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Why the Agrarian critique of American culture rings true today

Among other things, Allen Tate, Donald Davidson, and the rest warned decades ago that an overemphasis on industry and applied science would alienate man from the natural order.

(Image: Jose Llamas/Unsplash.com)

With the American political scene having clearly devolved into dysfunctionality, those of us seeking a constructive response are bound to reconsider first principles, examine alternative viewpoints, and delve into unexplored avenues of the American tradition.

For instance, it has been largely forgotten that although Thomas Jefferson was himself a man of wealth and privilege, his political theory cherished “the small landholders,” who were in Jefferson’s view “the most precious part of a state.” According to Jefferson, the yeoman farmer enjoys a self-sufficiency and self-reliance quite alien to the hired laborer – or for that matter even the shopkeeper, who is still somewhat dependent upon the goodwill of his customers. With a little fertile land and the skill to work it, a man might never want for bread or a roof over his head, and so might never be controlled by a “boss,” be that boss an actual manager, a group of investors, or the bureaucracy of a leviathan state.

So the self-sufficient landholder would be a man in a position to think for himself, vote however he liked, and express his honest opinions on public affairs without fear or favor. Hence Jeffersonians have tended to regard the decline of the family farm not merely with melancholy but alarm, 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’ll Take My Stand.

A number of specific issues provoked the aforementioned volume’s twelve authors to rally together. Most pressing, perhaps, was their concern regarding the deteriorating effects of industrialism and mass culture upon their home states and communities. Moreover, several of the Vanderbilt cadre had traveled abroad and/or served in the army during the First World War, and when they returned home to the rural South they found themselves regarding it with fresh perspective – and 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 in part a retort to the sarcastic and atheistic Baltimore journalist H.L. Mencken, who in a scathing essay dubbed the South “the Sahara of the Bozarts.” In effect, Mencken was insinuating that the only real American culture was to be found in Northern metropolises such as Boston, Philadelphia, or New York City.

So I’ll Take My Stand is first and foremost a defense of Southern rural culture, set in opposition to an aggressively urbanizing “New South,” which the authors regarded as little more than an imitation of the industrialist North – and a second-rate imitation, at that. That the Vanderbilt Agrarians did not oppose science, technology, or urban life as such is made clear in this excerpt from the “Statement of Principles” which serves as a preamble to the book:

An agrarian society is hardly one that has no use at all 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 leading vocation, whether for wealth, for pleasure, or for prestige – a form of labor that is pursued with intelligence and leisure, and that becomes the model to which the other forms approach as well as they may. […] The theory of agrarianism is that the culture of the soil is the best and most sensitive of vocations, and that therefore it should have the economic preference and enlist the maximum number of workers.

So rather than say that the Vanderbilt Agrarians were against cities and technology and so on, it would be more accurate to say instead that they were very much for farmers and rural communities. And that they believed that cities which failed to maintain a healthy, vibrant relationship with the surrounding countryside would soon degenerate into squalid wastelands of ugliness and despair. To set up Progress as a god, they contended, was the surest way to rob men of their political liberty, stifle economic independence, and erode traditional culture.

Nor would insatiable Progress spare religious devotion, they continued:

Religion can hardly expect to flourish in an industrial society. Religion is our submission to the general intention of a nature that is fairly inscrutable; it is the sense of our role as creatures within it. But nature industrialized, transformed into cities and artificial habitations, manufactured into commodities, is no longer nature but a highly simplified picture 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 under these conditions is merely an amiable expression, a superfluity, and the philosophical understanding ordinarily carried in the religious experience is not there for us to have.

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

Speaking of religion, it so happens that the Agrarians came to the approving attention of G.K. Chesterton, who saw their work as addressing some of his own concerns about the abuses of early 20th-century industrial capitalism. Indeed, Chesterton’s renowned friend and colleague Hilaire Belloc would personally engage the Agrarian project, contributing the anthropological study “The Modern Man” to Who Owns America?, the 1936 sequel to I’ll Take My Stand. Yet another contributor to Who Owns America? was Father John C. Rawe, S.J., an important advocate of the Roman Catholic rural life movement. Per Father Rawe, agricultural policy should be oriented toward the needs of family homesteads rather than the canons of investment and finance.

