cannot know or care about one another, and in which the histories of all products will be lost. In such circumstances, the degradation of products and places, producers and consumers is inevitable.” An economy based on the opposition to nature is also by definition opposed to local conditions, and by definition, opposed to culture. It is the very diversity of local conditions that leads to a diversity of cultures, and it is that diversity (–not our faux and p.c. claims to diversity even as we praise the “globalization” that is the destroyer of diversity–) that industrial processes everywhere seek to render irrelevant or destroy—which is really, in effect, the same thing.

Lying deep at the heart of this division of use and care—the opposition to nature—are philosophies that rejected the idea of the bounties and limits of nature, philosophies that regarded nature as an obstacle to the fulfillment of our desires, that dismissed the lessons of culture to moderate our desires in light of the limits of local conditions, that elevated human comfort and wealth above other ends, and accordingly not only stressed our opposition to nature, but to cultures that had developed alongside local natural conditions. Francis Bacon called for a change in humanity’s relationship with the natural world, to view nature as an enemy and to understand the human mind as a weapon. In describing the modern scientific project, he charged us to understand that “knowledge is power,” and at points described nature as a kind of prisoner who withheld its secrets from us, justifying our extraction of those secrets even by torture, if necessary. Following Bacon, we have transformed technology from ways of using nature that nevertheless co-exist with nature—that “care for what we use”—to ways of exerting human will and fulfilling human desire in spite of nature and therefore, ultimately in spite of culture.

It has been during this short period of industrialization that most of our longstanding cultural forms have attenuated, faded, or gone wholly out of existence. Berry, of course, writes as a farmer, and has repeatedly lamented the decline of the family farm as a locus of human community and the embodiment of numberless forms of cultural knowledge and practices. But everywhere we see around us the ruins of once vibrant culture. Most of us know little or nothing of how to produce food. More and more of us cannot build, cannot fix, cannot track, cannot tell time by looking in the sky, cannot locate the constellations, cannot hunt, cannot skin or butcher, cannot cook, cannot can, cannot make wine, cannot play instruments, and if we can, often do not know the songs of our culture by which to entertain a variety of generations, cannot dance, cannot remember long passages of poetry, don’t know the Bible, cannot spin or knit, cannot sew or darn, cannot chop wood or forage for mushrooms, cannot make a rock wall, cannot tell the kinds of trees by leaves or the kinds of birds by shape of wing—and I could continue this list for a good while longer. My grandmother could do most of the things on this list and a whole bunch more. And by many measures, our time would regard her as uneducated. They would regard her as “simple” in spite of the complexity of things she knew how to do. But, if the lights went out tomorrow, she would have been the smartest person we know; she would have seen us through, and not our college professors. She’s gone now, and much that knowledge has been laid to rest with her because, by the time of my generation, we didn’t need to know those things anymore.

Most people would respond to this list with perhaps a modicum of regret, wishing at least that we could track—how cool is that!—but also recognizing that we don’t have to. After all, we have GPS systems for getting around, and industrial agriculture for food production, cheap clothing from China so that we don’t have to make or repair clothes, cheap labor from Mexico so that we don’t have to build or fix, and the internet for everything else. . . . But this is precisely the point: within roughly two generations we have lost a vast storehouse of cultural memory that was the accumulation of countless generations who saw it as their duty to posterity, and based in gratitude toward ancestors, to ensure safe passage of this knowledge to future generations. Culture has been viewed as disposable based upon the illusion of independence from nature that our modern technologies have bequeathed us. Why spend time diligently learning at the side of your father how to repair a bucket or navigate by the stars or milk a cow when every young person knows that a machine will do this work or cheap products are readily available? Every adult and child knows that if you have a problem with a computer, you go to the youngest person in the family for advice about how to repair it: ancestral knowledge has been replaced by the constantly up to date. So, too, we professors are told that we need to adapt our teaching to the modern technologies utilized by our students, as if these won’t in fact influence the teachings themselves. If all technologies ultimately replace themselves with something else, we are living in a time when our technologies are replacing the original and essential human technology of culture. However, if culture is one of the preconditions for technology of all sorts that make us human, then we are employing technology in ways that increasingly dehumanizes ourselves, that prevents us from becoming human beings. By destroying nature and culture, we ultimately destroy ourselves.

