Great Throughts Treasury

A database of quotes

Wendell Berry

American Man of Letters, Academic, Cultural and Economic Critic, Farmer and Author of Novels, Short Stories, Poems and Essays

"We cannot hope to be secure when our government has declared, by its readiness "to act alone," its willingness to be everybody's enemy."

"We cannot know the whole truth, which belongs to God alone, but our task nevertheless is to seek to know what is true. And if we offend gravely enough against what we know to be true, as by failing badly enough to deal affectionately and responsibly with our land and our neighbors, truth will retaliate with ugliness, poverty, and disease."

"We cling in our public life to a brutal hypocrisy. In our century of almost universal violence of humans against fellow humans, and against our natural and cultural commonwealth, hypocrisy has been inescapable because our opposition to violence has been selective or merely fashionable. Some of us who approve of our monstrous military budget and our peacekeeping wars nonetheless deplore “domestic violence” and think that our society can be pacified by “gun control.” Some of us are against capital punishment but for abortion. Some of us are against abortion but for capital punishment."

"We could say that the human race is a great co-authorship in which we are collaborating with God and nature in the making of ourselves and one another. From this there is no escape. We may collaborate either well or poorly or we may refuse to collaborate, but even to refuse to collaborate is to exert an influence and to affect the quality of the product. This is only a way of saying that by ourselves we have no meaning and no dignity; by ourselves we are outside the human definition, outside our identity."

"We clasp the hands of those that go before us, And the hands of those who come after us. We enter the little circle of each other's arms And the larger circle of lovers, Whose hands are joined in a dance, And the larger circle of all creatures, Passing in and out of life, Who move also in a dance, To a music so subtle and vast that no ear hears it Except in fragments"

"We could lose, and I think we need to face that. I was speaking in Nebraska the other day and a very intelligent man came up afterward and said in a very kind and intelligent way, Of course you know you may be fighting a losing battle. And I answered, I’ve known for 30 years that I may be fighting a losing battle. The question to me is not whether I’m going to win or not, but whether I’m going to fight or not."

"We do not need to plan or devise a world of the future; if we take care of the world of the present, the future will have received full justice from us. A good future is implicit in the soils, forests, grasslands, marshes, deserts, mountains, rivers, lakes, and oceans that we have now, and in the good things of human culture that we have now; the only valid futurology available to us is to take care of those things. We have no need to contrive and dabble at the future of the human race; we have the same pressing need that we have always had - to love, care for, and teach our children."

"We had entered an era of limitlessness, or the illusion thereof, and this in itself is a sort of wonder. My grandfather lived a life of limits, both suffered and strictly observed, in a world of limits. I learned much of that world from him and others, and then I changed; I entered the world of labor-saving machines and of limitless cheap fossil fuel. It would take me years of reading, thought, and experience to learn again that in this world limits are not only inescapable but indispensable."

"We have always had to have ‘a good reason’ for doing away with small operators, and in modern times the good reason has often been sanitation, for which there is apparently no small or cheap technology."

"We have lived by the assumption that what was good for us would be good for the world. And this has been based on the even flimsier assumption that we could know with any certainty what was good even for us. We have fulfilled the danger of this by making our personal pride and greed the standard of our behavior toward the world - to the incalculable disadvantage of the world and every living thing in it. And now, perhaps very close to too late, our great error has become clear. It is not only our own creativity - our own capacity for life - that is stifled by our arrogant assumption; the creation itself is stifled. We have been wrong. We must change our lives, so that it will be possible to live by the contrary assumption that what is good for the world will be good for us. And that requires that we make the effort to know the world and to learn what is good for it. We must learn to cooperate in its processes, and to yield to its limits. But even more important, we must learn to acknowledge that the creation is full of mystery; we will never entirely understand it. We must abandon arrogance and stand in awe. We must recover the sense of the majesty of creation, and the ability to be worshipful in its presence. For I do not doubt that it is only on the condition of humility and reverence before the world that our species will be able to remain in it."

"We have become blind to the alternatives to violence. This involves us in a sort of official madness, in which, while following what seems to be a perfect logic of self-defense and detterence, we commit one absurdity after another: We seek to preserve peace by fighting a war, or to advance freedom by subsidizing dictatorships, or to "win the hearts and minds of the people" by poisoning their crops and burning their villages and confining them in concentration camps; we seek to uphold the "truth" of our cause with lies, or to answer conscientious dissent with threats and slurs and intimidations. … I have come to the realization that I can no longer imagine a war that I would believe to be either useful or necessary. I would be against any war."

"We have forgotten that Vietnam, and Iraq resent being invaded and know the ground better than we do."

"We have reached a point at which we must either consciously desire and choose and determine the future of the earth or submit to such an involvement in our destructiveness that the earth, and ourselves with it, must certainly be destroyed. And we have come to this at a time when it is hard, if not impossible, to foresee a future that is not terrifying."

"We have made it our overriding ambition to escape work, and as a consequence have debased work until it is only fit to escape from. We have debased the products of work and have been, in turn, debased by them."

