03/18/2012 09:24 pm ET Updated May 18, 2012

Sustainability, Wendell Berry and Confucius

Wendell Berry, one of the original proponents of the principle of sustainability and a major social critic of 20th and now 21st century American society, has made surprisingly repeated references to Confucius and Confucian writings in his works. I say "surprisingly" because Berry, at first glance, might not seem like someone who would find a complement to his own ideas on American culture and community as well as his Christian faith in a source seemingly so far removed as the writings of the Confucian tradition.

Berry, author of more than 50 books crisscrossing genres of essay, poetry and novel, has presented a penetrating analysis of the malaise of American society. His seminal work, The Unsettling of America: Culture & Agriculture (1977), argues for the restoration of community and culture to the values of a life where sustainability is grounded in moral values for the way in which we treat ourselves and others as well as the land itself.

Berry speaks forcefully and eloquently to the loss of our sustainability in our loss to the pressures of a commercial world whose only product is not "progress," but the material aggrandizement centered upon the generation of "me."

He speaks passionately of those elements of our society that have gone the way of corporate America -- family values, community values, societal values, and agrarian values -- all gone in the name of the mighty dollar.

Behind these observations lies the thoughts of a man who has farmed in the hills of Kentucky for multiple decades and who is profoundly religious in his Christian faith, a faith he sees as potentially instrumental in returning humankind to their roots of a true moral community.

As Berry seeks analogs of a model for moral community, he finds Confucius. And what would Confucius say?

Lets look at the ways in which Berry finds Confucius and Confucian teachings a model for the very kind of community Berry sees as quintessential to the rectification of American society.

In his essay "The Way of Ignorance" in the book of the same name (2005), Berry cites example after example of what he refers to as the profound and arrogant ignorance of humankind as we stumble forward toward our own destruction and the ruination of the world in which we live. He talks of the necessity of a change in the human spirit, a change in outlook, a change that will bring humanity to realize the vanity of its ways.

Such a change, what he calls a "change of heart," is part, he believes, of the quintessential core of every religion. Granted that it is seminal to all religious traditions, Berry says he finds particularly insightful the way in which the call for change is spoken to in Confucian teachings.

The particular Confucian teaching that is primarily the object of his focus is a short text, Ta-hsüeh, Great Learning or in the translation of Ezra Pound used by Berry, The Great Digest. It has been one of the most important of Confucian writings throughout East Asia for the last 2000 years. Combined with three other texts, Confucian Analects, Mencius and Doctrine of the Mean, it was a critical part of what became known as the Four Books, the collection that was the primary basis for all Confucian education up to the 20th century throughout the Confucian world.

What is the teaching of the Great Learning? It is a model of the path of learning to become a person of goodness and humaneness, taking the individual from self-learning to learning in the world through rectification of self, family, society and the world at large. This is a learning that begins with the thorough learning and discipline of the self.

Just as Confucius had said that the Noble Person, chün tzu, takes responsibility for himself while the petty person always blames others (Analects XV:20), the Great Learning is rooted in the importance of the transformation of the individual first and foremost. Such a change in the individual is the apriori condition to any change or transformation that can be anticipated in society or the world at large.

And what is the nature of this change in the individual? It is the learning of goodness and humaneness, jen, exemplified by the model of the Noble Person, chün tzu, a figure committed to learning for the transformation of the self in order to lead in the transformation of the world.

The Great Learning offers a learning that focuses upon the "change of heart" Berry sees as so crucial to our own time and condition, a way in which there can be a rectification toward goodness of self and society and thus the sustainability of our world.

Such learning is the antidote for Berry to what he sees as the arrogance, the greed, and the selfishness that constitutes the dominant cultural paradigm of our own time -- individual, society and world out of control with their own self-absorption. Sustainability, on the other hand, demands a moral commitment to self and society alike. It can be said in no clearer way then when Berry quotes the Great Learning in The Unsettling of America: Culture & Agriculture, "... wanting good government in their states, they first established order in their own families; wanting order in the home, they first disciplined themselves...."

From ancient China to the contemporary hill farms of Kentucky -- a universal message in response to a universal problem.