Later, two of the most prominent of the original Vanderbilt Agrarians would themselves became Catholic – one formally, the other through baptism of desire. The widely celebrated poet Allen Tate entered the Church in 1950 partly because he saw it as the only remedy for an increasingly depersonalizing mass-society, but also in part because of the persuasive powers 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 longstanding view of the Bible as the consummate tradition is illumined by the fact that – on the very night before he died – he revealed to his wife his intention to receive instruction in the Catholic Faith. (Mrs. Davidson subsequently became Catholic.)

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

Among other things, Tate, Davidson, and the rest warned that an overemphasis 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 life in self-imposed isolation, all in a context of “trusting the Science,” how can any serious Catholic entirely dismiss the Agrarians’ warning?

We might also mull over Tate’s specific contribution to the Agrarian manifesto, wherein he identifies the technocratic dream for what it is – a surrogate religion:

We know that the cult of infallible working is a religion because it sets up an irrational value; it is irrational to believe in omnipotent human rationality. Nothing infallibly works, and the new half-religionists are simply worshipping a principle, and with true half-religious fanaticism they ignore what they do not want to see – which is the breakdown of the principle in numerous instances of practice. It is a bad religion, for that very reason; it can predict only success.

Note that even before coming into the Church, Tate questioned the dogma of technocratic secularism more than do many clergy today. In any event, neither absurdly off-target election night predictions, nor decades of worthless military reports about Afghanistan, nor protean COVID decrees have done all that much to diminish the cult of infallible working. If anything, the Agrarian critique rings sharper than it did when it was first issued.


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About Jerry Salyer 50 Articles
Catholic convert Jerry Salyer is a philosophy instructor and freelance writer.

8 Comments

  1. I have never understood the attraction that agrarianism holds for intellectuals, unless it’s due to the fact that so few of them were raised on farms.

    Agrarian societies have always tended to require individuals to spend the bulk of their lives doing rather brutish jobs requiring long hours and great olfactory endurance. Agrarian societies are less prosperous, much closer to subsistence living, than most of us are today.

    Getting up before dawn to muck out the stables might sound romantic to some, but I’ve done it, and — trust me — it ain’t.

    As for whether the decline in faith is tied to industrial life, I’m skeptical.

    I suspect it’s more firmly linked to unimaginative educational institutions, and to lukewarm faith leading to shoddy catechesis.

  2. Now, don’t get me wrong. Mssrs. Salyer and Chesterton are right about this much: Country living is definitely everything it’s cracked up to be.

    But you don’t have to be a subsistence farmer to live away from cities. Sales reps and ad writers can enjoy the wide-open spaces too.

    And there’s no question that familiarizing children with God’s creation will benefit their ability to know and love God.

    • Well said, ‘saltyperson’! But, why not go further than the sort of hybrid implied in: “familiarizing children with God’s creation will benefit their ability to know and love God.”

      65,000 years of Australian Aboriginal deep appreciation of God’s presence and work, enabled over 350 diverse Aboriginal cultural groups to fill this enormous and highly heterogeneous ‘Great South Land of The Holy Spirit’ with inventiveness, lawfulness, music, dance, drama, and art. With no evidence that they ever resorted to warfare.

      Makes one think of Genesis 1:31 “. . indeed it was very good.”

      More on this in: ‘The Anthropocene Misnomer and an Alternative . .’, free on the web.
      https://www.researchgate.net/publication/318447873_The_'Anthropocene'_Misnomer_and_an_Alternative_On_De-obfuscating_a_Discombobulating_Descriptor

      Blessings from Marty

  3. Actually, a good argument can be made that it’s not science and industry that have caused people to become alienated from society and each other, but lack of the means to acquire and possess the results of science and industry and become productive through ownership of capital instead of labor alone. As Daniel Webster pointed out more than two centuries ago, “Power naturally and necessarily follows property.”

