Friday, February 7, 2014

Industrial Pride or Agrarian Humility?

And someone asks, “It is not possible to enjoy relaxation both here and hereafter?”  It is not possible  (St John Chrysostom, ‘Third Sermon on Lazarus and the Rich Man’, On Wealth and Poverty, 1981, p. 74).

Those faithful to the traditional Southern way of life ever and anon emphasize the importance of farming, especially that which does not use modern machinery and chemicals.  Some reasons for this are given in a short entry entitled ‘Agrarianism’ at the University of Virginia web site:

Socrates, Artistotle, and Horace can all be attributed with various praises of the art of husbandry and of the shepherd and cultivator. From Virgil's writings about the peaceful life of the Arcadians, a primitive people of the Greek Peloponnesus, the name Arcadia came to signify an idealized pastoral society. The power of this symbol comes from the contrast of the simple, harmonious, rural life with the corrupt, discorded life of the city. It resurfaces throughout Western literature; Chaucer, Shakespeare, Dryden, Swift, Pope, Wordsworth are among the many artists who used the tillage of the garden as a theme. It is clearly and eloquently exhibited in Thomas Jefferson's Query XIX from Notes on the State of Virginia. He writes, "Those who labor in the earth are the chosen people of God, if ever he had a chosen people, whose breasts he has made his peculiar deposit for substantial and genuine virtue." Jefferson's words give structure to a notion which had gradually developed throughout the ages and which would influence American culture and politics even to the present day.

In his introduction to Agrarianism in American Literature, M. Thomas Inge defines "agrarianism" by the following basic tenets:

·         Cultivation of the soil "has within it a positive spiritual good" and from it the cultivator acquires the virtues of "honor, manliness, self-reliance, courage, moral integrity, and hospitality." These result from a direct contact with nature, and through nature a closer relationship to God. The agrarian is blessed in that he follows the example of God in creating order out of chaos.
·         Farming is the sole occupation which offers total independence and self-sufficiency.
·         The farmer has a solid, stable position in the world order. He "has a sense of identity, a sense of historical and religious tradition, a feeling of belonging to a concrete family, place, and region, which are psychologically and culturally beneficial." The harmony of his life checks the encroachments of a fragmented, alienated modern society.
·         Urban life, capitalism, and technology destroy independence and dignity while fostering vice and weakness.
·         The agricultural community, with its fellowship of labor and cooperation is the model society.

While there is much that is true in the above, there are a few things in that article to quibble with, such as God bringing order out of chaos:  His creation was originally perfect; it was only after man sinned that decay and disorder set in.

This mentioning of the Fall leads us to the deeper meaning behind the agrarian philosophy, to its grave importance for us today and for every age.  Thomas Jefferson gets close to it in his Query XIX above.  Farmers, though, are not the chosen people of God (that title belongs to Christians), but the hard work tied up with farming and like ways of living from the earth and sea (fishing, foresting, mining, etc.), are essential for the well-being of man. 

The Holy Father St John Chrysostom explains, commenting on Genesis 3:17-19:

Behold the reminders of the curse!  Thorns it will bring forth, He [God] says, and thistles.  I will do this so you will endure severe labor and cares and spend your whole life in sorrow, that this might be a restraint for you, that you might not dream that you are higher than your station; but that you might constantly remember your nature and might henceforth not allow yourself to come to a similar state of deception.
“Thou shalt eat of the herb of the field; in the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread.”  See how after his [Adam’s] disobedience everything was not as it had been before in his life!  I, He says, bringing you into this world, wanted you to live without afflictions, without labors, without cares, without sorrows; to be in contentment and prosperity and not be subject to bodily needs, but to be a stranger to all this and enjoy perfect freedom.  But since such freedom was not of benefit to you, I will curse the earth so that henceforth it will not be as it was formerly, giving forth fruit without sowing and cultivation, but will do so only with great labor, exertion and cares.  I will subject you to constant afflictions and sorrows, and force you to do everything with exhausting efforts, that these tormenting labors might be for you a constant lesson to behave modestly and know your own nature (Homilies on Genesis 17.9, The Fathers of the Church: A New Translation, 74, Washington, D.C.: U of America Press, 1947-, pgs. 243-4, quoted in Father Seraphim Rose, Genesis, Creation, and Early Man, 2011, p. 270).

