Wendell Berry, Beauty, and the Future of Conservatism
As conservatives discern how to combat today’s modern secular culture, we must recall the objective goodness, truth, and beauty that we ultimately seek — and as writer Wendell Berry illumines — so too preserve the charity and giving so inherent to human flourishing.
Much has been said, including within my own writing for this publication, regarding the perilous state of modern American culture — a polity stricken by rampant secularization, erosion of the family, atomization of the individual, and the collapse of the local community. The negative effects of modernity are not difficult to see, and indeed, it appears that many on the American right-wing identify some problem with the current state of the union.
We all recognize a problem (though we might disagree on its gravity), and thus we desire to find a solution. As such, many within the ‘conservative movement’ have tried their hand at providing solutions. Yet, notably, I have found these solutions to be almost exclusively top-down political fixes. We are encouraged to support so-called ‘conservative’ candidates, work on campaigns, reiterate certain talking points, and attend particular ‘patriotic’ rallies in order to save our country. However, ultimately, these political solutions miss the ball — residing too far downstream of the problematic culture to make any significant change.
I am not saying that politics is obsolete — indeed it has a role. However, its purpose is secondary, a component piece rather than the ultimate initiative. Conservatism’s role is deeper than politics — rather, it is a temperament that discerns those things conducive to man’s flourishing and lives in accord with them. Thus conservatism properly exists beyond culture, a rule-of-sorts aimed toward the conservation of human flourishing.
So, what does this mean? What solutions are more proper to conservatism? How might we best address the problem of modern culture? The details of an answer will inevitably be complex, debatable, and even perhaps vary by time and place. Yet, as conservatives, we know by reason that there exist things objectively good, true, and beautiful that are unmovable by culture or politics — and here is where the conservative solution ultimately lies.
The Witness of Beauty
Traditional conservatism stands out in modern culture because it affirms that there exist things objectively good, true, and beautiful. Modern culture has attempted to relativize these treasures, diluting and perverting them to the point that the terms possess no real significance. Yet as conservatism attempts to rebuild in the face of modernity, it will be the good, the true, and the beautiful which win the day. This is because these attributes have a unique way of revealing themselves in a way that is indisputable — this we might call the sublime. Man possesses a necessary attraction to these things as they point him most directly towards his ultimate end.
St. Thomas Aquinas describes this reality, stating: “Man must, of necessity, desire all, whatsoever he desires, for the last end” (ST I-II, 1, VI). There is something utterly fulfilling in receiving and contemplating the truth, and so too, in witnessing and receiving good things. Moreover, there is something transcendent about listening to a beautiful concerto, looking upon a sprawling vista, or witnessing a reverent Mass which elevates beyond the temporal and very overtly points towards the supernatural — our end in God Himself.
Goodness, truth, and beauty are powerful and have the ability to draw even the most staunchly hardened of hearts. This is because they give us a taste of what we are made to pursue. We are made to know the truth, do the good, and see the beautiful, and as these things are perfectly one with God, there is nothing that can bring us greater fulfillment.
Here lies the conservative advantage: we must uphold and edify those things which are good, true, and beautiful — things we know are such by our nature — and treat them with the reverence that they are thus owed. In turn, there will exist a natural attraction to these things, an inclination for people to share in the good life themselves. There is a quiet sublimity to witnessing a reverent liturgy, a loving marriage, a healthy family, a close friendship, and a cared-for town. Above all else, the good life is indeed good, true, and beautiful — not always easy, nor always pleasurable, but certainly possessing a sublime quality. As we rebuild conservatism, these aspects will naturally ensue. We must give witness to this product, embracing it in love to be shared with those around us. With effort, this will be the vehicle by which we can address modernity.
Willing the Good of the Other
The next point I will discuss is the necessity for love. Love, as St. Thomas Aquinas describes, is to will the good of the other, and is vital to any genuine practice of conservatism. Love is by definition selfless, the giving of oneself — we might also call this sacrifice — for the sake of someone else. It is much more than a mere feeling or passion — beyond desire, affection, or affinity. Instead, it is an act of the will, a call to do something — to build, to give, and to conserve.
