Holland, MI. I confess: I hate farms. I hate everything about them. I hate the malodorous smells that take days to wash off. I hate the all-pervasive dirt which invades the home and clings to the children. I hate the aggressive, large, noisy and ubiquitous flies. I hate the crickets and their incessant mind-bending suicide-inducing chirping. I hate the mooing of the cattle and the braying of the goats. I hate the sanctimony of farmers, most of whom seem to agree with Jefferson that “Those who labor in the earth are the chosen people of God, if ever He had a chosen people, whose breasts He made his peculiar deposit for substantial and genuine virtue.” I hate intentionally making life more difficult than it has to be. I hate that most farmers would rather listen to bluegrass on the front porch than Beethoven in the concert hall. I hate the sartorial habits associated with farm life. I hate any job where I have to wash my hands before going to the bathroom rather than after.

I come about such hatred honestly. When my dad’s family immigrated to North America after the war, they purchased a farmstead north(!) of Winnipeg. By the time I was born my parents had moved to Michigan, this after years of significant hardship on the farm. Growing up, “the farm” was a term of approbation, synonymous with suffering, stress, want, teeming masses of rats, and economic hardship. “The farm” was what you ran away from in an attempt to better your life and that of your children. In this, the movement of my family seemed to recapitulate that of the species as a whole: to leave the farm for the city. Even the Biblical narrative seems to reflect this, for it begins in a garden and ends in a city. Thus, I have difficulty understanding anyone who intentionally avoids the charms of city life in favor of a country one. (Don’t even get me started on camping.)

Worse: I live in a suburb in a good-sized (and clean!) house that has a large attached garage obscuring much of the front, a small front porch and a large deck in the back. Although my neighbor to the west lives about ten paces away I have had exactly two conversations with him in my five-plus years at this location. My children each have a bedroom of their own, and we have three full baths for five people. I own a gas-powered mower, weedwhacker, and edger, and also have underground sprinkling. I commute about 25 miles one-way to work and have been known to read FPR articles on my blackberry.

I rationalize my aversions on Platonic-Aristotelian claims that any well-ordered city harmonizes disparate elements, including a contemplative one which requires others to do the dirty work of providing for the material necessities of life. Since I fancy myself to contribute to this contemplative element, I am perfectly happy to leave the sod-busting to someone else. Lord, let there be farmers, only let them not be me.

I am, in short, a heretic.

When I first read Wendell Berry I confess to some mixed feelings. For one thing, while I admired the obvious pleasure taken in fixing up a house or planing a board or planting a garden, the character’s pleasure was offset for me by my self-awareness that I never have and likely never will take pleasure in such activities. My wife tends a vegetable garden in our backyard and every time I see it I experience frustration because: a) it messes up my lawn; and, b) that spot would have made a fabulous putting green. I don’t like putzing around the house or working in the soil.

Additionally, Berry’s books seem rigged in extolling the virtues of agrarian life against the vices of city life. It’s as if Berry simply took the best of the former, held it up against the worst of the latter, and then said “you decide.” This struck me as an unfair comparison. In Berry’s world, it would seem, all ambition and desire for progress is destructive, but this without any fair accounting for genuine gains. Port William doesn’t have high infant mortality rates, high mortality rates among mothers in childbirth, high rates of easily curable diseases, lower life expectancies, problems of malnutrition associated with bad crop years, citizens with rotted teeth, or deformed bodies resulting from years of back-breaking labor. It doesn’t have low levels of literacy.

I’m not convinced his female characters are drawn with much sympathy. They seem to be either, like Mattie Chatham, supra-human beatific visions or, like Hannah Coulter, content with their lot in life (difficult as it is), or those who strain against the difficulties of life in Port William, such as Cecelia Overhold, who is portrayed as uppity, haughty, and unreasonable (even if it leads to great one-liners such as “I have always counted being unmarried to Cecelia Overhold as a privilege” and “She thought the human condition was a calculated insult to her personally”). Berry understands the temptations of wanting things better and to have this desire drive our decisions. At the same time, the thrust of his work seems critical of this desire, and this seems especially true of his female characters.

I admire Berry’s sense of scale, his sense of place, his sense of what is lost. Having returned to my hometown after 20 years of academic wandering has reaffirmed for me the importance of an axis mundi and the high costs of estrangement. For years my wife and I puzzled over where we might be buried when we died. That question has now been definitively answered, and the issue highlights a number of consequences resulting from massive social mobility. For us, the issues are complicated because we have returned home in a way that is not quite the case for our children. They do not think of themselves as Michiganders in the way we do. At the same time, they are Catholics in a way we are not, for it is to them not a choice they made later in life but a central part of their identity from the moment they were baptized. This gap exists between me and my children – they have no well-defined sense of place because of the moves we have made – and I wonder what it portends for them and for us.

