What are the themes of The Art of the Commonplace?

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Wendell Berry's The Art of the Commonplace is a collection of 21 essays on agrarianism and community. The overall objective of this essay collection is to show agrarian alternatives to contemporary urban lifestyles that are characterized by anxiety, illness, and wastefulness.

Before we go any further: what is agrarianism? It's a social and/or political movement that values rural society over urban society. In agrarianism, farming is an important and highly esteemed occupation that's central to the community's wellbeing.

The Art of the Commonplace is grouped around five themes defined by the author. There's overlap between these, but the five key themes are as follows: geo-biography, agrarian critique of culture, agrarian fundamentals, agrarian economics, and agrarian religion.

Let's talk a little bit about each of these. First up is geobiography, the idea that the land tells a story. Berry’s family has been living on the same plot of land since the author's great-grandfather came over from Ireland. The author learned about the land, about its ecosystem and how to care for it, from his own father, who in turn learned from his father, and so forth. The land isn't just land. It's a living organism that tells the story of a family; the two are intertwined.

The second theme is agrarian critique of culture. Berry focuses on this in a series of essays, but this idea could be considered the dominant theme of the entire collection. Contemporary culture in the United States, Berry argues, is characterized by greed and carelessness. So many of the culture's problems, he explains, are caused by the people.

The third theme is concerned with agrarian fundamentals. These include a return to valuing individuals over machines, to reforming a health system that's more concerned with quick fixes than with the origins of disease, and to ending exploitation of both land and people.

The fourth theme, agrarian economics, is a bit more specialized. Berry talks about the effects of labor on the individual. When humans are forced to work like machines or robots, instead of working in nature, as farmers always have, their health suffers, and the economy will suffer, too. He criticizes the profit-focused agendas of politicians and corporations alike.

Finally, Berry's fifth theme is the religious basis of agrarianism. He ackowledges Agrarianism's basis in the Bible, and that the concepts of agrarianism are tied with religious traditions across cultures. He's quick to reject the Christian view that humans should dominate the land. We must understand the land, the author argues, if we want to have a good relationship with it.



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The Art of the Commonplace

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