If we are indeed at war with nature, as with any war, we need a full accounting of the costs and losses associated with this war. And, as with any war, we avoid that accounting because we would like to cling to the illusion that we are winning. But, consider Berry’s assessment of how the war is going—this war declared by the likes of Francis Bacon against nature:

This war, like most wars, has turned out to be a trickier business than we expected. We must now face two shocking surprises. The first surprise is that if we say and believe that we are at war with nature, then we are in the fullest sense at war: that is, we are both opposing and being opposed, and the costs to both sides are extremely high.

The second surprise is that we are not winning. On the evidence now available, we have to conclude that we are losing—and moreover, that there was never a chance that we could win. Despite the immense power and violence that we have deployed against her, nature is handing us one defeat after another.

The record splayed out on the front pages of any daily paper provides enough evidence to this effect: global warming, resource depletion, erosion of the topsoil, pervasive toxicity, water shortages based on overtaxing of aquifers, species extinction, overfishing of our oceans and lakes, rainforest clearcutting, and so on. And, should we think that the phenomena are unconnected, we also see a depletion of our culture as well, as would accordingly follow upon our prosecution of a war against nature—the self-destruction of the modern family, our scandalous levels of debt, the travesty of our modern public schooling system, sexuality that has little joy, the ease and frequency of abortions, the vulgarity of our popular culture, sarcasm and irony that pervade every conversation, and so on. Our political parties regard one of these depletions—nature or culture—as problematic, lacking the vision and understanding to apprehend that the modern assault upon nature was also premised upon the assault on culture. We argue over effects without properly grasping the deeper causes, investing our hopes in political parties and candidates who would trim the claws of one paw of the monster even as they fatten the beast.


By disconnecting culture from nature, and regarding nature as an enemy to be conquered, we have, above all, disconnected ourselves from the most important aspect of culture: the inexorable lessons of the limits of human power and the pitfalls of human efforts at mastery. Every culture in some way teaches this same fundamental lesson—to respect what we did not create, to revere the mysterious and unknown, to be bound by the limits of nature and to be cognizant of the perpetual flaws of the human creature. In our own tradition, whether inscribed in the ancient Greek teachings against hubris—like that tale of Icarus flying too close to the sun—or the Biblical warnings against pride—such as the effort to build a tower to heaven—culture has historically been a force of profound resistance against the human tendency to act slavishly on behalf our limitless desires. The overarching teaching of our culture—such as it is—is the mantra “Just do it”—about as bad a teaching as I can imagine a human being uttering. As Berry states, good culture not only teaches what to do, but also advises us what not to do and how not to act, “by forbearance or self-restraint, [by] sympathy or generosity.” Part of that forbearance or sympathy derives from one of the most important legacies of culture—an enlarged sense of time that long predates our lifetimes and stretches out vastly past the point of our deaths. We forbear, in part, because we are aware of the similar sacrifices made by our ancestors in ensuring us a good place, good land, and a good community, and we seek to ensure as good if not better for our children and theirs after them. Culture is the formation of that proper social contract described by Edmund Burke, a contract not only between the living, but one that also includes the dead and the not yet born. Living as we do in “a dimensionless present,” we diminish our relationship to the past and the future alike, and in turn justify actions that pretend as if neither has any relevance to who we are and what we do. As Berry observes, we are prone to commit deeds “that we may call use, but that the future will ‘theft.’” In our relentless use of the bounty of the earth, our civilizational reliance on nonrenewable energy forms, our insatiable willingness to accumulate debt that will be handed over to future generations, our unwillingness to account for the true costs of all those “cheap” products that we celebrate as the bounty of “globalization,” we act like perpetual adolescents who never asked to be born and who will never, ever have children, thank you very much.