Add to that the problems that occur when your children go off to college. Whatever the advantages of college life for your children, these are offset in part (from a parental viewpoint) by the realization and fear that once they leave for college, you may never live in the same place with them again. My oldest daughter now goes to college in Ohio, and I lament the distance that now separates us and fear its permanence. It’s not unthinkable that by the time my three children graduate from college I may not live again within a day’s drive of my children and grandchildren.

This sad awareness is deepened by the fact that it is precisely what I did to my parents, oblivious to how they might have felt. They graciously let me go, and I hope I can be as gracious with my children; indeed, I regard attending college as a desirable good for them, despite the costs (and not just monetary). But still, the thought of separation creates a sharp pang of pain and loss. This sense of loss is, as Oakeshott has noted, the essence of the conservative disposition, particularly if one is made aware of the loss without a sense of compensating gains. I find it striking how oblivious we can be to these costs, and also to what we extract from one another.

Leo Strauss has written that the price modern man has paid is oblivion of eternity, but in some ways the problem is even more fundamental than that. We live in a sort of oblivion of everything. Annie Dillard’s famous chapter “Seeing” in Pilgrim at Tinker Creek gets its evocative power from the fact that she has drawn our attention to our own oblivion, not just of eternity, but of the world around us. Our inability to see the natural world results from our distraction, our busyness, our inclination to adopt a stand of mastery and control which renders us unable to see not only the beauty of the natural world, but also its inner dynamism, the integrity of its structure, and its movement toward its own fulfillment.

So also our lives in the social world. We’ve become so distracted that we only with great difficulty see the integrity and destiny of those with whom we share a common life, a problem made worse by the constant expanding of the commons (one of the problems with the cosmopolitan temptation). We’ve also become so focused on individual autonomy that we’ve fallen for the seductions of mobility, opportunity, self-improvement, and choosing our own path often to the detriment of those who love us most.

In Civilization and Its Discontents Freud remarks that it was difficult for him to celebrate the virtues of the telephone which made it possible for him to talk to his brother across the ocean, without at the same time complaining about the ship that moved him half a world away to begin with. All too often we are dazzled by what has been made possible without reflecting on the changes that made the possible necessary. Berry forces us to consider such things, and in the process makes us aware of the high costs we have paid for progress and emancipation.

At the sane time, an accounting of the losses of modern life laid against the genuine gains remains elusive. I’m not sure if, given the choice with the sweep of history in front of me, I would choose a century or place other than the 20th Century west, and I’m even more inclined to think I wouldn’t choose anything else for my daughters. Conversely, I’m not convinced that this history has yet played itself out, and that any full reckoning remains which might get me to reconsider. Gregg Easterbrook argues that The Progress Paradox results from the material condition of the average person in the contemporary west is better than it has ever been, but the average person isn’t really any happier. Among the problematic assumptions in the book, however, are the claim that individuals are the best judges of their own happiness, and that there is or ought to be an intrinsic link between material well-being and happiness. Neither are self-evident. Are we in der Untergang des Abendlandes? My gut says yes (evidence: Obama winning the Nobel Peace Prize: “When small men cast long shadows, then you know the sun is setting”) even if my heart says no. My head is undecided.

Capitalism, as we typically understand it, is a subspecies of modernity, and any accounting of its problems ought to include an accounting of the genuine accomplishments modernity and capitalism have given to the species, why their appeal runs so deeply, and an accounting of the technological advances that have produced demonstrable goods in human life. Modernity is not simply a movement of self-apotheosis, or renewed gnosticism, or scientific aggrandizement. Nor is it simply, on the affirmative side, simply the story of human progress and emancipation. Whether modernity has effected a genuine epochal shift or a shift in emphasis seems to me still a very live philosophical question. I’m not convinced that the condition of modern (or postmodern) man is essentially different than that of his predecessors. How thoroughly economic and technological changes alter the human condition or human consciousness still requires careful investigation.

This semester I am teaching Ancient and Medieval Political Thought, and I am struck anew by both the discontinuities and continuities between the ages. I have to do some serious reorienting with my students, getting them to recognize that ancient writers meant something very different by terms such as “nature,” “equality,” “democracy,” and “justice” than we typically do. I point out to them that if MacIntyre is right, that every moral theory presupposes a sociology (and I’m not convinced he is), then the ethical thinking of the ancient world is nearly inaccessible to us. At the same time, in the class we see how many of our contemporary problems are simply the perennial problems of the human condition. The fact that my students and I are able to engage such issues suggests that modernity might not be as cataclysmic a change as we often think.

