Sex, Economy, Freedom, and Community: Eight Essays

By Wendell Berry

1,909 ratings - 4.25* vote

"Read [him] with pencil in hand, make notes, and hope that somehow our country and the world will soon come to see the truth that is told here." —The New York Times Book Review In this collection of essays, first published in 1993, Wendell Berry continues his work as one of America's most necessary social commentators. With wisdom and clear, ringing prose, he tackles head- "Read [him] with pencil in hand, make notes, and hope that somehow our country and the world will soon

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Book details

Paperback, 208 pages
December 4th 2018 by Counterpoint

(first published 1993)

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However you must judge me— if you must judge me— for being 100% behind this book, for the unapologetic endorsement of it, by all means. Please do. I ate it up like I was starved for a fat steak dinner.

It’s the subject I’ve been obsessed with: community. (Preoccupied, absorbed, obsessed— none are quite the right word. Maybe wrestling. But I digress.) Community, as in the whole-scale failure of world to protect them, the tattered, battered remnants of the ones that remain. Mr. Berry writes this from the hills of Kentucky, the ground zero of the fight for the tattered and battered, where the wounds of it are so obvious and raw. We’re monstrously out of kilter, he says. Yet, he says: here’s what we can do. And here’s the peace of it too.

Berry says himself in the preamble: if you agree with him completely, “I must suspect one or both of us of dishonesty. I must reserve the right, after all, to disagree with myself.” But I agree, I agree. Even where I think I disagree, I agree. It’s not this revelation that makes me a newly converted proselyte of some dew-eyed order. It’s a dialogue. A conversation. An affirmation of some of the things that have been growling in my stomach and the places where I disagree, it makes me engage with why? instead of dismiss the ideas altogether. There’s muscle here to wrestle back and forth.

Ever-so-fittingly, I read this via Rick Bass. Ever-so-fittingly, it’s Rick Bass quoting Terry Tempest Williams quoting D.H. Lawrence that sums up the conviction here: “This is what is wrong with us. We are bleeding at the roots.” But, again Mr. Berry: “to give up illusory hope is not to be hopeless.” Here’s what to value, to fight for, to fix. Community. It has to be our context for the world.

- - -

July 2013: On second reading, this is a cool glass of water to the face as well as a fat steak dinner. The chapter on tobacco especially hits home, having grown up in tobacco country myself. Berry is the only one I’ve read to wrestle the appropriate amount of complexity in the “moral” argument— and he does that over and over with all the subjects here. I’ve got more of his books to read, but I keep getting drawn back to this one.

From that chapter on tobacco, pointing out the red herring of the tobacco controversy, one of the many pages I keep going back to in the book:

“You’re against addiction, then?”
“I’m against addiction to all things that are dangerous and unnecessary.”
“Like what?”
“Speed, comfort, violence, usury.”


I recall thinking, when I first read C.S. Lewis and George MacDonald, that they were such excellent writers because they were heretics. I was using the term extraordinarily loosely, of course, since all I really meant by it was that neither subscribed to the evangelical doctrines I was raised in. But the fact remains that part of what makes these men such compelling writers is that they are both willing to challenge our comfortable assumptions in order to get at the truth.

This was my first foray into Wendell Berry, and I find that he fits into the same category as Lewis and MacDonald: a good writer precisely because he is a heretic, twice over. We tend to imagine a Progressive-Conservative divide cutting through the United States; Berry assumes an Industrial-Communal divide; in the Industrial camp progressives and conservatives bed down together, and it is against their values and cherished falsehoods that Berry writes. I disagree sharply with Berry at times, but I agree with him more, and in any case, the fact that he provokes me to disagreement is a sign that in his writing he is willing to challenge accepted norms in pursuit of truth.


So I didn't agree with everything in this book, but Mr. Berry warned me in the brilliant preface that I wouldn't so he is forgiven. This man is one of the most clear writers I have come across. Lots of people talk about "common sense" nowadays, they should read this to see how common sense can also be logical and clearly outlined. I particularly enjoyed his insights on the anti-Christian nature of American politics, backed up by plenty of scripture. And it does prove prophetic, as right now a most Anti-Christ person, Donald Trump (read some Jesus and you'll agree) is leading in the republican presidential polls. Anyways... I also liked that there are not only problems, but solutions laid out. And they are solutions for individuals and communities, not just waiting for the government or corporations to fix things (which is unlikely).


Wendell Berry isn't much of a theologian - "Christianity and the Survival of Creation" sorely disappointed. Some of the others felt dated (re: Tobacco, Peaceableness re: Persian Gulf War, and The Big Bad Idea). But, boy, is he ever a wise, countercultural social thinker.

The essay sharing the book's title is worth all the rest of it - read it carefully and repeatedly. The compelling case that it makes is too complicated to recount here - just know that it clarifies much about our current insanity - our brutality - about art, sex, community, and work. Berry puts to shame those who would abandon "community" for "collectivity" - blind and ruthless technocrats that they are.

"What happens after the audience becomes used to being shocked and is therefore no longer shockable - as is apparently near to being the case with the television audience? What if offenses become stimulants - either to imitate the offenses or to avenge them??"


Wendell Berry presents an urgent message in clear and beautiful writing. A perfect balance of intent and rhetoric. This work is the voice of conscience our time must heed.

