My sister was concerned that an essay based on political theory and poetry might turn out a little heavy for Thanksgiving. The sources of my thoughts today are theoretically Hannah Arendt and Wendell Berry. Arendt was a German Jewish political theorist, and one of the most influential philosophers of the twentieth century. Berry is a farmer and prolific writer, the poetic voice of modern agrarianism. They are not so heavy. I hope I might convey something of the weightless depth with which they write. And while I will work with the words of Arendt and Berry, I consider them now only because of the beauty of the trees on my street this morning. Before going home to the soups and the bird and the pecan-laden pie crusts, and the coma of gluttonous fullness only cured by a walk in the crisp late-night air…it seems appropriate to write of unprepared, under-analyzed beauty.
In The Human Condition, Hannah Arendt wrote that Aristotle “distinguished three ways of life which men might choose in freedom.” These three ways of life had in common that “they were concerned with the ‘beautiful,’ that is, with things neither necessary nor merely useful: the life of enjoying bodily pleasures in which the beautiful, as it is given, is consumed: the life devoted to the matters of the polis, in which excellence produces beautiful deeds.”Arendt wrote also on the way Greeks viewed mortality, in their cosmos where everything but humans was immortal. “This is mortality: to move along a rectilinear line, in a universe where everything, if it moves at all, moves in a cyclical order.”
Upon returning to Kentucky after six months in California, Wendell Berry wrote Notes from an Absence and a Return. He wrote of walking on the woods floor, and being reminded of “the sense, joyful if anything is, of time passing beautifully, of time passing through beauty, fulfilled in it in degree and detail beyond calculation, and so not wasted or lost. Walking among all these flowers…One is aware of the abundance of lovely things – forms, scents, colors – lavished on the earth beyond any human capacity to perceive or number or imitate. And aware of the economy, the modest principle of the building earth under the dead leaves, by which such abundance is assured.This is the enemy in man’s ‘war against nature.’All these places of unforced loveliness, whose details keep touching in my mind the memory of great paintings, now lie within the sound of the approach of an alien army whose bulldozers fly the flag of the American economy (hardly the economy of the topsoil). This country is an unknown place suffering the invasion of a people whose minds have never touched the earth.”Berry wrote that the redeeming aspect of his sense of involvement with and responsibility to the earth “is that it does not stand alone, but is only part of a process, a way of life that includes joy. Not always or necessarily or even preferably the dramatic joy of surprise – though that is one of its possibilities – but the quiet persistent joy of familiarity.”
Walking down my street this morning in Brooklyn, where the fall yellows and reds shown bright and clean from an overnight rain, the thoughts of Arendt and Berry drifted round me, as though sounding quietly from the two books in my backpack. “The life we want is not merely the one we have chosen and made;” Berry wrote, “it is the one we must be choosing and making. To keep it alive we must be perpetually choosing it and making its difference from among all contrary and alternative possibilities.”What I heard, in these words, on my street,was that we may choose and make a life concerned with the beautiful, in which excellence produces beautiful deeds. Man’s war on nature is a result of the rectilinear life that we choose instead, in which we value only that which is necessary and useful. Our sense of involvement and responsibility need not be a battle, as we so often frame it, the activist struggle of strength and victory. Our involvement and responsibility is a way of life, that includes joy. This quite, persistent joy of familiarity may be one we feel at the Thanksgiving table tonight, or it may not. But I write in the hope that this joy, as the familiar beauty of the trees on my street, might remind us we have a choice: to join the immortal cycle acknowledged by the Greeks, and live in its dance, of unforced loveliness.