The Art of the Commonplace

by Wendell Berry

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"Two Economies" Summary and Analysis

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1002

Berry believes that an energy-based economy might be more helpful than the existing industrial economy, which “is dependent upon much that it does not comprehend” and is not sufficiently comprehensive. His friend Wes Jackson argued that “the Kingdom of God” might be a better model: in the Kingdom of God, there is order, and everything relates to everything else. There is no issue with humans having limitations: the ancient Greeks, like the Jews of the Bible, believed in the necessity of this. The Israelites were supposed to understand their dependence on God.

For Berry, the Great Economy, then, is the ultimate condition of our experience: it is a practical exchange of values, powers, and necessities that understands humans but that humans do not fully understand.

Because we do not understand this economy, however, we also need a “little economy” that we ourselves can manage. While we should seek the Kingdom of God first, as Jesus argued, there is also a need for us to live in the world, in harmony with the Great Economy but also in a world where we need goods and money.

The Great Economy has no end, but there are also things it cannot do for humans. A good human economy, like the Great Economy, should be termless and endure in harmony with God’s world. A human economy can evaluate, distribute, use, and preserve things of value, but it cannot actually make value. Value comes from the natural things that we simply improve, artificially, through art and labor.

A human economy, then, is interested in secondary value for things, but it should also recognize its obligation to preserve what the Great Economy has provided. The topsoil is an excellent example: we cannot make topsoil, and we cannot substitute it. Topsoil is the critical quantity in agriculture, but it needs good care from humans to preserve it. A good farmer will see it not only as a quantity, but also as a quality; every other element of the farm must be focused around preserving the topsoil.

The industrial economy, unlike the little economy, sees itself as standing alone. It does not acknowledge the Great Economy: it categorizes things it cannot use as “waste” and does not consider the import of preserving topsoil or other arable land. It uses labor-saving devices instead to make work faster and does not consider that sometimes, topsoil and other natural assets are preserved better by limiting their use, rather than using them faster with the aid of devices.

We cannot do what the topsoil does; we cannot get rid of all toxic wastes. We cannot do what God can do, however many machines we use. Machines do not help us escape the human condition; they only help us to destroy our world.

The industrial economy defines potentiality as a “fund” and therefore accepts that impoverishment is a necessary part of the economy. Land is a resource that can be exhausted. But to struggle to control the forces of nature and dig out “assets” from what is otherwise “useless” is to fail to understand our obligation to care for the earth.

William Blake argued that humankind was beginning to relate differently to the rest of Creation in a negative way. The Industrial Revolution sped up this process: earth and humanity were set in opposition to each other. Although there are always natural disasters, by living “in opposition to nature,” we can cause more of these than there otherwise would have been.

Of course, a human economy can be ultimately “wrong,” but if we believe the human economy is the only one, we see...

(This entire section contains 1002 words.)

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its failures as political failures from which we can recover. In order to truly see what is wrong, we must see it as a little economy living in the shadow of the Great Economy, which will help us see that there are no “necessary risks” and that what we have destroyed will cause us trouble in the future.

In our current economy, competitiveness has become almost beyond control. Medicine has become an exploitative industry; products are shoddy, and waste is considerable. Within the Great Economy, however, there is a requirement that humans see the world as a neighborhood in which everything is connected. Virtues practiced within this economy are simply good principles and good husbandry. By insisting that we are not part of the Great Economy, the modern economy has set these virtues into decline and created a division between arts and sciences that should not exist. In order to have a fully functional economy, we must all speak to each other and reject the divisions that cause our communities and our world to break down.


Although always writing from a generically Christian perspective, Berry is rarely as explicitly reliant upon Biblical scripture as he is in this essay. Berry has repeatedly written about the difficulties inherent in any economic system that is dependent on competition as a defining principle, as this prevents people from working properly in accord with each other and the land. In this essay, he is still more explicit, underlining the idea that it is because we have abandoned our sense of ourselves as part of the Great Economy that we have also ceased to consider the future costs of our industrial applications. Berry makes various allusions in this essay: to the poet William Blake and to the Bible, primarily. He argues that Blake recognized the slow demise of the community economy, which recognized the value of those “primary assets” that were God-given, at the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. Since we ceased to view ourselves as parts of a whole, and have set ourselves up in competition with each other, we have also failed to recognize the requirement that we as humans nurture and “husband” the land because there are certain elements to it that we cannot replace. The economy that does not recognize its place in the Great Economy, Berry argues, is a hubristic one that does not accept that humanity has limitations, necessarily.


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