Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

A reader's group devoted to the discussion of meaningful books.

Saturday, June 25, 2011


How much does the place where we live affect our concepts of ideals like justice? Not just the country we happen to be living in: America or England or Russia or China. I’m talking about the physical geography of the land where we’re born and raised; the hills and the fields, the lakes and rivers, the kinds of trees and even the weather. Do physical features affect the way we perceive what’s right and wrong? Or is the notion of justice pulled somewhere out of the sky, a place where no one has ever lived? It’s an interesting question that only comes up after reading a story like Sorrow-Acre. A one-sentence summary of the story is this: a woman is given a chance to save her son’s life if she can harvest a rye field by herself in one day. If you haven’t read the story then it seems like an odd plot. It is. But remember what Isaiah Berlin wrote in his essay about equality: Finally, those must not be forgotten who… object to all rules as such and desire a society, whether this is practicable or not, governed in an unsystematic manner by the will of an inspired leader, or by the unpredictable movement of the Volksgeist, or the “spirit” of a race, a party, or a church. In this story the Volksgeist is the spirit of Denmark. The inspired leader is an old Danish lord of a large estate. He gives a peasant woman named Anne-Marie a chance to save her son if she can do the work of three men in one day. What does all this have to do with physical geography? The story is not just about some random mean old landlord and a heroic peasant woman. It’s about Denmark and its particular space on this earth, both the good and the bad. Lords and peasants are all molded by the same climate. They all have their place within the landscape: Many duties rested on the shoulders of the big landowners; towards God in heaven, towards the King, his neighbor and himself and they were all harmoniously consolidated into the idea of his duties towards his land. This story could not have taken place in America so it’s hard for us to read it without feeling a sense of outrage. But in Denmark A human race had lived on this land for a thousand years, had been formed by its soil and weather, and had marked it with its thoughts, so that now no one could tell where the existence of the one ceased and the other began… it was the fixed materialism of human longing and of the human notion that it is better to be in one place than another. It’s impossible for an American to grasp what it must be like for your family to live on the same estate for a thousand years. To be raised with such a heritage must leave deep and permanent influences on lifestyles and values. Even when you’re away from home the influence must run deep. Here’s the way one young man reacted: In England Adam had come in touch with the great new ideas of the age: of nature, of the right and freedom of man, of justice and beauty. The universe, through them, had become infinitely wider to him; he wanted to find out still more about it and was planning to travel to America, to the new world… But the young man was seized by a strange, deep, aching remorse towards his old home in Denmark… The ties which bound him to this place were of a mystic nature… he had not, like many young travelers in foreign countries, learned to despise his native land. No, said Adam, he had lately in England longed for the fields and woods of his Danish home. In short, he was homesick. Not just for the fields and woods of his old Danish homeland, but also for its old and ancient ways. The old Danish lord knew his land and he knew his people. In his own way he loved them. And he especially loved the peasant woman, Anne-Marie. Plus, Denmark was a Christian country… a plain, square embodiment of the nation’s trust in the justice and mercy of heaven. Americans simply cannot understand this brand of justice and mercy. We’re not Danish landlords.


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