"We know enough of our own history by now to be aware that people exploit what they have merely concluded to be of value, but they defend what they love. To defend what we love we need a particularizing language, for we love what we particularly know."

"We haven't accepted — we can't really believe — that the most characteristic product of our age of scientific miracles is junk, but that is so. And we still think and behave as though we face an unspoiled continent, with thousands of acres of living space for every man. We still sing "America the Beautiful" as though we had not created in it, by strenuous effort, at great expense, and with dauntless self-praise, an unprecedented ugliness."

"We live beyond words, as also we live beyond computation and beyond theory."

"We need better government, no doubt about it. But we also need better minds, better friendships, better marriages, better communities."

"We need to confront honestly the issue of scale. Bigness has a charm and a drama that are seductive, especially to politicians and financiers; but bigness promotes greed, indifference, and damage, and often bigness is not necessary. You may need a large corporation to run an airline or to manufacture cars, but you don’t need a large corporation to raise a chicken or a hog. You don’t need a large corporation to process local food or local timber and market it locally."

"We walked always in beauty, it seemed to me. We walked and looked about, or stood and looked. Sometimes, less often, we would sit down. We did not often speak. The place spoke for us and was a kind of speech. We spoke to each other in the things we saw."

"We learn from our gardens to deal with the most urgent question of the time: How much is enough?"

"We still (sometimes) remember that we cannot be free if our minds and voices are controlled by someone else. But we have neglected to understand that we cannot be free if our food and its sources are controlled by someone else. The condition of the passive consumer of food is not a democratic condition. One reason to eat responsibly is to live free."

"We're a pretty bad species in a lot of ways and in other ways a pretty good one. We can become a warrior civilization and live by piracy; on the other hand, we're capable of lovingkindness, of genuine affection, of generosity, of friendship, of peaceability, of forgiveness and gratitude.... The serious question is whether you're going to become a warrior community and live by piracy, by taking what you need from other people. I think the only antidote to that is imagination. You have to develop your imagination to the point that permits sympathy to happen. You have to be able to imagine lives that are not yours or the lives of your loved ones or the lives of your neighbors. You have to have at least enough imagination to understand that if you want the benefits of compassion, you must be compassionate. If you want forgiveness you must be forgiving. It's a difficult business, being human."

"We weren't allowing our hopes to become expectations. Expectations are tempting, pleasant, maybe necessary. They are scary too, once you have had some experience. They are not necessarily and not always a bucket of smoke, but they can be and are even likely to be."

"We're members of each other — all of us — everything. The difference is not whether you are or not, but whether you know you are or not. Because we're all under each other's influence. We're all are affected by one another's others’ lives and decisions. And there is no escape from this membership."

"We're living, it seems, in the culmination of a long warfare — warfare against human beings, other creatures and the Earth itself."

"What could be more absurd, to begin with, than our attitude of high moral outrage against other nations for manufacturing the selfsame weapons that we manufacture? The difference, as our leaders say, is that we will use these weapons virtuously, whereas our enemies will use them maliciously — a proposition that too readily conforms to a proposition of much less dignity: we will use them in our interest, whereas our enemies will use them in theirs."

"What can turn us from this deserted future, back into the sphere of our being, the great dance that joins us to our home, to each other and to other creatures, to the dead and unborn? I think it is love. I am perforce aware how baldly and embarrassingly that word now lies on the page—for we have learned at once to overuse it, abuse it, and hold it in suspicion. But I do not mean any kind of abstract love (adolescent, romantic, or religious), which is probably a contradiction in terms, but particular love for particular things, places, creatures, and people, requiring stands, acts, showing its successes and failures in practical or tangible effects. And it implies a responsibility just as particular, not grim or merely dutiful, but rising out of generosity. I think that this sort of love defines the effective range of human intelligence, the range within its works can be dependably beneficent. Only the action that is moved by love for the good at hand has the hope of being responsible and generous. Desire for the future produces words that cannot be stood by. But love makes language exact, because one loves only what one knows."

"What could be more superstitious than the idea that money brings forth food?"

"What can't be helped must be endured."

"What I stand for is what I stand on."

"What good did I get from it? I got to have love in my heart."

"What works poorly in agriculture — monoculture, for instance, or annual accounting — can be pretty fully explained, because what works poorly is invariably some oversimplifying thought that subjugated nature, people, and culture. What works well ultimately defies explanation because it involves an order that in both magnitude and complexity is ultimately incomprehensible."

"What we do need to worry about is the possibility that we will be reduced, in the face of the enormities of our time, to silence or to mere protest."

"What I know of spirit is a stir in the world. The god I have always expected to appear at the woods' edge, beckoning, I have always expected to be a great relisher of this world, its good grown immortal in his mind."