Love is the highest fulfillment of the human person, the most direct earthly participation in our ultimate supernatural end, and so too, through such participation, is essential to our own personal good and value. Indeed, none of man’s vital institutions, be it church, family, or local community, could function without love — the reciprocal and generous giving between persons. It is love by which man was created, love which man seeks in God and His blessings, and love alone that ultimately leads us to flourish.
Wendell Berry, Charity, and Community
For conservatives, love must be at the core of life itself, the mode by which we live and also that which we seek. This is manifested most explicitly through the act of giving. We must learn to give before we receive, to serve before being served. This mentality is the vehicle of conservatism enacted — something we must do within our private homes as in the public square.
Farmer and author Wendell Berry describes such giving in his novelHannah Coulter — describing the dynamic of the story’s Kentuckian community:
“Work was freely given in exchange for work freely given. There was no bookkeeping, no accounting, no settling up. What you owed was considered paid when you had done what needed doing. Every account was paid in full by the understanding that when we were needed we would go, and when we had need the others, or enough of them, would come.”
In the small Kentucky village of Berry’s novel, we see the essence of a conservative solution: a care outside of oneself, a giving and edification of one’s family, community, and place. It exemplifies the epitomé of building something beautiful — the manifestation of conservatism well done. More explicitly, we might call this giving the virtue of charity, synonymous with love. Aquinas calls charity a type of friendship, ultimately “the friendship of man for God” (ST II-II, 23, I), but so too a sharing in life with others, a joint pursuit of the good.
Charity, and thus human flourishing, is contingent upon our relationships with others, of preserving and edifying those bonds and institutions that give life meaning. As Wendell Berry states: “A human community, then, if it is to last long, must exert a sort of centripetal force, holding local soil and local memory in place.”
In the face of a destructive, unnatural, and hedonistic modernity, we must indeed hold strong to those relationships that give us life, elevating them as a lighthouse of hope and beauty amidst the decay. To do so is bold, even dangerous — contrary to the whims and influences of the powers that be. But here we find the framework for how we move forward: living with charity in our everyday lives, giving and serving, making our own little corners of the world a bit more beautiful. And as Wendell Berry writes, we do this not by politics or top-down bureaucracy, but by supporting those relationships and institutions which define and guide us: faith, family, community, and place.
A Reminder for the Future
It is at this point that I must add the most poignant of reminders for conservatives: it’s not about you. Modernity, including modern conservatism, has championed the opposite — a deification of the self, a hunger for material wealth and worth, and a rejection of charity. These things are often promoted as being goods for conservatives to pursue. Yet, as Wendell Berry writes, and man’s nature confirms, one cannot be fulfilled except through community and giving.
Love is the essence of human flourishing. It gives it weight and vitality. This is not to say that we should ignore our own needs outright. Our own health and wellbeing are important, but only insofar as they are ordered towards charity for others. Human flourishing is a gift fueled by giving, ever willing the good of others.
Thus, let us embrace our relationships, particularly within those institutions which help us flourish, with all that we have — never allowing them to fall by the wayside. And furthermore, let us face modernity with urgency and hope — holding fast to the good, the true, and the beautiful that we possess, building flourishing communities, and devoting ourselves in service and charity to those around us.
In this way, we will most certainly become pockets of light in this ugly, atomized, and selfish world — and as such, the future of true conservatism will most certainly be a bright one.
“Love is what carries you, for it is always there, even in the dark, or most in the dark, but shining out at times like gold stitches in a piece of embroidery” — Wendell Berry, Hannah Coulter.
Samuel D. Samson is a fourth-year student studying political philosophy at the University of Texas at Austin, and an undergraduate fellow at the Austin Institute for the Study of Family and Culture. His work focuses St. Thomas Aquinas’s natural law theory and the intersection of conservatism with religion, family, community, economics, and culture.