Moral Choosing Finely Aware, Reflections on Wendell Berry

“Caleb didn’t need a graduate degree to be a farmer and Nathan didn’t say anything. He went on eating. He had his work to do and he needed to get back to it. Tears filled his eyes and overflowed and ran down. I don’t think he noticed he was crying. That was as near to licked as I ever saw him. Even his death didn’t come as near to beating him as that did.”
Wendell Berry, Hannah Coulter

Wendell Berry’s Hannah Coulter has no argument, but it does have a vision. Like all narratives it takes the reader up into its account of purposiveness and the rise and fall of the characters judged by this account. Caleb has missed the good life, narrates Berry, because he has missed “home” and the work, place, and people that “home” offers. He has chosen graduate school, professional life, and abandoned the farm and his family. Don’t call it abandonment perhaps; that’s too strict and legal. But abandonment is exactly what Caleb feels it to be.

I can’t help wondering what the point of this all is for Berry? The cynic will say Berry’s voice is a gentle headwind against a rushing train accelerated by technology and progress. Berry’s book hardly impacts Snapchat’s valuation. But Berry does not seemed to be troubled by this rebuttal—or at least he fails to address it. Hannah Coulter reads like a lament for something lost that deserves to be lamented.

There is a faulty assumption about moral decisions that makes me and the cynic wonder what the point is. This assumption is that what is most significant in the moral decision is the result, the decision. In sports one might hear “a win is a win” or “a loss is a loss.” The choice, the choice, the choice. Caleb has chosen graduate school. And yet, Berry seems to think otherwise. Berry seems very aware that farming is changing, that the old life of place and community mutually depending on each other is vanishing, and indeed, has vanished.

But Berry aims at the agent, not merely the choice. If the difficult decision for graduate school must be made, he wants the reader to notice what Nathan does not, the tears. He wants the reader to know that they flowed and they ran down. He wants the reader to know that these tears express a grief dearer than life to Caleb’s father. Knowing these things makes the agent more finely aware (Martha Nussbaum’s phrase) of the moral field which frames the choice. Knowing this grief is knowing the meaning of this choice.

And to know this grief may make all the difference. Sure, the train of progress is moving indefatigably forward. Sure, our choices may be limited, or difficult, or involve evil on both sides. But maybe, just maybe, the knowledge of what is already gone, of tears that signal its departure, may awaken us to a choice that regains place and community. Maybe the wheel of fortune can be turned, if not stopped, toward flourishing.

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