A few misc notes on The Unsettling of America

It’s time to move on, but before I do I have a few more passages to mark from Wendell Berry.

On the difference between “good” and “bad” work.

There is work that is isolating, harsh, destructive, specialized or trivialized into meaninglessness. And there is work that is restorative, convivial, dignified and dignifying, and pleasing. Good work not just the maintenance of connections – as one is now said to work “for a living” or “to support a family” – but the ENACTMENT of connections. it IS living, and a way of living; it is not support for a family in the sense of an exterior brace or prop, but is one of the forms and acts of love.


On fidelity. (Fidelity as in sexual and marital faithfulness.) This section was especially good. Both non-religious and religious people alike fallen into this sort of sour moralism with regards to many things – myself included every day. I see bits of the gospel in here.

The idea of fidelity is perverted beyond redemption by understanding it as a grim, literal duty enforces only by willpower. This is the “religious” insanity of making a victim of the body as a victory of the soul. Self-restraint that is so purely negative is self-hatred. And one cannot be good, anyhow, just by not being bad. To be faithful merely out of duty is to be blinded to the possibility of a better faithfulness for better reasons.

It is reasonable to suppose, if fidelity is a virtue, that it is a virtue with a purpose. A purposeless virtue is a contradiction in terms. Virtue, like harmony, cannot exist alone; a virtue must lead to harmony between one creature and another. To be good for nothing is just that.


Back to the problem of specialists again. When sex is extracted from personal intimate relationships, family and spiritual life and put in it’s own little box, it becomes twisted and distorted.

A direct result of the disintegration of the household is the division of sexuality from fertility and their virtual takeover by specialists. The specialists of human sexuality are the sexual clinicians and the pornographers, both of whom subsist on the increasing possibility of sex between people who neither know nor care about each other. The specialists of human fertility are the evangelists, technicians, and salesmen of birth control, who subsist upon our failure to see any purpose or virtue in sexual discipline. In this, as in our use of every other kind of energy, our inability to contemplate any measure of restraint or forbearance has been ruinous. Here the impulse is characteristically that of a laboratory scientist: to encapsulate sexuality by separating it absolutely from the problems of fertility.


Here, he asks “Can we abstain from using power?” and presents the Amish as an example of a “yes”. The last line is particularly good and quite possibly the theme of his entire book. It’s affected me personally and directed my train of thoughts often as of late. We can flourish by embracing our humble position.

The only people among us that I know of who have answered this question convincingly in the affirmative are the Amish. They alone, as a community, have carefully restricted their use of machine-developed energy, and so have become the only true masters of technology. They are mostly farmers, and they do most of their farm work by hand and by the use of horses and mules. They are pacifists, they operate their own local schools, and in other ways hold themselves aloof from the ambitions of a machine-based society. And by doing so they have maintained the integrity of their families, their community, their religion, and their way of life. They have escaped the mainstream American life of distraction, haste, aimlessness, violence, and disintegration. Their life is not idly wasteful, or destructive. The Amish no doubt have their problems; I do not wish to imply that they are perfect. But it cannot be denied that they have mastered one of the fundamental paradoxes of our condition: we can make ourselves whole only by accepting our partiality by living within our limits, by being human – not by trying to be gods. By restraint they make themselves whole.