Modernity and Wendell Berry’s “Making it Home” – Part 2

Rolling over tradition, custom, heritage, manners, and cultivation—that which gave people meaning, purpose, direction, and hope—is the spirit of modeVBTigerrnity, and this spirit of destruction took centuries to develop. I will give a short and rough sketch of this development using some major figures in Western history.

The world did not become meaningless overnight. It is tempting to say that it all started with Socrates, or at least the spirit of Socrates indwelling Hegel. It was Hegel who famously said that Socrates was, as the inventor of morality, the first modern. He wrote,

And it was in Socrates…the principle of subjectivity—of the absolute inherent independence of thought—attained free expression. He taught that man has to discover and recognize in himself what is the right and good, and that this right and good is in its nature universal. Socrates is celebrated as a teacher of morality, but we should rather call him the inventor of morality. The Greeks had a customary morality; but Socrates undertook to teach them what moral virtues, duties, etc. were. They moral man is not he who merely wills and does that which is right, not the merely innocent man, but he who has the consciousness of what he is doing.[1]

Hegel separates tradition and indwelled habits from conscious moral acts. It is not good enough for a person to act from habit or custom; one must know what is right and good and know that and when he is doing it. To use a modern term, an authentic moral act is one performed in accordance with some universal principle (without any admixture of custom), has been individually discovered and recognized, and is performed being fully conscious of its rightness and goodness. Put simply and negatively, the everyday morality that was instilled from birth and community is not true morality. Following one’s dispositions toward right action qualifies as moral only accidentally, and, in Kantian terminology, the act deserves no recognition of moral worth.

The “principle of subjectivity” is the key Hegelian phrase. The rise of the self—as the center of importance and worth, as the arbiter of all meaning, as the source of all moral determinations, and as the buffer by which everything on the outside of one’s self is controlled and mastered—is fundamentally the rise of modernity. Augustine seems like an important source of the rise of the self. In his quest to prove the existence of God in On the Free Choice of the Will, he moves from the outer world to the inner world of the mind and soul. It is a journey from the “lower” to the “higher.” In the mind, “we see [numbers] by an inner light of which the bodily sense know nothing.”[2] Finding God is a deepening of one’s reflexivity. As Charles Taylor comments, the “vantage point of the ‘I think’ [has become] outside the world of things we experience.”[3] This “inaugurate[d] at new line of development in our understanding of moral sources, one which has been formative for our entire Western culture.”[4] Ironically, it is the turn inward toward the divine that made the modern turn possible.

There is much more to Augustine that the turn inward, and he certainly was not a “modern.” Taylor is likely correct, however, in making Augustine a crucial source for the thought of Descartes and, perhaps, Kant. But it important to recognize that the inward/outward distinction for Augustine, when interpreted in light of his other writings, is actually anti-modern to a certain extent. The “inward” was one way to encounter the divine, but the outward order still provided peace, security and meaning.

This heavenly then, while it sojourns on earth, calls citizens out of all nations, and gathers together a society of pilgrims of all languages, not scrupling about diversities in the manners, laws, and institutions whereby earthly peace is secured and maintained, but recognizing that, however various these are, they all tend to one and the same end of earthly peace.[5]

The outward order for Augustine is not as robust with meaning as Rowanberry finds in his Port William, but it is for Augustine a place to which one must conform for one’s good. The crucial and important difference between Augustine earthly city and Port Williams, is that the former ought not, nor must it, shape the soul. The redeemed soul, for Augustine, exists in heaven. The inner/outer distinction made innerness primary, yet it does not dismiss the outer. The outer is a place of practical affairs, a place to construct peace and security.

Much later, Hegel makes a similar, though significantly different duality:

Personality implies that as this person: (i) I am completely determined on every side (in my inner caprice, impulse, and desire, as well as by immediate external facts) and so finite, yet (ii) none the less I am simply and solely self-relation, and therefore in finitude I know myself as something infinite, universal, and free.[6]

This non-theological account of the person is a more radical inner/outer distinction than found in Augustine. Hegel is following Kant who made a similar distinction between the phenomena and noumena realms. As part of the former, each person is subject to desires and inclinations, and seeking the fulfillment of these can never rise above skill and technique. Morality is possible only if a person can somehow rise above and beyond desire and inclinations to a world of reason and free will. This is the noumena realm or the kingdom of ends. The person participates in both realms, and yet one’s dignity is solely based in one’s participation in the noumena. One’s external existence is contingent and arbitrary. With this, Kant set in motion an old idea with a twist, namely, that the external order is not the source of moral truth and dignity; both come from within and rest on the capacity of the will. As Augustine said, “those who cleave to the eternal law by their good will have no need of the temporal law.”[7] One only needs to find the truth within; the external order is a world of lower practical affairs.