Father Nick

This is a fine collection of essays that has sparked in me a renewed interest in the world, and the ways in which human beings have chosen to live in relation to it. Berry's reflections refuse easy categorization and are deeply refreshing in the context of blind and deaf media polarization. I was more informed about current issues of political relevance by this ten year-old book than by many hours of news consumption. More importantly, issues are placed squarely in a big-picture context, one which effortlessly embraces the four elements of the collection's title--a mighty feat in itself, and a testament to Berry's proficiency not only as a writer but as a thinker.

A couple of good quotes:

"Most of us get almost all the things we need by buying them; most of us know only vaguely, if at all, where those things come from; and most of us know not at all what damage is involved in their production. We are almost entirely dependent on an economy of which we are almost entirely ignorant. The provenance, for example, not only of the food we buy at the store but of the chemicals, fuels, metals, and other materials necessary to grow, harvest, transport, process, and package that food is almost necessarily a mystery to us. To know the full economic history of a head of supermarket cauliflower would require an immense job of research. To be so completely and so ignorantly dependent on the present abusive food economy certainly defines us as earth abusers. It also defines us as potential victims." (p. 36)

"One of the boasts of our century is that its artists – not to mention its psychologists, therapists, anthropologists, sociologists, statisticians, and pornographers – have pried open the bedroom door at last and shown us sexual love for what it ‘really’ is. We have, we assume, cracked the shell of sexual privacy. The resulting implication that the shell is easily cracked disguises the probability that the shell is, in fact, not crackable at all and that what we have seen displayed is not private or intimate sex, not sexual love, but sex reduced, degraded, oversimplified, and misrepresented by the very intention to display it. Sex publicly displayed is public sex. Sex observed is not private or intimate and cannot be." (p. 162-3)


Berry tells it like it is in this accurate portrayal of America. We are a country at war with ourselves. Berry explores the nature of community and how our contributions and interactions with it have become exploitative. The main theme he recapitulates throughout the book is the way that the economy has become "global", so no one is looking out for their neighbor. The farmers in America are not protected from having to compete with the labor of people working in disparate conditions in the third world. However, his main qualm with this situation is the eventual loss of the knowledge of the land. We are tied to the land itself, but if we rely more and more on foreign sources for our food and do not keep an active and local source we will eliminate our own farming communities and we will be forced to rely on foreign sources for this food. He explains how sexuality is being abused by our entertainment and media sources; this cheapening of the sexual experience cheapens love. Freedom is a delicate flower and it is being abused. I loved this sentiment from the book - America offers the freedom to be wrong, with the ultimate goal being to realize you are wrong and correct this, not just the freedom to be wrong and muddle around in it. When faced with a weak community, we are called to come into a closer community. Knowing our neighbors, relying on each other locally, these are fundamental to protecting ourselves. Additionally, it is critical to understand that we need a moral community, a moral community provides the foundations allowing us to trust each other. Trust is important because you want to trust the other people in your own community to treat each other fairly and educate each others children wisely. Finally, it was important that Berry clarify, he knows it will cost more to stay in close knit communities. However, the cost to losing our local communities into some form of a national monoculture, where no one is truly free to live as their locality calls for would be an onerous burden.

Glenn Wishnew III

I couldn’t put this down. Truly, I had many things to do within the three hours I traversed its pages. But the idea of putting this down never appeared as a substantive option.

Donald Linnemeyer

Wendell Berry is prophetic. Sometimes he stretches me farther than I'm willing to go, but he never fails to be interesting. Here are a couple quotes:

(from his list of modern market/education truths): "The smartest and most educated people are the scientists, for they have already found solutions to all our problems and will soon find solutions to all the problems resulting from their solutions to all the problems we used to have."

"Our present sexual conduct... having 'liberated' itself from the several trusts of community life, is public, like our present economy. It has forsaken trust, for it rests on the easy giving and breaking of promises. And having forsaken trust, it has predictably become political. In private life, as in public, we are attempting to correct bad character and low motives by law and litigation. 'Losing kindness,' as Lao-tzu said, 'they turn to justice.'... The difficulty is that marriage, family life, friendship, neighborhood, and other personal connections do not depend exclusively or even primarily on justice-though, of course, they all must try for it. They depend also on trust, patience, respect, mutual help, forgiveness-in other words, the practice of love, as opposed to the mere feeling of love."


This wasn't one of my favorite Wendell Berry books, but I was fascinated by his in depth discussion of community. The ways community can be fostered and sustained or destroyed form the crux of this book.

"The freedom of the community is the more fundamental and the more complex. A community confers on its members the freedoms implicit in familiarity,mutual respect, mutual affection, and mutual help; it gives freedom its proper aims; and it prescribes or shows the responsibilities without which no one can be legitimately free, or free for every long. But to confer freedom or any other benefits on its members, a community must also be free from outside pressure or coercion. It must, in other words, be so far as possible the cause of its own changes;it must change in response to its own changing needs and local circumstances, not in response to motives,powers or fashions coming from elsewhere. The freedom of the individual, by contrast, has been construed customarily as a license to pursue any legal self-interest at large and at will in the domain of public liberties and opportunities.

These two kinds of freedom, so understood, are clearly at odds. In modern times, the dominant freedom has been that of the individual......"