What is a summary of The Art of the Commonplace?
In The Art of the Commonplace, Wendell Berry writes about agrarianism, a social or political movement that champions rural society as an alternative to urban society. In this collection of 21 essays, which are grouped into five themes or categories, Berry explains the basis of the movement and why an agrarian lifestyle is smarter, healthier, and more economically rewarding for human beings.
To grasp Berry's point of view, it's important to understand the stark contrast that he sets up between urban and rural ways of life. Contemporary urban society, in Berry's view, is closely tied to anxiety, exhaustion, illness, stress, and wastefulness. And that's to name just a few of the undesirable conditions that the author associates with modern city living. People should have a relationship to the earth they live on, Berry believes. But instead, people don't understand their environments, and more and more, they're encouraged to work like machines or robots, accomplishing specialized tasks without understanding larger systems.
The alternative is a return to an agrarian lifestyle. These days, Berry says, the roles of farmers are often diminished or underappreciated by the public. In an agrarian system, however, the farmer is a key member of society. His accomplishments, and his relationship to the land he works on, are highly valued and considered central to the wellbeing of the community.
In his essays, Berry explores five overlapping themes: geobiography, agrarian critique of culture (discussed above), agrarian fundamentals, agrarian economics, and agrarian religion. There's an incredible amount of detail in the text. But we can establish a few key points to summarize the work in general.
Berry writes about his family's own long-running relationship to the land they live on. The family has lived and worked on the same property since the author's great-grandfather emigrated from Ireland, and in that time, they've learned how to respect the land and learn how the larger ecosystem works. They've also shared knowledge with the next generation, deepening the attachment and understanding between human and environment.
Using many specific examples, Berry writes about how agrarianism is better for the economy, and how it has a strong basis in religion across cultures. But the overall message to understand is that human understanding of the earth is better for individuals, better for families and interpersonal relationships, better for our health and for our self-respect, and better, ultimately, for economies both large and small. Not to mention, of course, that it's better for the planet.