St Symeon the New Theologian, another Holy Father of the Church, continues this line of thought in his homily ‘Adam’s Sin and Our Salvation’:

And so it is that these are our sins, that is, that we do not patiently bear the temporal chastisements of God and do not give thanks for them but becoming presumptuous as if we were enemies of God we go in a certain sense against that Divine decree that states in the sweat of thy face thou shall eat thy bread (Gen. 3:19), and we exert all our strength so as to find repose and we do not find it because there is no opportunity for us to escape from labors and sweats, and from this being yoked to needs, no matter what we might do.
            Therefore, fortunate is he who endures all these temporal chastisements with gratitude, confessing that he has been justly condemned to them for the ancestral sin.  Yea, he will find repose from his labors; for by reason of these chastisements the All-good God has given death to men, so that those who bear them with gratitude might rest from them for a time, and then might be resurrected and glorified in the day of judgment through the new Adam, the sinless Jesus Christ and God Who was delivered up for our trespasses, and was raised for our justification (Rom. 4:25) (The First-Created Man, 2013, p. 61).

We should note at once how far out of line much of modern Western life is with the divine commandment.  Western man is much obsessed with escaping hard work and living in ease and comfort and doing his own will.  But in this path lies his ruin.  Commenting on Genesis 11:3-4, on man’s plan to build the Tower of Babel, Father Seraphim Rose of blessed memory says,

They already knew the prophecy that man would be scattered over all the face of the earth.  They made one more attempt to make a great name for themselves: a great tremendous project, which would prove that we are supreme beings.  This is repeated throughout history—the empire of Alexander the Great, the Communist regime, Hitler’s Thousand-Year Reich, etc.  The sin behind this is pride.
            Such towers are known in Babylonian-Assyrian history, and some still survive.   They are called ziggurats: temples with a shrine on top.  These are a symbol that, as St. John Chrysostom says, man did not want to stay within the limits that God had given him.  He wanted to make himself a god: self-deification.  In our modern times, an image of this can be found in our skyscrapers.  The idea is to build something higher than anyone has ever built before. . . .
            In chapter 11 we see that, within five hundred years after the Flood, mankind had again become corrupt and proud.  It says men were of one tongue, one voice.  They all agreed on one thing: that they would become great.
            It is like mankind today.  There are a few exceptions—people who do not agree with what is going on—but for the most part, men are either agreeing with what is going on or else they are being dragged along with this great project to build Paradise on earth: the Communist society, or a comfortable reign of earthly values; but God is forgotten.  Mankind is doing it again.  And if man does that, what is God going to do?  He promised that He will not destroy the earth like He did before; therefore, He will find various other ways to stop man: plagues, disasters, earthquakes, volcanoes.  In this case, He confounds their tongues (Genesis, Creation, and Early Man, pgs. 362-3).

As our Southern forefathers wisely sensed, farming and other forms of difficult labor are necessary parts of a good life.  We may go further and say that they are needed for our salvation.  Without the humility imparted by toiling, man becomes too comfortable, forgets God, and rises in his pride to build an earthly paradise, to deify himself - rejecting the revelation of God the Father in Jesus Christ His Only-Begotten Son through the Holy Spirit kept faithfully and without blemish by the Orthodox Church, and the salvation and deification available through His grace therein. 

The Western trinity of ‘science-technology-and-industry’ (Wendell Berry, Life Is a Miracle, 2001, p. 33) is the latest incarnation of mankind’s godless pride.  Will it take a catastrophe sent by God to make us turn away from it and back to the Orthodox Church, and to the land?

Works Cited

Berry, Wendell.  Life Is a Miracle: An Essay against Modern Superstition.  Berkeley, Ca.: Counterpoint, 2001.

Chrysostom, Saint John.  ‘Third Sermon on Lazarus and the Rich Man’.  On Wealth and Poverty.  Trans. Catharine P. Roth.  Crestwood, Ny.: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1981.

Rose, Father Seraphim.  Genesis, Creation, and Early Man: The Orthodox Christian Vision.  2nd ed.  Ed. Hieromonk Damascene.  Platina, Ca.: St. Herman of Alaska Brotherhood, 2011.

Symeon the New Theologian, Saint.  The First-Created Man.  4th ed.  Trans. Father Seraphim Rose.  Platina, Ca.: St. Herman of Alaska Brotherhood, 2013.

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