It is culture that teaches us virtue—and most certainly not Departments of Philosophy. Like culture itself, “virtue” is an old fashioned word, one that we now associate with outmoded Victorian admonitions against showing your ankles when in the presence of boys. It was the very assault on culture that both necessitated, and resulted in, the denigration of the practice of virtue. Virtue is deeply related to that capacity to “forbear” and to “sympathize,” but virtue is more than simply forbearance or not acting: virtue, as Berry reminds us, is only possible when enacted and embedded in the practices of life within communities. One can only know what not to do in the midst of doing many other things: ultimately, he writes, virtue moves toward virtuosity. “When the virtues are rightly practiced,” he writes, “we do not call them virtues: we call them good farming, good carpentry, good husbandry, good weaving and sewing, good homemaking, good parenthood, good neighborhood, and so on.” All these “technologies” at once provide us goods of life, but also operate with rules and limits, and thus teach us not only how to do things, but also how not to do them. In superseding those limits with technologies that dispense with nature and culture alike, we cease the practical education of ourselves and our young in limits, and learn not how to be human beings, but consumers. We make ourselves ever more into those creatures that invade the earth in the film “Independence Day,” creatures of extraordinary technological competence but no capacity to make a home upon a fruitful planet.


We live, in Wendell Berry’s words, “at the far side of a broken connection.” We have embraced technologies that are destructive of the most fundamental technology, culture itself, and which, in their destruction of the very natural order from which we ultimately derive sustenance, threaten our future and that of our children. Rather than seeking to repair the very culture that our war against nature has all but destroyed, we seek to find new technologies that can allow us to continue to live in “global ignorance.” We crave to continue the condition of living thoughtlessly, of not having to think beyond the span of our own lifetimes, to recognize our debts to the past and our obligations to the future. As the news creeps into our consciousness that we are reaching the upper limits of our ability to extract petroleum—that lifeblood of the modern industrial economy—and from every corner there comes the response, “we will need something to replace it.” Coal, uranium, the rainforests transformed into biofuels—we seek to dig our way out of a deep hole by digging deeper. The last thing we will consider is altering our behavior—because, surely, someone else is at fault. The Oil Companies, the Saudis, Dick Cheney—anyone but me. As Jason Peters has compared this reaction, it’s like heavy traffic. Heavy traffic is always other people. When you say “traffic was terrible” you’re never talking about yourself.

Berry’s basic argument is that we must become more thoughtful about what we are doing. We must seek to understand all the various ways in which we are ourselves complicit in bad work, and seek to avoid that complicity where possible and, better still, do good work instead. He does not advise withdrawal from the world, but full and active engagement in the world. He fully acknowledges that we are technological creatures—to survive and thrive we must use nature. But, Berry reminds us that “we must know both how to use and how to care for what we use.” We are necessarily engaged in a relationship with nature; what is at issue is the form that the relationship will take. At the moment, he writes, our relationship with nature is “dictatorial or totalitarian.” We need something and we take it; we want something and we exploit it. Instead, he writes, the proper relationship with nature is that of a conversation. We would ask of a place what it can offer and what we can offer in return, and listen even as we express our wants. “The conversation itself would thus assume a creaturely life, binding the place and its inhabitants together, changing and growing to no end, no final accomplishment, that can be conceived or foreseen. . . . And if you honor the other party to the conversation, if you honor the otherness of the other party, you understand that you must not expect always to receive a reply that you foresee or that you would like. A conversation is immitigably two-sided and always to some degree mysterious; it requires faith.”

To achieve that good faith that underlies such a conversation, we must overcome our bad faith, especially that bad faith in technology premised on the self-deception that we can continue to live at odds with nature. Rather, in beginning anew a conversation with nature—that permanent negotiation about what it means to be simultaneously creatures of nature and artifice—we must embrace another kind of technology, the technology of culture that is based in local knowledge, that binds the generations, that teaches a proper understanding of limits, and which, in encouraging the virtuosity of good work, allows us to practice virtue not abstractly and humorlessly, but joyfully and harmoniously with nature and our neighbors alike. The ineluctable reality of nature and the inescapable necessity of culture means—in the inimitable words of Peter Lawler—that we are stuck with virtue. The difficult challenge we must now confront is whether enough virtue has stuck. On this score I am not optimistic, but I have hope." -0--Patrick Deneen

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