The Way of Improvement: From Cohansey to Dakota

Fithian BookMy friend Eric Miller, a history and humanities professor at Geneva College, just completed an independent study on “History in Place” with his student Mary Burgreen, a junior humanities major from Mississippi (currently riding out COVID-19 in Lancaster, Pennsylvania). One of the books they read together was The Way of Improvement Leads Home: Philip Vickers Fithian and the Rural Enlightenment in America

Eric recently shared one of Mary’s essays and it is posted here with Mary’s permission. The essay brings The Way of Improvement Leads Home into conversation with the works of agrarian writer Kathleen Norris. Enjoy! –JF

The Way of Improvement

In a conversation I recently had with a friend through FaceTime, I asked, “How many times can I live the same day over again?” As I offered my complaint against the new, restrictive way of life we are confined to in the form of a cynical question, the rigorous schedule Philip Vickers Fithian adhered to during his studies at Princeton came to mind. I felt nearly guilty for allowing my routines go unappreciated. After all, the Benedictine monks, like Philip, followed consistent schedules, including times for prayers and study as laid out in their Rule. Surely, there must be merit in the simplicity and discipline of living according to habitual routines, as great intellectuals and saints have done for centuries. Yet, unlike the enlightened Princeton scholars and the contemplative monks, our routinely structured days are missing crucial pieces, one of utmost importance being a sense of community.

Though Philip heartily sought after education as a means for his personal progress, his intellectual betterment could not be separated from his sense of community, which included, as John Fea writes, “conversation, friendship, and family life.” It was not enough to submit one’s self toward “a universal love for the human race,” an ideal not possible without “face-to-face encounters with actual people inhabiting real places.” Just as the Republic of Letters—”the personal correspondence between men of ideas”—proved to be powerless without the presence of “the local” to act as “the anchor [for] the modern and revolutionary self,” Philip’s life revealed the inability to isolate the particulars found within community, such as personal relationships, human contact, or the interconnectedness of diverse social groups, from the progress strived after through the abstract and elitist ideals of the Enlightenment. In similar fashion, the Rule informed monastics of seemingly minute matters pertaining to food, dress, or daily work, prompting them, as Kathleen Norris notes in The Cloister Walk, “to be more mindful of the little things, even as it reminded [them] of the big picture.” As both Philip’s internal struggles and the slow-paced monastic life indicate, there are ordinary and necessary facets of daily life that fortify the ideals by which we live.Dakota

And just as Philip’s academic routine was not detached from his tangible, local associations, the rhythms of the life he lived on his family farm, which preceded his conscious journey on his way of improvement, were dictated by the particulars of his place, specifically the weather. Philip attentively recorded the weather because it “provided an adequate preamble to the day’s most important events.” The day’s forecast determined the people’s schedule. By affecting the agricultural community, the seasons acted as a foundation for the larger Cohansey social structure.

Similarly, though in a more intentional manner, the Benedictine monastics believed in the necessity of grounding their way of life by displaying what Norris in Dakota calls a “commitment to a particular community and place.” This Benedictine “vow of stability” is imbued with the personal surrender to the reality of a place, whatever its conditions may be. Here may be a key difference between Philip and the monastics — the Benedictines consciously chose to make a vow to their place, while Philip wrestled with his level of commitment to his place, a struggle which continued until his untimely death.

Like Philip, we may not have made this vow of purposeful commitment to our place, especially not to the places we find ourselves confined to. Rather than commit ourselves to the reality of our circumstances, we, like Philip while residing back in Cohansey as a recent university graduate, romanticize our conditions, making ourselves believe we have submitted to the slow-paced life where we might finally conquer time. It’s hard not to romanticize when books can be read from an antique desk set under a raindrop splattered window, while birds make conversations in trees that sway in the chilled breeze. Yet, the prospect of troublesome leaking pipes, of distant coughs that muffle the irritated muttering about masks, crushes the romance of it all. Heeding the advice Kathleen Norris was given, we all must use the “awareness of death as a tool”. That is the consequence of having an intimacy with the particulars of place—our being reminded of the reality of limitations. Through the connection to his place, Philip was first taught by the unpredictable weather patterns to accept the expectation of life’s limits. Later, he was confronted with these limits by the death of his parents. As Fea writes, “Death and ambition have little in common. . . mourning always awakens one to the fact that life has its limits.”

As the usual means of modern self-improvement have come to a blinding halt, we feel ourselves beginning to scramble to continue our own way of improvement even in the face of uncharted limitations. The way of improvement leads home, as Fea concludes, but where exactly does this leave us? Though at home, we find that it is no Cohansey, structured with an intricate, interconnected social web comprised of people committed to their particular place. In fact, our places do not resemble Cohansey at all. It might be argued that we are largely a placeless people, made up of generations of uprooted individuals discreetly searching for a home to feel affection for. The Benedictine wisdom recorded by Norris says, “If you take us somewhere else, we lose our character, our history, our souls.” Place, for both Fithian and Norris, is defined by its history, which is formed by the continuity of the stories composed by its particulars—the monotonous weather records, the long-sustained friendships. This history is not time merely passed but stories kept and turned into traditions, into a form of habit. In the face of global uncertainty, it is providential that we are forced to pay attention to the most minuscule of particulars so that perhaps we may better understand that we truly “know not what a Day may bring forth.”