In the next two installments of this essay, I propose to write about capitalism and then technology in an attempt better to understand how we might assess their relative claims and the ways in which they have reshaped our lives. In the process I hope to demonstrate that the condition of modern man is precarious in all sorts of ways, but this does not necessarily constitute a problem sui generis. Writing such an essay involves fully facing the difficulty of living in an age where we enjoy the fruits of the very things about which we complain, or at least express concern. So I’m largely motivated by the question of how we can think about these things in a way that neither hypocritical nor self-serving. As far as I’m concerned, that’s not an easy task.

Local Culture
Local Culture
Local Culture
Local Culture
Previous articleJib Jab on Big Box Mart
Next articleFrank Rich Slams Harvard
Jeffrey Polet
Jeffrey Polet grew up in an immigrant household in the immigrant town of Holland MI. After twenty years of academic wandering he returned to Holland and now teaches political science at Hope College, where he also grudgingly serves as chair of the department, having unsuccessfully evaded all requests. In the interim, he continues to nurture quirky beliefs: Division III basketball is both athletically and morally superior to Division I; the Hope/Calvin rivalry is the greatest in sports; the lecture is still the best form of classroom instruction; never buy a car with less than 100,000 miles on it; putts will still lip out in heaven; bears are the incarnation of evil; Athens actually has something to do with Jerusalem; and Tombstone is a cinematic classic. His academic work has mirrored his peripatetic career. Originally trained at the Catholic University of America in German philosophy and hermeneutical theory, he has since gravitated to American Political Thought. He still occasionally writes about European thinkers such as Michel Foucault or the great Max Weber, but mostly is interested in the relationship between theological reflection and political formation in the American context. In the process of working on a book on John Marshall for The Johns Hopkins University Press, he became more sensitive to the ways in which centralized decision-making undid local communities and autonomy. He has also written on figures such as William James and the unjustly neglected Swedish novelist Paer Lagerkvist. A knee injury and arthritis eliminated daily basketball playing, and he now spends his excess energy annoying his saintly wife and their three children, two of whom are off to college. Expressions of sympathy for the one who remains can be posted in the comments section. He doesn’t care too much for movies, but thinks opera is indeed the Gesamtkuntswerk, that the music of Gustav Mahler is as close as human beings get to expressing the ineffable, that God listens to Mozart in his spare time, and that Bach is history’s greatest genius.


  1. As a city boy, born in the heart of Manhattan, I share many sentiments with the author. Cities are exciting; cities are where history–and culture and education and art–happen. I have no desire to take up farming.

    And yet I am an agrarian.

    How do I reconcile my attitude and Jeffrey’s? I believe that agrarianism, properly understood, is not about getting everybody “back” to the farm, but about re-establishing the proper relationship between town and country. It is also about re-localizing the economy to its most local unit, the home. In order to have strong cities, you must have strong farms, and the proper relationship between them. The townies must eat the bread of the country people, so that those who love their city will love the country that supports it. And those who love their farm will love the town that provides the farmer with a ready market.

    As for technology and modernism, note that the so-called “industrial revolution” is really the resumption of a revolution that had been suspended by the Reformation and the resulting disorder in Europe. Indeed, medieval man believed that he lived in a marvelous age of machinery and invention, which in fact he did. In the Doomsday book (1086), there were recorded 5,600 mills in Norman England, which was not yet the whole of England. And the uses of the mills were expanding at a rapid rate. Technology was advancing in every field. I advise reading Jean Gimpel’s The Medieval Machine on this topic.

  2. Jeffrey,

    First, this is a fine essay; thanks very much for sharing it. I have some comments, but I think I may wait until you have posted the other parts, so I can better appreciate the ideas you’re developing.

    Second, embarrassing as it may be, I think I’ve only just placed you: you graduated from Catholic U. a few years before I arrived there, and wrote a dissertation that I liberally quoted from in several papers I wrote for David Walsh and Steve Schneck. It has the distinction of being the longest dissertation I’ve ever seen (two whole volumes, right?).

    Third, I believe I have unintentionally brought you under Caleb Stegall’s condemnation. My apologies.

  3. Russell,

    I consider it an honor to be bathed in such acid, and I can appreciate a really well-wrought and passionate insult. Besides, you aren’t responsible; I did it to myself.

    The idea for this essay began in a conversation I had with Mark Mitchell down in NM this past summer. It’s all very rough, sort of an exercise in thinking something through.

