Praise ignorance, for what man has not encountered he has not destroyed.
—from “Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front,”
in The Country of Marriage by Wendell Berry
These lines are taken from one of my favorite poems by the poet, novelist and essayist Wendell Berry. As its title suggests, the poem is a manifesto proclaimed by a farmer whose “madness” consists in his refusal to live in conformity to the patterns of industrial, consumerist culture. The mad farmer envisions instead a life of gratitude for the lovely gift of God’s creation. He urges the listener to pursue a life of purpose, a life that simply does not add up in a world that loves “the quick profit, the annual raise, vacation with pay”:
So friends, every day do something
that won’t compute. Love the Lord.
Love the world. Work for nothing.
Take all that you have and be poor.
Love someone who does not deserve it.
Over the past year I have read this poem many times with students, who find aspects of this vision attractive, even compelling. The last line issues a stirring invitation to realize that we live in a world radically changed by the miracle of Easter:
My students are nevertheless scandalized by the mad farmer’s provocative praise of ignorance. What can he mean by it? Surely—in a university, of all places!—we are not summoned to abandon the pursuit of knowledge. How on earth can ignorance be a virtue?
Ignorance, Berry would insist, is not a virtue. Indeed, human ignorance has been and continues to be the source of much destruction in the world. The real problem, however, is not merely that we are ignorant; this is simply the problem of human finitude. Our problem is that we are arrogantly ignorant.
Berry addresses the problem of our arrogant ignorance in an essay entitled “The Way of Ignorance” (collected with a number of his other essays in The Way of Ignorance [Berkeley: Counterpoint, 2005]). The problem, simply put, is this:
the predominance of the supposition, in a time of great technological power, that humans either know enough already, or can learn enough soon enough, to foresee and forestall any bad consequences of their use of that power.
The present Coronavirus pandemic has illustrated both the falsehood of this supposition as well as the danger of our false confidence, itself a type of ignorance. While the Coronavirus is not a consequence of human ignorance, its effect upon our lives and livelihoods has exposed certain truths of which we have for a long time chosen to be ignorant.
We have foolishly ignored, for example, that many of the things we use in daily life are produced in factories overseas. It has not bothered us that our shirts and shoes are made in Vietnam or Bangladesh. But we have now realized how perilous it is to be dependent on factories in China for face masks and rubber gloves.
Although we know the truth to be otherwise, we have long allowed ourselves to live as though food originates in grocery stores. While the shelves were stocked with food and we had the money to buy it, this illusion did not seem dangerous. But now we see just how fragile the food economy really is, as lines lengthen at food pantries even as hog farmers prepare to euthanize hogs that cannot be sold to shuttered meat-processing plants and dairy farmers discard thousands of gallons of milk that cannot be sold to schools and restaurants.
To reflect thus about our ignorance in the midst of the present crisis might seem like rubbing salt in a wound. But that is not my intention. Towards the close of his essay, Berry calls to mind a hopeful truth: “If we find the consequences of our arrogant ignorance to be humbling, and we are humbled, then we have at hand the first fact of hope: We can change ourselves.”
This is what the Bible calls metanoia—repentance, a whole-hearted about-face. All the Gospels report that when Jesus came proclaiming the good news of the kingdom of God, his first command was to repent (Mark 1:14-15). If we have been arrogantly ignorant, the proper posture of repentance is humility.
When Job demands that God explain why a righteous man such as himself has suffered so unjustly, God instead gives Job a natural science pop quiz. “Where were you,” God demands of Job, “when I laid the foundation of the earth? Tell me, if you have understanding” (Job 38:4). God continues the inquisition at length, questioning Job’s knowledge of cosmology, geology, zoology, and the like. Throughout, Job has no response. Finally, when the depth of his ignorance has been exposed, he answers God: “See, I am of small account; what shall I answer you? I lay my hand on my mouth. I have spoken once, and I will not answer; twice, but will proceed no further” (Job 40:4-5).
“Arrogance,” Berry observes, “cannot be cured by greater arrogance.” The only proper response, as Job discovers, is humility.
As this Coronavirus pandemic wears on, I find myself at times despairing and at times hopeful. When I despair it comes from the fear that life may never be the same again. When I find myself hopeful it is paradoxically for precisely the same reason—that life may never be the same again. It is my hope that our present suffering is not without meaning, that we may be experiencing, in the memorable phrase of Sheldon Vanauken, a “severe mercy” from God.
In 1988, Wendell Berry concluded his essay “Racism and the Economy” (in The Art of the Commonplace [Berkeley: Counterpoint, 2002]) on a hopeful note, observing that the painful failure of our way of life may in fact lead to a restoration of something good. His words strike me as prescient:
We must be aware too of the certainty that the present way of things will eventually fail. If it fails quickly, by any of several predicted causes, then will have no need, being absent, to worry about what to do next. If it fails slowly, and if we have been careful to preserve the most necessary and valuable things, then it may fail into a restoration of community life—that is, into understanding of our need to help and comfort each other.