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Poetry, Marriage, Definitions, and Meaning

A marriage cannot include everybody, because the reach of responsibility is short.

Wendell Berry: Standing By Words
Poetry and Marriage: The Use of Old Forms (1982)

That is to say, it is the nature of marriage to define limits. The word define literally means to set limits (that’s why the Latin word for neighbor is “finitimus”).

Certain limits, in short, are prescribed–imposed before the beginning.

Here Mr. Berry approaches the heart of our cultural crisis: imposition. One must not impose one’s values on another. But what if nature itself imposes values on us? What if we only have values at all because nature has determined that we must?

Then it is no longer a question of one person imposing his values on another, but of a person with authority given that one by nature itself (e.g. a father or mother) defending, on behalf of the “subject”, the claims of nature itself. In fact, if nature itself does not establish values, then it is not possible to live in a world where people don’t impose values on others. It’s the nature of the case.

That human nature, at least as we possess it, inclines toward abusing this natural state and claiming more authority than nature allows hardly means that we should abandon the only thing that could possibly restrain the tyrant or the self-indulgent.

The pious are inclined to react to that statement by appealing to God as sufficient without nature, but I must point out that God is the maker of nature and to separate the two is harmful in the extreme and leads to the dissolution of the religious mind – forcing a dichotomy between the spiritual life and the supposed secular life. It’s a pious sounding theory, but it doesn’t correspond to reality.

In fact, it’s what leads to the religious varieties of tyranny that the modern mind is so afraid of. When God starts asking everybody to offer up Isaac, it’s hard to see how He could love the world.

Even religion has a nature. The religious have to function within the limits established by the nature of religion. Otherwise, there is no religion. Because nothing but God exists if it is not limited to what it is.

The contemporary nonsense about living without limits is an appeal to death and negation. And the absence of the category of nature makes the modern mind incredibly gullible to such meaningless words.

To see how dangerous this is, ask yourself how you would like to live under a government that does not regard itself as limited.

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