Mendo Island Journal — Timely. Useful. Sometimes Cranky.

The Practicality of Morals – Wendell Berry

In Books on August 25, 2009 at 7:09 am

A Continuous Harmony (1972)

August 25, 2009 Ukiah Valley, Mendocino, North California

…there is only one value: the life and health of the world. If there is only one value, it follows that conflicts of value are illusory, based upon perceptual error. Moral, practical, spiritual, esthetic, economic, and ecological values are all concerned ultimately with the same question of life and health. To the virtuous man, for example, practical and spiritual values are identical; it is only corruption that can see a difference. Esthetic value is always associated with sound values of other kinds. “Beauty is truth, truth beauty,” Keats said, and I think we may take him at his word. Or to say the same thing in a different way: beauty is wholeness; it is health in the ecological sense of amplitude and balance. And ecology is long-term economics. If these identities are not apparent immediately, they are apparent in time. Time is the merciless, infallible critic of the specialized disciplines. In the ledgers that justify waste the ink is turning red.

Moral value, as should be obvious, is not separable from other values. An adequate morality would be ecologically sound; it would be esthetically pleasing. But the point I want to stress here is that it wold be practical. Morality is long-term practicality.

Of all specialists the moralists are the worst, and the processes of disintegration and specialization that have characterized us for generations have made moralists of us all. We have obscured and weakened morality, first, by advocating it for its own sake—that is, by deifying it, as esthetes have deified art—and then, as our capacity for reverence has diminished, by allowing it to become merely decorative, a matter of etiquette.

What we have forgotten is the origin of morality in fact and circumstance; we have forgotten that the nature of morality is essentially practical. Moderation and restraint, for example, are necessary, not because of any religious commandment or any creed or code, but because they are among the assurances of good health and a sufficiency of goods. Likewise, discipline is necessary if the necessary work is to be done; also if we are to know transport, transcendence, joy. Loyalty, devotion, faith, self-denial are not ethereal virtues, but the concrete terms upon which the possibility of love is kept alive in this world. Morality is neither ethereal nor arbitrary; it is the definition of what is humanly possible, and it is the definition of the penalties for violating human possibility. A person who violates human limits is punished or he prepares a punishment for his successors, not necessarily because of any divine or human law, but because he has transgressed the order of things. A live and adequate morality is an accurate perception of the order of things, and of humanity’s place in it. By clarifying the human limits, morality tells us what we risk when we forsake the human to behave like false gods or like animals…

The Spring of Hope

We have come to expect too much from outside ourselves. If we are in despair or unhappy or uncomfortable, our first impulse is to assume that this cannot be our fault; our second is to assume that some institution is not doing its duty. We are in the curious position of expecting from others what we can only supply ourselves. One of the confucian ideals is that the “archer, when he misses the bullseye, turns and seeks the cause of the error in himself.”

Goodness, wisdom, happiness, even physical comfort, are not institutional conditions. Institutions may perhaps promote them somewhat, but only negatively, by not interfering with them. The real sources of hope are personal and spiritual, not public and political. A man is not happy by the dispensation of his government or by the fortune of his age. He is happy only in doing well what is in his power, and in being reconciled to what is not in his power. Thoreau, who knew such happiness, wrote in “Life Without Principle”: “Of what consequence, though our planet explode, if there is no character involved in the explosion? In health we have not the least curiosity about such events. We do not live for idle amusement. I would not run round a corner to see the world blow up.”

Asked one day why the Shakers, who expected the end of the world at any moment, were nevertheless consummate farmers and craftsmen, Thomas Merton replied: “When  you expect the world to end at any moment, you know there is no need to hurry. You take your time, you do your work well.”


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