There is clearly a risk in this type of quasi-solipsistic individualism: Is it left up to each person to discover and apply the truths of practical reason? What is the place of public judgment and custom? This risk is exacerbated by Kant’s commitment to the Enlightenment. He was severely critical of prejudice. It held down the masses from thought and reason, and was implanted by the “self-appointed guardians of the multitude.”[8] Prejudice makes people incapable of acting in freedom. That is, it makes individuals incapable. It is one’s civil duty, then, to clear the prejudice from society so that each person can “become more and more capable of acting in freedom.”

People are so individualized under Kant’s account that they enter society in a state of war and competition—a “mutual opposition.”[9] One cannot tolerate others yet cannot withdraw from them. It is through conflict that a people go from barbarism to culture.  Kant uses an analogy of trees in a forest to explain his view of individuals in society and progress.

It is just the same with trees in a forest: each needs the others, since each in seeking to take the air and sunlight from others must strive upward, and thereby each realizes a beautiful, straight stature, while those that live in isolated freedom put out branches at random and grow stunted, crooked, and twisted.[10]

Individuals in conflict makes humanity straight. Without society, individuals would not develop. There must be conflict in competition. But if becoming “straight” requires competition, then it is only fair that each person is equally capable of competing. People must be on equal terms and have equal opportunity when entering society. The political implications of this are tremendous, and justify massive redistributions in wealth to public education, public health, public daycare and many other programs. No one is to be left behind.

Kant’s thought began in the West (though it was rooted in Rousseau) a spirit of destruction. I use the word ‘destruction’ according to its Latin roots: destruere, meaning literally “down build” or “un-build.” The Kantian project is one of tearing down the “prejudice” that prevent people from thinking for themselves and discovering the truth concealed by custom and tradition. Later Feuerbach would call belief in prejudice and superstition “projection.” Such belief transferred human potential to the divine. According to Kant, it is the responsibility of the “vocation of free thought”—the few free thinkers of any age—to destroy in order to “create room to let that free spirit expand to the limits of its capacity.”[11] The public intellectual is a destroyer. He or she is tasked to un-build or de-construct that which keeps the masses from achieving their potential. And since this is a cosmopolitan point of view, the objects of destruction are particulars. It is the attachment to place and tradition that prejudicially justifies certain hierarchies, cultural superiority, oppression and subjection, and a localist conception of morality and rights. All this needs to be cleared to permit universality, rationality, and democratization. Kant had a prophetic voice: make ready the way of freedom. Though Kant hoped that the need for spending on education and equality would preclude costly wars and thereby bring about a perpetual peace, his individualism called for perpetual war in civil society. It is no surprise that the conservatism first arose in the early 19th century.

There is another implication to Kant’s radical individualism. It is something that Nietzsche recognized, though surely Kant would have disagreed. Nietzsche rejected the Enlightenment understanding of morality because, in Alasdair MacIntyre’s words, “if there is nothing to morality but expression of will, my morality can only be what my will creates.”[12] The solution to this Enlightenment nonsense is, according to Nietzsche, “to become who we are—human beings who are new, unique, incomparable, who give themselves laws, who create themselves!”[13] Nietzsche recognized that the end of Kantian (indeed, all Enlightenment morality) must be a morality that my will creates. We have, then, a radical individualism that treats morality as self-created; and not simply self-created, but self-determined and unique to that individual. And, we should keep in mind, individuals in society are still in competition. From here comes the will to power. But let us assume (probably wrongly) that the will to power is effectively suppressed in a liberal democracy. Since liberalism tries to create peace by reconciling various voices and factions within the society through law, the public space must become a place for individual expression and self-creating morality. What is required in liberalism, then, is the suppression of voices that call for some moral collective end or telos that is greater than simply the mutual recognition of each person’s right to self-create morality.

