My wife and I recently decided that we needed to move out of our house. The most pressing reason was that, unfortunately, we discovered mold in the girls’ room. For the sake of our health, we quickly came to the conclusion that the only choice for us was to find a new house. The reality of moving, of picking up and going to some other place, is something that could be said to adequately describe modern man. We are constantly on the move, not just in the sense of busyness (which is not unrelated), but in the sense that we seem to no longer live in a particular place for that long. As a result, it is fair to say that we are cosmopolitans, for we live any and everywhere, and perhaps seem to even strangely relish in the fact that we have no place we call “home.”
I am currently reading a collection of essays in book form called The Humane Vision of Wendell Berry. It is quite an impressive book. One thing that struck me was a letter that Wallace Stegner, Berry’s former professor at Stanford, wrote to him. Stegner considered Berry to exemplify a virtue that is most counter-cultural, namely, that of “loving himself for who he is as a human being.” By this, Stegner means to highlight that Berry sees himself in the light of truth, that he is a creature who is limited, who is meant to be born, live well, and die in this world. For Berry, as Stegner recalls, this is not a hindrance or something to be transcended. Rather, it is meant to be something delightful and glorious, for this is precisely how we were made.
One characteristic feature of modernity is to reject the limits of what it means to be human. Hence, anyone who follows anything that is produced from the “transhumanism” movement will see this for what it is. Human nature is not a stable principle, an essence revealing what kind of being we are, but something malleable and changeable, so as to be made better than it was. What I want to highlight here in this essay is that along with the rejection of the limitedness of nature (and human nature specifically) ultimately comes a rejection of place. Yet, one may wonder, how does all this tie together? How does the modern project of rejecting the limits of human nature and nature itself entail a loss of place? I want to explore this idea and hopefully show why it will be necessary to recover the truth of our being, as Stegner says, “placed persons.”
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Rene Descartes brought about the modern “turn” towards the self by formulating his ultimate philosophical principle: Cogito, Ergo Sum. “I think, therefore I am.” For Descartes, the beginning point of knowledge was not the outside world, that order outside of ourselves that we did not create. Rather, knowledge began with the individual subject. Rejecting the Aristotelian and Thomistic realism of the past that held all knowledge to be one of discovery and reception that begins in the senses, Descartes claimed that knowledge will be one of self-creation and imposition. By doubting everything and mistrusting the senses as the foundation for knowledge, the human person is cut off from reality and the order of things as given in creation.
When I was teaching this topic to one of my undergraduate classes last summer, I asked the students if they could follow out the logic of Descartes. I asked the students if they could tell what would be a destructive effect if it were the case that we cannot know anything outside of ourselves. An awkward silence fell over the class. A brave student in the back then shouted “we would not know anybody else.” Precisely. In addition, if we cannot know anyone else, then we cannot have real community or a common good. Lost would also be the perennial foundation of all civilizations and culture, namely, the household. It is here that we first discover to live in communion with others, to recall Aristotle’s argument in the opening book of his Politics. The Cartesian Cogito is, in the end, an isolated individual related to nobody else, to no other community, to no other good but his, to no other place, and not even to himself and his own body.
In this light, is it surprising then that the modern age is so frequently characterized as an age of anxiety and increased feelings of displacement and homelessness? We graduate from college and wait to see where we will be transported next. We pursue upward mobility in our jobs, only to further destabilize ourselves, our families, and our communities by setting us up to move again. Mobilization and relocating are the norms of our contemporary American life, and yet we still seem deeply uneasy and anxious. This is why I mentioned in the beginning that we are very cosmopolitian, in both our thinking and our practical living. We see no place, city, or community as our home. Contemporary persons are rootless and without a place. Simone Weil in her book The Need for Roots writes the following:
[T]o be rooted is perhaps the most important and least recognized need of the human soul. It is one of the hardest to define. A human being has roots by virtue of his real, active and natural participation in the life of a community which preserves in living shape certain particular treasures of the past and certain particular expectations for the future.
Weil has called to mind something profound, but frequently neglected in contemporary discussions on community, culture, and politics. The healing medicine for persons who breathe and live in a culture of individualism and displacement will be a restoration of an authentic account of community. As Wendell Berry writes: “By community, I mean the commonwealth and common interests, commonly understood, of people living together in a place and wishing to continue to do so. To put it another way, community is a locally understood interdependence of local people, local culture, local economy, and local nature.” For Berry, community must necessarily reject thinking “large scale” and “global.” We must recover a healthy and robust understanding of the local and be more small-scale oriented. In doing so, we can inherit, cultivate, and pass on practices, habits, knowledge (theoretical and practical), and customs that help build up rather than disintegrate and destroy. Furthermore, such an understanding of community can help us to recover and live out a more optimistic perspective on politics, for it will seek to articulate the proper relationship between communal living and human flourishing.
My wife and I realize that the current home we will move into is not going to be the place where we will settle. It is a lovely home indeed, but the reality is such that we will be moving again within the next few years. Yet, our post-moldy home discussions have led in the direction of truly seeking to make the next house our home, rooted in a particular place, surrounded by family and friends, with the aim of living well. Of course, such goals are neither nostalgic, nor a disordered romanticism, but a discovery of the object of that natural desire to live in a place with our neighbors for the sake of happiness. In this way, perhaps we can rejoice in our limitedness as human beings, creatures who will be born, live, and die in this world. Hopefully, we will stave off the modern experience of rootlessness and celebrate, in love and friendship, the truth proclaimed by Wallace Stegner that we are “placed persons.”
Editor’s note: The image above is a detail from “Main Street, Stockbridge” painted by Norman Rockwell.