Executive Times






2006 Book Reviews


The Way of Ignorance by Wendell Berry








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For a respite from the bombast and arrogance from many commentators, enjoy the 19 essays of Wendell Berry’s latest collection, The Way of Ignorance. With humility, clarity, and fine prose, Berry nudges readers to think about society and our common life in new ways. Here’s an excerpt, all of the essay titled, “Rugged Individualism,” pp. 9-11:


The career of rugged individualism in America has run mostly to absurdity, tragic or comic. But it also has done us a certain amount of good. There was a streak of it in Thoreau, who went alone to jail in protest against the Mexican War. And that streak has continued in his successors who have suffered penalties for civil disobedience because of their perception that the law and the government were not always or necessarily right. This is individualism of a kind rugged enough, and it has been authenticated typ­ically by its identification with a communal good.

The tragic version of rugged individualism is in the presumptive “right” of individuals to do as they please, as if there were no God, no legitimate government, no community, no neighbors, and no posterity. This is most frequently understood as the right to do whatever one pleases with one’s property. One’s property, according to this formulation, is one’s own absolutely.

Rugged individualism of this kind has cost us dearly in lost topsoil, in destroyed forests, in the increasing toxicity of the world, and in annihilated species. When property rights become absolute they are invariably destructive, for then they are used to justify not only the abuse of things of permanent value for the temporary benefit of legal owners, but also the appropriation and abuse of things to which the would-be owners have no rights at all, but which can belong only to the public or to the entire com­munity of living creatures: the atmosphere, the water cycle, wilderness, ecosystems, the possibility of life.

This is made worse when great corporations are granted the status of “persons,” who then can also become rugged individuals, insisting on their right to do whatever they please with their property. Because of the over­whelming wealth and influence of these “persons,” the elected representa­tives and defenders of “the people of the United States” become instead the representatives and defenders of the corporations.

It has become ever more clear that this sort of individualism has never proposed or implied any protection of the rights of all individuals, but instead has promoted a ferocious scramble in which more and more of the rights of “the people” have been gathered into the ownership of fewer and fewer of the greediest and most powerful “persons.”

I have described so far what most of us would identify as the rugged in­dividualism of the political right. Now let us have a look at the left. The rugged individualism of the left believes that an individual’s body is a pro­perty belonging to that individual absolutely: The owners of bodies may, by right, use them as they please, as if there were no God, no legitimate gov­ernment, no community, no neighbors, and no posterity. This supposed right is manifested in the democratizing of “sexual liberation”; in the pop­ular assumption that marriage has been “privatized” and so made subor­dinate to the wishes of individuals; in the proposition that the individual is “autonomous”; in the legitimation of abortion as birth control—in the denial, that is to say, that the community, the family, one’s spouse, or even one’s own soul might exercise a legitimate proprietary interest in the use one makes of one’s body. And this too is tragic, for it sets us “free” from responsibility and thus from the possibility of meaning. It makes unintel­ligible the self-sacrifice that sent Thoreau to jail.

The comedy begins when these two rugged (or “autonomous”) individ­ualisms confront each other. Conservative individualism strongly sup­ports “family values” and abominates lust. But it does not dissociate itself from the profits accruing from the exercise of lust (and, in fact, of the other six deadly sins), which it encourages in its advertisements. The “conserva­tives” of our day understand pride, lust, envy, anger, covetousness, glut­tony, and sloth as virtues when they lead to profit or to political power. Only as unprofitable or unauthorized personal indulgences do they rank as sins, imperiling salvation of the soul, family values, and national security.

Liberal individualism, on the contrary, understands sin as a private mat­ter. It strongly supports protecting “the environment,” which is that part of the world which surrounds, at a safe distance, the privately-owned body. “The environment” does not include the economic landscapes of agricul­ture and forestry or their human communities, and it does not include the privately-owned bodies of other people—all of which appear to have been bequeathed in fee simple to the corporate individualists.

Conservative rugged individualists and liberal rugged individualists believe alike that they should be “free” to get as much as they can of what­ever they want. Their major doctrinal difference is that they want (some of the time) different sorts of things.

“Every man for himself” is a doctrine for a feeding frenzy or for a panic in a burning nightclub, appropriate for sharks or hogs or perhaps a cascade of lemmings. A society wishing to endure must speak the language of care­taking, faith-keeping, kindness, neighborliness, and peace. That language is another precious resource that cannot be “privatized.”



Berry pierces through the rhetoric and examines the underlying themes. With clarity and precision, he proposes alternatives. Each of the essays in The Way of Ignorance will lead readers to thinking more about the issues facing all of us as we try to live together and act responsibility for the common good. Fans of Berry will enjoy every essay. Those new to him can appreciate his precision is these small doses.


Steve Hopkins, October 25, 2006



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The recommendation rating for this book appeared

 in the November 2006 issue of Executive Times


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