Why the agrarian critique of American culture rings true today – Catholic World Report

0
(Image: Jose Llamas/Unsplash.com)

With the American political scene clearly having become dysfunctional, those of us seeking a constructive response are compelled to reconsider first principles, examine alternative viewpoints, and delve into uncharted avenues of American tradition.

For example, it has been largely forgotten that although Thomas Jefferson was himself a wealthy and privileged man, his political theory cherished “small landowners”, who Jefferson said were “the most valuable part of a state”. According to Jefferson, the yeoman farmer enjoys a self-sufficiency and autonomy quite foreign to the wage laborer – or for that matter even to the shopkeeper, who still depends somewhat on the goodwill of his customers. With a little fertile soil and the skill to work it, a man can never lack bread or a roof over his head, and thus never be controlled by a “boss”, whether that boss be a real manager, a group of investors, or the bureaucracy of a leviathan state.

Thus, the self-sufficient landowner would be a man able to think for himself, vote as he pleased, and express his honest opinions on public affairs without fear or favor. That is why Jeffersonians have tended to view the decline of the family farm not only with melancholy but with concern, for they foresee in the collapse of traditional farming communities the decline of the republic itself. In 1930, concern for the American republic inspired a particular group of Jeffersonians to collectively issue their now famous manifesto, I will take my position.

A number of specific questions prompted the twelve authors of the aforementioned volume to come together. Most urgent, perhaps, was their concern with the deteriorating effects of industrialism and mass culture on their home states and communities. Additionally, several Vanderbilt executives had traveled overseas and/or served in the military during World War I, and when they returned home to the rural South, they found themselves viewing it with a new perspective – and a deeper appreciation. More than a few were put off by the negative press directed at Tennessee in particular — and the Bible Belt in general — during the so-called “Scopes Monkey Trial.”

Last but not least, their manifesto is partly a retort to the sarcastic and atheist Baltimore journalist HL Mencken, who in a scathing essay dubbed the South “the Sahara of the Bozarts.” Indeed, Mencken insinuated that the only real American culture was found in northern metropolises such as Boston, Philadelphia or New York.

So I will take a stand is first and foremost a defense of the rural culture of the South, opposed to an aggressively urbanizing “New South”, which the authors saw as a mere imitation of the industrial North – and a second-rate imitation, at that. The fact that the Vanderbilt Agrarians did not oppose science, technology, or city life as such is made clear in this excerpt from the “Declaration of Principles” that serves as the book’s preamble:

An agrarian society is hardly one that has no use for industries, for professional vocations, for scholars and artists, and for the life of cities. Technically, perhaps, an agrarian society is one in which agriculture is the primary calling, whether for wealth, pleasure, or prestige – a form of labor which is pursued with intelligence and leisure, and which becomes the model to which the other form somehow approaches. […] The theory of agrarianism is that the cultivation of the soil is the best and most sensitive of vocations, and that it must therefore have the economic preference and mobilize the maximum number of workers.

So rather than saying that the Vanderbilt Agrarians were vs cities and technology and so on, it would be more accurate to say instead that they were very for farmers and rural communities. And that they believed that towns that failed to maintain a healthy and vibrant relationship with the surrounding countryside would soon degenerate into squalid wastelands of ugliness and despair. Elevating Progress as a god, they said, was the surest way to deprive men of their political freedom, stifle economic independence and erode traditional culture.

The insatiable Progress would not spare religious devotion either, they continued:

Religion can hardly expect to thrive in an industrial society. Religion is our submission to the general intention of a rather impenetrable nature; it is the meaning of our role as creatures within it. But industrialized nature, transformed into cities and artificial dwellings, manufactured into commodities, is no longer nature but a very simplified image of nature. We receive the illusion of having power over nature and lose the sense of nature as something mysterious and contingent. The God of nature in these conditions is only a pleasant expression, a superfluity, and the philosophical understanding ordinarily carried in religious experience is not there for us.

While the Vanderbilt definition of religion might have its limits, anyone doubting the claim that an overemphasis on applied technology will lead to godlessness is welcome to visit Silicon Valley.

Speaking of religion, the Agrarians happened to have caught the approving attention of GK Chesterton, who saw their work as addressing some of his own concerns about the abuses of early 20th century industrial capitalism. Indeed, Chesterton’s famous friend and colleague, Hilaire Belloc, became personally involved in the agrarian project, contributing to the anthropological study “Modern Man” at Who owns America?the 1936 sequel to I will take a stand. Yet another contributor to Who owns America? was Father John C. Rawe, SJ, a prominent advocate of the Roman Catholic rural life movement. According to Father Rawe, agricultural policy should be geared towards the needs of homesteads rather than the canons of investment and finance.

Later, two of the most prominent of Vanderbilt’s original Agrarians would become Catholics themselves – one formally, the other by baptism of desire. The very famous poet Allen Tate joined the Church in 1950 partly because he saw it as the only remedy for an increasingly depersonalized mass society, but also partly because of the powers of persuasion of his friends Jacques and Raissa Maritain. As one biographer notes, the philosopher Maritain not only served as Tate’s godfather, but somewhat romantically “compared Tate to the fifth-century Frankish king Clovis, whose conversion brought a nation into the church.”

As for the other Catholic agrarian, Donald Davidson, his long-standing view of the Bible as a consummate tradition is illuminated by the fact that – the very night before his death – he revealed to his wife his intention to be educated. in the Catholic faith. (Mrs. Davidson later became a Catholic.)

To say that the Southern agrarian movement has gone out of fashion in an age of Zoom education, populist politics and political correctness on steroids is an understatement. So, no doubt, many readers would just as quickly gloss over any Catholic connection to it. Before allowing an unimaginative spirit of fear to dictate our intellectual life, however, we might concede that the agrarian thesis solves at least many of the problems bemoaned by Catholic “natural jurists” today.

Among other things, Tate, Davidson and the others warned that too much emphasis on industry and applied science would alienate man from the natural order. Given the perversities now taken for granted and the spectacle of COVID hermits living in self-imposed isolation, all against the backdrop of “trust in science,” how can any serious Catholic entirely dismiss the agrarian warning? ?

We might also reflect on Tate’s specific contribution to the agrarian manifesto, in which he identifies the technocratic dream for what it is – a surrogate religion:

We know that the cult of infallible work is a religion because it erects an irrational value; it is irrational to believe in all-powerful human rationality. Nothing works infallibly, and the new demi-religionists simply worship a principle, and with true demi-religious fanaticism they ignore what they don’t want to see – which is the collapse of the principle in many cases of practice. It is a bad religion, for this very reason; it can only predict success.

Note that even before entering the Church, Tate questioned the dogma of technocratic secularism more than many clergy do today. In any event, neither the absurdly off-target predictions of election night, nor decades of worthless military reporting on Afghanistan, nor protean COVID decrees have done so much to diminish the cult of infallible labor. On the contrary, the Agrarian Critique sounds louder than it did when it was first published.


If you enjoy the news and views provided by Catholic World Report, please consider making a donation to support our efforts. Your contribution will help us continue to make CWR available to all readers around the world for free, without subscription. Thank you for your generosity!

Click here for more information on donating to the CWR. Click here to subscribe to our newsletter.


Share.

Comments are closed.