    We’ll have to compare our CUA notes some day. I did work quite a bit with Walsh and Schneck. David and I have remained good friends to this day. You quoted a dissertation on Gadamer? What sins did you commit that made this relevant to your work?

  4. Heh. I wrote my dissertation on Herder. Philosophical hermeneutics all the way, baby!

    David and I were never particularly close, though I have a lot of fondness for him. Steve was my advisor; I owe much of what was good about my CUA years to him. We’ve remained friends since those days. Supposedly we’re working on a book on Fred Dallmayr together, though there hasn’t been much movement on that front for a while. Steve occasionally blogs at the Catholics in Alliance website; here’s a post he wrote just last week on subsidiarity and health care. Good stuff.

  5. Steve was also my advisor, and he was a great choice, not only because of his facility in the field but also because of his generosity and tolerance. He never tried to impose his views on me. Unfortunately, we’ve sort of lost touch with each other. I have warm memories for the time we spent together.

  6. Jeffrey,

    Your flippant anti-agrarian rant is prompting me to make my first comment here at FPR….

    After reading the first part of this essay and your bio, it occurs to me that you epitomize modern industrialized man: You have utter disdain for manual labor and those people who “labor in the earth.” You are addicted to vacuous modern amusements (i.e., organized sports). And you are completely dependent on the Industrial Providers for all your needs in life. In short, you are what I would call a typical helpless modern. And, amazingly (to me), you are content with this artificial way of life.

    As one who loves the soil (“dirt” to you), working with my hands, and the thrill of living an agrarian-based, subsistence lifestyle, the industrially-subservient views you express here strike me as terribly boring.

    (no offense intended)

  7. Jeffery, this is an excellent essay and much enjoyed, though I had to read it a couple of times to get the ‘tone.’ I do appreciate your ‘urban’ position, and that touch of nuanced sarcasm (one acquires that, it can’t be learned) and as far as I’m concerned, ‘have at it.’ It’s about freedom and folks with your grasp of Berryism, Christianity, and the better life are, as far as I’m concerned, welcomed to the ranks of those of us who criticize modernity. Besides we can stay with you when we go to the city for ‘supplies.’
    My guess is you’ll be beaten about the head and shoulders with the cudgel of Wendellian righteousness but stand strong, Wendell would probably be smiling about all of this anyway.
    Anyone who went to CUA and had David Walsh as a philosophy teacher and actually passed the class, has already had a gifted life. Did you have Mgsr. Sokolowski?
    Looking forward to your next essays and hope to make a snarky comment or two!

  8. One need not feel the calling to farm to be an agrarian, just as one need not feel the calling to enter a monastery to be an ascetic.

    Although I know I’d enjoy rural, small-town life, I couldn’t see myself as a farmer. I don’t think I’m disciplined enough. Yet I consider myself an agrarian because I’m convinced that as the farms go, so goes the country.

  9. At first I wondered at your moral disorder, then saw that Beethoven was your muse and it became clear.

    Seriously, I rather enjoyed the essay for its lucid outline of the first onset of a vague uneasiness that long vanquished agrarianism presents to the victorious suburbanite; though you yield no ground, it is a good sign (to us agrarians)that you feel the urge to push back.

    Berry is, per force, a harsh tonic to modern sensibilities; he must be, for there is no authentic agrarian culture in America any more. It has been completely and utterly destroyed by… well, let us not cast stones.

    Berry may be some sort of modern Roland; what is unclear to me is whether the Suburbanites are the Saracen or whether your essay signals the faint stirrings of change responding to Berry’s horn – however reluctant.

    But here is the real question: at what cost to cities has been the destruction of the villages?

    As John notes above, the Cities are dependent upon the proper functioning of the countryside; it sustains them physically, spiritually and artistically; it has ever been thus.

    York was great in so far as it was the epitome of Yorkshire; New York has not a shire to sustain it; it is a thing cut off – in more ways than one.

  10. Marchmaine-

    Your statement that there is no authentic agrarian culture left in America intrigues me. Surely the industrial revolution has reshaped Western culture in its own image, destroying traditional agri-culture. But what of the Amish? Is their culture authentic agrarian culture? Or is it perhaps just the closest thing still remaining?

    I’m left wondering what authentic agrarian culture really is. I suppose it means different things to different people. Personally, I’m an agrarian-minded person and my life revolves around agrarian activities (though I am not a farmer). I take my agrarianism seriously. I am a “deliberate” agrarian. To the extent that I live out my agrarian ideals, I think my life is authentically agrarian. It’s not old fashioned agrarian culture but it is agrarian culture nonetheless. No?