"What marriage offers - and what fidelity is meant to protect - is the possibility of moments when what we have chosen and what we desire are the same. Such a convergence obviously cannot be continuous. No relationship can continue very long at its highest emotional pitch. But fidelity prepares us for the return of these moments, which give us the highest joy we can know; that of union, communion, atonement (in the root sense of at-one-ment)... To forsake all others does not mean - because it cannot mean - to ignore or neglect all others, to hide or be hidden from all others, or to desire or love no others. To live in marriage is a responsible way to live in sexuality, as to live in a household is a responsible way to live in the world. One cannot enact or fulfill one's love for womankind or mankind, or even for all the women or men to whom one is attracted. If one is to have the power and delight of one's sexuality, then the generality of instinct must be resolved in a responsible relationship to a particular person. Similarly, one cannot live in the world; that is, one cannot become, in the easy, generalizing sense with which the phrase is commonly used, a world citizen. There can be no such think as a global village. No matter how much one may love the world as a whole, one can live fully in it only by living responsibly in some small part of it. Where we live and who we live there with define the terms of our relationship to the world and to humanity. We thus come again to the paradox that one can become whole only by the responsible acceptance of one's partiality."

"When despair for the world grows in me and I wake in the night at the least sound in fear of what my life and my children's lives may be, I go and lie down where the wood drake rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds. I come into the peace of wild things who do not tax their lives with forethought of grief. I come into the presence of still water. And I feel above me the day-blind stars waiting with their light. For a time I rest in the grace of the world, and am free. But even in the much-publicized rebellion of the young against the materialism of the affluent society, the consumer mentality is too often still intact: the standards of behavior are still those of kind and quantity, the security sought is still the security of numbers, and the chief motive is still the consumer's anxiety that he is missing out on what is in. In this state of total consumerism - which is to say a state of helpless dependence on things and services and ideas and motives that we have forgotten how to provide ourselves - all meaningful contact between ourselves and the earth is broken. We do not understand the earth in terms either of what it offers us or of what it requires of us, and I think it is the rule that people inevitably destroy what they do not understand."

"When the possessions and households of citizens are no longer honored by the acts, as well as the principles, of their government, then the concentration camp ceases to be one of the possibilities of human nature and becomes one of its likelihoods."

"When you are old you can look back and see yourself when you are young. It is almost like looking down from heaven. And you see yourself as a young woman, just a big girl really, half-awake to the world. You see yourself happy, holding in your arms a good, decent, gentle, beloved young man with the blood keen in his veins, who before long is going to disappear, just disappear, into a storm of hate and flying metal and fire. And you just don't know it."

"When you are new at sheep-raising and your ewe has a lamb, your impulse is to stay there and help it nurse and see to it and all. After a while you know that the best thing you can do is walk out of the barn."

"When people learn to preserve the richness of the land that God has given them and the rights to enjoy the fruits of their own labors then will be the time when all shall have meat in the smokehouse corn in the crib and time to go to the election."

"When going back makes sense, you are going ahead."

"Whether we and our politicians know it or not, Nature is party to all our deals and decisions, and she has more votes, a longer memory, and a sterner sense of justice than we do."

"Where is our comfort but in the free, uninvolved, finally mysterious beauty and grace of this world that we did not make, that has no price? Where is our sanity but there? Where is our pleasure but in working and resting kindly in the presence of this world?"

"While the wickedness of the flesh was preached from the pulpit, the young husbands and wives and the courting couples sat thigh to thigh, full of yearning and joy, and the old people thought of the beauty of the children. And when church was over they would go home to Heavenly dinners of fried chicken, it might be, and creamed new potatoes and creamed new peas and hot biscuits and butter and cherry pie and sweet milk and buttermilk. And the preacher and his family would always be invited to eat with somebody and they would always go, and the preacher, having just foresworn on behalf of everybody the joys of the flesh, would eat with unconsecrated relish."

"While the government is studying and funding and organizing its ‘Big Thought’, nothing is being done. But the citizen who is willing to ‘Think Little’, and, accepting the discipline of that, to go ahead on his own, is already solving the problem. A man who is trying to live as a neighbor to his neighbors will have a lively and practical understanding of the work of peace and brotherhood, and let there be no mistake about it - he is doing that work... A man who is willing to undertake the discipline and the difficulty of mending his own ways is worth more to the conservation movement than a hundred who are insisting merely that the government and the industries mend their ways."

"Why do farmers farm, given their economic adversities on top of the many frustrations and difficulties normal to farming? And always the answer is: "Love. They must do it for love." Farmers farm for the love of farming. They love to watch and nurture the growth of plants. They love to live in the presence of animals. They love to work outdoors. They love the weather, maybe even when it is making them miserable. They love to live where they work and to work where they live. If the scale of their farming is small enough, they like to work in the company of their children and with the help of their children. They love the measure of independence that farm life can still provide. I have an idea that a lot of farmers have gone to a lot of trouble merely to be self-employed to live at least a part of their lives without a boss."

"Why have they [land-grant colleges] watched in silence the destruction of the markets of the small producers of poultry, eggs, butter, cream, and milk—once the mainstays of the small-farm economy?"

"Why should conservationists have a positive interest in... farming? There are lots of reasons, but the plainest is: Conservationists eat."

"Why have they never studied or questioned the necessity or the justice of the sanitation laws that have been used to destroy such markets?"