It is said that when Rene Descartes, one of the philosophical fathers of modern science, vivisected a dog (that is, dissected it alive), he paid no attention to its cries. He didn’t bother with any anesthesia for the animal; it was, to his mind, merely a machine. It had no soul, no real spirit—the whimpers and howls the dog let out as it was cut open were to Descartes like the creaking of an ungreased wheel.
This is quite a different view than that of the psalmist who saw the breath of God as the breath of life—no different whether human or animal. An ancient Hebrew might kill an animal, but he would never pretend that it was without a spirit. He knew, and felt beholden to the knowledge, that this was another creature of God’s making and God’s breath: “When you take away their breath, they die and return to their dust. When you send for your spirit they are created; and you renew the face of the ground” (Psalm 104:29b–30).
We would like to think that we are better than Descartes, more “enlightened” than this founding member of the Enlightenment, but our common attitudes are closer to Descartes’s than to the psalmist’s. Go to any grocery store, and you will see the proof. The meat there, most of it (if not all of it in any conventional store), will be from animals raised in spaces not unlike factories. The animals will have been regarded as “production units” and “protein solutions,” but never as living things other than their basic needs for water, food, and enough health to make it to slaughter.
Most of this meat is disguised, separated from the animals to which the ﬂesh once belonged. For a time, I raised chickens on pasture and sold them at a farmers market. I had customers complain from time to time that these whole chickens looked too much like chickens. This is where we are.
The human bodies that this meat of animal machines will feed will be treated little differently. They too will be regarded as machines, spirited machines, but machines all the same. The human person was to Descartes’s mind and many after him a divided reality—an eternal soul and a machine-like body. Only the soul was of any importance—the body simply required regular maintenance, like a car.
E.O. Wilson, a scientist based at Harvard whose book Consilience prompted Berry to write Life is a Miracle: An Essay Against Modern Superstition, echoes Descartes’s model, but would delete the soul from the equation. A thoroughgoing naturalist, Wilson writes that, “People…are just extremely complicated machines.” It is this reduction of creaturely life that Berry sees as the heart of our problem. By reducing creatures to machines, Berry writes that we have been willing “to allow machines and the idea of the machine to prescribe the terms and conditions of the lives of creatures, which we have allowed increasingly for the last two centuries, and are still allowing, at an incalculable cost to other creatures and to ourselves.” This damage is clear in the factory farms where animals are treated as machines, breaking away from any humane standard of care. It is also clear in those who eat such animals, their own health damaged by the machine model that denies our common creaturely life.
All of this damage results from a reduction which like a value ﬁxed in a dollar price, makes the creature merely a material thing and therefore something that can be traded easily in a market. As Berry writes, “the scientiﬁc-industrial culture, founded nominally upon materialism, arrives at a sort of fundamental disdain for material reality. The living world is then treated as dead matter, the worth of which is determined exclusively by the market.”
Such materialism, the natural outcome of the division of body from soul, not only gives way to the reduction of animals to machines, but also carries with it a kind of contempt for the body that is less than the soul. It is easy, once the body has been divided from the soul, to say that some bodies are without spirit. This then lends itself to the possibility of slavery and other exploitations of the body. “Contempt for the body is invariably manifested in contempt for other bodies—the bodies of slaves, laborers, women, animals, plants, the earth itself,” writes Berry. “Relationships with all other creatures become competitive and exploitive rather than collaborative and convivial.”
This separation of the body from the soul, from its mysterious life and breath (spirit), leads inevitably to disease and unrest.
“Our bodies have become marginal,” writes Berry, “they are growing useless like our ‘marginal’ land because we have less and less use for them. After the games and idle ﬂourishes of modern youth, we use them only as shipping cartons to transport our brains and our few employable muscles back and forth to work.”
But rather than working to reconnect our bodies within the whole of the creation, restoring soul and place and membership to their life, our modern “health” systems rely on the same machine metaphors, the same divisions and reductions that began the disease.
“Where the art and science of healing are concerned, the machine metaphor works to enforce a division that falsiﬁes the process of healing because it falsiﬁes the nature of the creature needing to be healed,” writes Berry. “If the body is a machine, then its disease can be healed by a sort of mechanical tinkering, without reference to anything outside the body itself.”
Without such outside reference, the body is left alone— disconnected from the community, soul, friendships, creatures, and contexts in which it can be whole. “To try to heal the body alone is to collaborate in the destruction of the body,” Berry writes. “Healing is impossible in loneliness; it is the opposite of loneliness. Conviviality is healing. To be healed we must come with all the other creatures to the feast of Creation.”
This is an insight that is being conﬁrmed at the margins of science as our medical advances are beginning to run up against a host of “modern” diseases, once unknown and still rare in places without the beneﬁts of our sterilized and divided existence. Though our understanding is still limited, it is becoming clear that for the body to be healthy we must live with other organisms—to be connected to and even hosts to them. On the most basic level this comes in a move toward consuming “probiotics,” bacteria and fungi that aid in everything from digestion to our mental health. This is to speak only of the most intimate of our relationships with other creatures. As we have already explored, Berry is right to say that health is membership.
To be separated from this membership, our bodies take on a joyless existence, formed not toward their ﬂourishing, but on the basis of external models. We are dissatisﬁed with our bodies, not as they have become through disuse, but as they were given. We have accepted the standards of the advertisers over the standards of health, the measure that we learn only through communion with creation and the ongoing conversation between body and soul. “The body is degraded and saddened by being set in conﬂict against the creation itself, of which all bodies are members, therefore members of each other,” writes Berry. “The body is thus sent to war against itself.”
So it is that blood panels and magazine racks deﬁne our well-being and beauty for us. We no longer have a sense for what health feels like because we have been so alienated from the membership that is its source.
To return us to the healing connections of the body to the earth and the body to the soul, we must not only address modern science, but also renew ancient religion. And though one can ﬁnd many examples of religion contributing to this separation, one can ﬁnd sources for cohesion and completeness in the best of Christian theology and in the Bible. Pope Francis’s work in Laudato Si’, for instance, has helped move us away from dichotomies and toward an “integral” theology. He has shown that religion can play a key role in protecting from the modern temptation to have absolute power over creation. As he writes in Laudato Si’:
The acceptance of our bodies as God’s gift is vital for welcoming and accepting the entire world as a gift from the Father and our common home, whereas thinking that we enjoy absolute power over our own bodies turns, often subtly, into thinking that we enjoy absolute power over creation.
This blog is excerpted from Ragan Sutterfield's book Wendell Berry and the Given Life. For the past 50 years, Wendell Berry has been helping seekers chart a return to the practice of being creatures. Through his essays, poetry and fiction, Berry has repeatedly drawn our attention to the ways in which our lives are gifts in a whole economy of gifts.
Wendell Berry and the Given Life articulates his vision for the creaturely life and the Christian understandings of humility and creation that underpin it. Click here to visit our bookstore to learn more about this title.