Despite what many liberals claim today, liberalism in the West is not Lockean; it is post-Kantian. Lockean liberalism died with the death of natural law. For Locke, there still is a sense of place and time. The social compact is not, for Locke, a cosmopolitan compact, but one for localized or regionalized political communities. He writes, “For when any number of Men have, by the consent of every individual, made a Community, they have thereby make that Community one body.”[14] Kant leaves little room for particularism and localism. Its aesthetic expression is best seen in Le Corbusier’s city planning and architecture—rational, symmetrical, and universal. Yet the Nietzschean move made each individual the arbiter of all truth and meaning. The mess that this created is left to the managerial class to manage. Their job is to ensure that people do not interfere with each other in their highly individualized pursuit of the good life. The collective end is the rational maximization of non-interference.

The result of this progression of ideas is the meaninglessness of the world. It is what Weber called “disenchantment.” The cosmos has become the “universe” and a space of instrumentalization. Everything has been reduced to use-value. All desires are meant to be satisfied. There is no meaning in things apart from our projection. And, most important, everything ‘out there’ is nothing but particles and bits of matter. As the post-modern Richard Rorty said, “Truth cannot be out there—cannot exist independently of the human mind.”[15] Rorty, of course, finds meaning to be universally a social construct, so meaning is communal. But he also thinks that it is the prerogative of the few (the “ironists”) to redefine language and terms to move society forward. The post-moderns are just as individualistic as their modern predecessors.

We can now return to Berry’s Rowanberry and see how his enlistment in an army of progress and destruction is not about war, but about modernity itself. His destruction was more than a trampling drive toward some goal in the future but a perspective on the world. The world became meaninglessness. It was “empty.” It was in his following orders to destroy that he realized that meaninglessness is possible. It had never occurred to him in his life on the farm that his world on the farm could be nothing but a site on some geographer’s map and something subject to destruction to achieve some world-historical goal.

Rowanberry’s fighting “was not work that made much of anything” (86). Is Kantian destruction anything other than a critique? Hannah Arendt says no. “System-making” would be for Kant another “dogmatism.”[16] This is why, she reports, Mendelssohn called Kant the Alles-Zermalmer—the All-Destroyer.[17] In the mind of soldiers, says Rowanberry, “You had a thing on your mind that you wanted, or wanted to get to, and anything at all that stood in your way, you had the right to destroy” (86). A futural world-historical goal combined with a meaningless universe makes the destruction of “things that people had made well and care for a long time” completely justified. This was the cold reality of Rowanberry’s new world.

Berry’s short story is about war, but not merely conventional war. It is the war that is modernity itself. Its motivator is an eschatological vision of future that dismisses the imprint of the past on the present. The future is all that matters; and it is not merely some future present that we are after, as if the future is attainable. The future goal is always futural. The war never stops. Prejudice is never fully eradicated. Rowanberry got a respite from it all, but he had changed; and the sounds of artillery fire will always be in his mind—the creeping anxiety that his old world is meaningless or, at best, a bygone age targeted for destruction. This anxiety must be actively suppressed in order to conserve, or better put, instaurate the old world.

Part 1

[1] G.W.F. Hegel Philosophy of History, Trans. T.M. Knox (London: Oxford University Press, 1967), 280.

[2] Ibid, 46.

[3] Charles Taylor Sources of the Self: The Making of the Modern Identity (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1989), 131.

[4] Ibid, 132.

[5] Augustine The Political Writings of St. Augustine (Washington: Regnery Publishing, 1962), 153.

[6] Philosophy of Right, 37.

[7] Augustine On Free Choice of the Will Trans. by Thomas Williams (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Co., 1993), 25.

[8] “What is Enlightenment?”

[9] “Idea for a Universal History from a Cosmopolitan Point of View”

[10] Ibid, 5th Thesis

[11] “What is Enlightenment?”

[12] Alasdair MacIntrye After Virtue (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1981),113-114.

[13] The Gay Science, Section 335.

[14] 2nd Treatise, 96.1-3.

[15] Richard Rorty Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989), 5.

[16] Hannah Arendt Lectures on Kant’s Political Philosophy, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992), 32.

[17] Ibid, 34.


One thought on “Modernity and Wendell Berry’s “Making it Home” – Part 2

  1. Pingback: Modernity and Wendell Berry’s “Making it Home” – Part 1 | Lovely Country

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