Grand Charity

Wendell E. Berry Lecture | National Endowment for the Humanities

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Suzaan Boettger drew attention to Wendell Berry’s Lecture “It all turns on affection”, given to the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Wendell Berry is one of the great advocates for places and for a way of life that is committed to place and nature.  There are some standout parts of this lecture.

His critique of capitalism and philanthropy is damning,

“If you can appropriate for little or nothing the work and hope of enough such farmers [or for that matter any other workers - ed], then you may dispense the grand charity of “philanthropy.”

When arguments are made for philanthropy, remember that there is a choice: perhaps not accumulating great wealth might in some cases mean that more people have had better lives and more environments are less depleted.

But Berry’s argument for imagination is the most important, developed and illuminating aspect of this lecture.

The sense of the verb “to imagine” contains the full richness of the verb “to see.” To imagine is to see most clearly, familiarly, and understandingly with the eyes, but also to see inwardly, with “the mind’s eye.” It is to see, not passively, but with a force of vision and even with visionary force. To take it seriously we must give up at once any notion that imagination is disconnected from reality or truth or knowledge. It has nothing to do either with clever imitation of appearances or with “dreaming up.” It does not depend upon one’s attitude or point of view, but grasps securely the qualities of things seen or envisioned.

I will say, from my own belief and experience, that imagination thrives on contact, on tangible connection. For humans to have a responsible relationship to the world, they must imagine their places in it. To have a place, to live and belong in a place, to live from a place without destroying it, we must imagine it. By imagination we see it illuminated by its own unique character and by our love for it. By imagination we recognize with sympathy the fellow members, human and nonhuman, with whom we share our place. By that local experience we see the need to grant a sort of preemptive sympathy to all the fellow members, the neighbors, with whom we share the world. As imagination enables sympathy, sympathy enables affection. And it is in affection that we find the possibility of a neighborly, kind, and conserving economy.

Wendell E. Berry Lecture | National Endowment for the Humanities.

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