  11. Herrick, how dare you call out my com-box hyperbole… 🙂

    Regarding any one person’s Agrarian state of grace, I can only poorly echo St. Jean: If you are not an agrarian I pray the Lord make you one, and if you are an agrarian I pray the Lord keep you one.

    As to whether a good agrarian can consider himself part of an agrarian culture, I feel I am on stronger ground to declare that no, one agrarian does not a culture make. (must be my day to abuse the words of others).

    I’m certain we can’t adequately plumb the depths of what constitutes culture in com-boxes, but I doubt I’m far off if I suggest that culture is like good soil. Dirt is everywhere and even a good plant may flourish in dirt, but good Soil is rare and when it is abused and gone, impossible to create in less than a lifetime. So judging by your excellent blog, it would seem you are a fine (heroic?) plant but you are growing in dirt.

    I hope (and occasionally search) for an agrarian culture in America; but until I see some sort of Pilgrimage of Grace emanating from Atchison, KS (and we all know how well that went) I’ll stand by my original hyperbole.

    Finally, two thoughts about the Amish
    1. They may indeed be MacIntyre’s St. Benedict… if only for the fact that they may save humanity solely by teaching us how to use horses in agriculture again.
    2. I hope I may coin a new internet law: “As an Usenet discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving the Amish approaches 1.

  12. Glad to see someone called Marchmaine on his claim that there is no longer any “authentic” agrarian culture left in the lapsed republic. One does not even have to restrict one’s search to the Amish to see it…..It’s even found in crowded Connecticut . Like much of life, even within suburban life, there is authenticity to be found everywhere. The principle mistake we make in this era of “modernity”…this era of the technocrats vicarious agora is to believe that the so-called “popular culture” is an authentic culture. It isn’t …it aint even a qualified simulacrum. It is packaged and programmed entertainment and it is symptomatic of the relentless dissection and caricature that exists within so called “modernity”. Check the boxes, buy the ticket, take the ride. Got a problem? Fill out this form.

    One does not have to chose between city and country, they are part of a continuum that cannot fully exist without both within a productive human ecology. Suburbs , the mirage….the compromise…they have done a lot to spark the false provincial wars between the city and country. Perhaps it has done so due to its creeping realization that far from gaining the best of both worlds, it has created the worst of both worlds and done so in the longest running misallocation of resources in human history. Needless to say, the suburbs are the main event of the vicarious agora.

    I don’t know which I like better, standing in the middle of Brooklyn’s Atlantic Avenue during the Atlantic Antic and hearing a call to prayer to the mosque while a Mexican vendor feeds me roasted corn in front of a Belarusian church or swatting flies as I buy raw milk from a farm with mud on my pants from playing in the country dirt in the foothills of the Berkshires.

    We were once a Republic with an agrarian and independent sensibility that aptly informed a messy community. Like others say, urbanity is never exclusive of the agrarian nor vice versa. It is not required that we choose. However, if we do choose, this too can be realized ….but a full stomach can only long be preserved in country. But if you think only a full stomach will keep you sated and that you can live without the dynamic possibilities of the city, this too can be achieved but it comes at a cost.

    We must love where we live for it to hold its meaning and a healthy social construct. Unfortunately, since the 1960’s the perceived reality of the country has been overtaken by an essentially shoddy construction of caricatured houses, Within vast tracts of the country, one cannot detect either regional identity…or historical presence….a feeling of connection to past…and therefore future. In much of suburbia, its built expression, not its people …there is little to love. The problem that confronts us is the people are beginning to believe their built environment.

  13. Marchmaine-

    Sorry for my lack of manners. I was more affected by Jeffrey’s hyperbole. Your terminology just got me to thinking.

    Though I’m not a Catholic I must say that I greatly appreciate those words of St. Jean. Thanks for sharing them. 😉

    As part of my government school education I was required to learn the definition of “culture” in my 9th grade social studies class. The teacher told us that learning this definition was the single most important thing we were to learn in his class that year….

    == Culture is the total way of life of a given people at a given time, as passed down from generation to generation.

    But I like your definition and analogy better.

    I do, however, think that there is an agrarian sub-culture remnant that functions in loose community in many areas of the country. Even here where I live in central New York state (of all places!) there are a lot of like-minded rural folks and families who delight in working to raise much of their own food, providing for their basic needs with their own hands as much as they can, and living very simply. Some do this out of economic necessity. Others do it because they see the wisdom of it.

    By the way, I am impressed with your web site and guild. Very nice.

Comments are closed.