Simply put, Dr. Nate Schlueter is one of the finest men I know. He’s a model father, husband, community leader, writer, and scholar. Hillsdale College and any and every one of us associated with the college is privileged to have Nate as a colleague. The same is true (and felt by all) for his wife, Elizabeth, too. Nate is currently on sabbatical, spending a year at Princeton University. I’m honored he took the time to let me interview him about his excellent new book, The Humane Vision of Wendell Berry.
BB: Nate, please tell us about Wendell Berry. Probably most readers of Catholic Vote know his name, but they might not know specifics.
NS: Wendell Berry is a novelist-poet-essayist-critic-farmer from Henry County, Kentucky. Now in his late 70’s, Berry has been writing for over fifty years. He has been married to his wife Tanya even longer. (How many contemporary writers can say that?) And although he has not received the same attention as some of his contemporaries, his influence will likely outlast them. His writings, which treat a wide range of subjects, always move to and from a fixed center of human concern. Why are fidelity and public vows central to the meaning of marriage? Can time and labor saving technologies make our lives worse? Is there a way that work can dignify human beings, rather than degrade them? Do human beings require communities of mutual affection and care for their flourishing, and does the free market promote or prevent such communities? Do government and corporations often abuse their power to promote efficiency and economic growth at the expense of families and small communities? Is modern culture based upon a latent dualism and hostility to the body and its limits? What are the limits and dangers of modern science? Can poetry be a source of wisdom and practical knowledge? If you are interested in these kinds of questions, then you will be interested in Berry’s writings, and in our book.
BB: I’m interviewing you for CatholicVote? What does this book offer for the American Catholic?
NS: Although Berry comes from the Protestant tradition, his Catholic admirers are struck by the “Catholic imagination” that suffuses his work. Readers will find in his writings an indirect but eloquent defense of many of the principles of Catholic Social Teaching (e.g. the comprehensiveness of the faith, stewardship, subsidiarity, the evils of consumerism, etc.). Our collection includes a number of prominent Catholic contributors, such as Antony Esolen, Anne Husted Burleigh, Patrick Deneen, and William Fahey, who in one way or another bring out these connections. They do so in part by showing how Berry’s fiction offers a concrete embodiment and imaginative elaboration of those principles. The imagination matters greatly for how we live, and art plays an important role in shaping that imagination. Catholics need to take this seriously, not by retreating to crude didactics, but by immersing themselves in great works of literature that inform the moral imagination. Very good artists can imitate evil in art without relying upon sensationalism, but only great artists can imitate goodness without being sentimental. In this respect Berry’s poetry and fiction are singular. They give his readers a taste of goodness that is both wholesome and hard, while providing some inoculation against the false premises of modern culture and liberal utopianism.
BB: What message would you like a reader to take away from this collection?
NS: The short answer is this: It’s not enough to be counter-cultural; you must become a culture-builder: How you live, eat, love, work, play, and pray are all moral decisions bearing upon your own happiness and the common good.
The longer answer is this: Ideas have consequences. It is important for Americans to recognize clearly the nature and causes of the perverse utopianism that lies near the heart of liberal society, with its mad Machiavellian quest to gain complete control over a hostile nature for the relief of man’s estate; its destructive romance with autonomous individualism; its Gnostic divisions between person and body, faith and reality; and its steadfast refusal to acknowledge any goodness in the limits of the created order. Berry stands firmly against all the isms that would reduce the whole to one of its parts or dissolve all of the parts into one universal whole. But he also stands for the things that must be defended: piety against pietism, intellect against intellectualism, individuality against individualism, community against communitarianism, liberty against libertarianism.
BB: How did this book come together?
NS: In the summer of 2006 my co-editor Mark Mitchell and I attended a conference together at Princeton University, co-sponsored by ISI and the James Madison Program. Over coffee one afternoon Mark and I struck up a conversation in which we discovered to our surprise and delight a mutual admiration for Berry. We both wondered at the time why Berry did not receive more attention from conservatives. Jeremy Beer, then editor of ISI Books and also an admirer of Berry, encouraged us put something on Berry together.
We decided to begin our project with a conference on Berry’s work to which we would invite prospective authors to present on some aspect of Berry’s thought. The conference, sponsored by ISI, the Philadelphia Society, and the McConnell Center at the University of Louisville in 2007, was a great success. Over 300 people, including farmers, lawyers, homemakers, academics, and, what was particularly delightful to see, a large group of Dominican nuns in full habit from Nashville, Tennessee came to Louisville, Kentucky to hear lectures on Berry from people like Allan Carlson, Anne Husted Burleigh, and Rod Dreher (all contributors to our book). But the highlight of the conference was hearing Wendell Berry read one of his short stories at lunch. It was not difficult to build on that enthusiasm and energy for our collection.
BB: What was the most surprising thing for you when putting the conference and the book together?
NS: For me the most surprising thing about this project is the hostility it has received from certain conservative quarters. Some conservatives have a deep suspicion of Berry. They accuse him of being a Luddite (he is not), a romantic (he is not), a utopian (he is not), a sentimentalist (he is not), a socialist (he is not), and many other things. In some cases it turned out the persons making the charge had not actually read Berry with any care, but in other cases it seemed that people simply refused to accept the real moral challenges that Berry’s writings present.
It is true that Berry is often associated with the political Left, but we believe Berry’s writings are fundamentally conservative, and that conservatives have much to learn from him. As evidence of his conservatism, one might cite his position on any number of issues a conservative would recognize: his defense of decentralization and the relative autonomy of local communities; his healthy suspicion of government power and support for a robust civil society; his hostility to the welfare state and defense of private property; his opposition to abortion, promiscuity, and divorce; his respect for tradition and distrust of leveling abstractions such as scientism. At the same time, Berry also holds positions that would make many American conservatives uncomfortable, including his pacifism, conservationism, and opposition to corporate capitalism.
But Berry is more than the sum of his positions on the issues, and he offers conservatives much more than juicy Fox News sound bites. As Anne Husted Burleigh has written, Berry is “too gifted and universal to be claimed by any one movement or literary tradition,” whether it be liberalism or conservatism. Those who hold to conservatism because it is true, rather than to truth because it is conservative, will be encouraged by this quality in Berry. Our book is on the humane vision of Wendell Berry, not “Berry on the issues.” A conservatism that becomes so preoccupied with “issues” that it loses touch with the more fundamental human orientation towards truth, goodness and beauty is bound to suffocate by its own activism.
BB: Nate, you’ve obviously done excellent work with all of this. All of it is, indeed, greatly needed in our society. What are your scholarly plans for the future?
NS: I am currently working on two books. The first, The Foundations of the Libertarian-Conservative Debate, grew out of a class on the subject I taught several times with my friend and colleague Dr. Nikolai Wenzel, a libertarian economist. In it we carry out our disagreement in print. In the second book, Playing with Fire: The Peril and Promise of the Utopian Imagination, I defend the idea that the imagination is a moral and cognitive faculty, and that works of the imagination can deepen our knowledge of reality in general, and politics in particular. I do this principally through commentaries on classical works of utopian fiction, such as Plato’s Republic, More’s Utopia, Shakespeare’s The Tempest, Huxley’s Brave New World, Orwell’s 1984, and The Moon is a Harsh Mistress by Robert Heinlein.
BB: Thanks so much for your valuable time. I hope you meet great success with the Berry book and all of your forthcoming projects. I know I, for one, am very eager to see what you’re doing next.