    If you do not have power over your own life, then you cannot enter fully into society or sometimes not at all. This has been known from the earliest times. Aristotle called nominally free citizens who owned only their own labor “masterless slaves” because they lacked the ownership of capital that would have allowed them to enter fully into the “bios politikos,” the life of the citizen in the state. As William Cobbett, “the Apostle of Distributism,” noted,

    “Freedom is not an empty sound; it is not an abstract idea; it is not a thing that nobody can feel. It means, — and it means nothing else, — the full and quiet enjoyment of your own property. If you have not this, if this be not well secured to you, you may call yourself what you will, but you are a slave.” [A History of the Protestant Reformation in England and Ireland, 1827, §456.]

    This is why, as Fulton Sheen noted, the Church’s social teachings are founded solidly on the importance of widespread capital ownership, whether of small farms and family businesses, or w3idespread ownership of large enterprises with the full rights of property.

  4. This paean to Southern agrarian culture points to many values that contemporary American society would greatly benefit from. But it joins several recent essays in CWR that imply, if not declare unequivocally, that the Catholic ideal is the male gentleman farmer or small business owner who controls his own destiny and that of his family in virtual isolation to the rest of the undisciplined working masses who have to go to work everyday to get enough to eat for themselves and their family, then do it again daily till that worker wonders if he works to eat or eats to work. What percentage of the Catholics in weekend Masses are gentleman farmers and small business owners? Let’s hope the Church does not become a cult for them instead of doing all it can to help and inspire the bored working masses who may still self-identity as Catholic

  5. After all sensible arguments have been made regarding the dysfunction of our current world, and specifically in
    the Roman Catholic Church at this time in history, let’s recall our loving Father’s simplicity and orderliness and
    SEE that the greatest need is a call for OBEDIENCE to the TRUTH and the REPENTANCE that brings us back to
    what we have lost. May our Father in Heaven grant this GRACE! Amen

  6. Overshooting my headlights, I wonder about the likelihood of replacing agrarian living for the brutalizing division of labor that still constitutes much of industrial society.

    A managerial society which transfers its limitless appetites to the limited resources under out feet…And, what happens when traditional social networks are eroded, and not replaced except by either robber-baron capitalism (initially) or communism (the “new things” addressed by Pope Leo XIII in “Rerum Novarum” (1891, first in the series of the great catholic social encyclicals)?

    Gandhi counseled a sort of modernity with a spinning wheel in every home. And, today, it might be that the home computer again allows “agrarian” decentralization of job sites away from the high-rise, cubicle filing cabinets of our bloated and self-strangling cities. But, is the economic/political/cultural trajectory still self-limiting?

    Culturally, what did it mean when Francis Bacon (1561-1626) advanced the new experimental method, but also said he wanted to put nature “on the rack” to reveal her secrets for our control? Control? What if the complex of natural ecosystems is being controlled—gang-raped—by technical inventiveness on steroids?

    What if another Francis, Pope Francis, in his ghost-written “Laudato si” had proclaimed more directly and emphatically the moral continuity between individually aborting our own children and collectively aborting our Common Home? Our global amniotic sac—which has sustained our needs, and much more as economic development attempts to outrun zero-sum competition among rising expectations? And, what too, if the global amniotic sac is shrinking largely for cyclical and natural reasons?

    What if the downsized agrarian thing really is both a beneficial and totally necessary part of our future(s)? What if the endangered Amazon and other rain forests really are the lungs of our planet earth? Modernity’s version of individual farms, now writ large? What, then, do our steps toward adjustment (but not an elitist and manipulative “Reset”) actually look like? And when?

    What does the Catholic Social Teaching (CST) really look like—both Solidarity and Subsidiarity together, with neither sacrificed to the other? Why, too, are CST’s “families”—family sustainability!—overlooked in the Preparatory Document and Vademecum for the Synod on Synodality?

  7. Thanks for reminding us of the Southern Agrarians, Mr. Salyer. Alas, it may be too late to do anything about the current political disorder.

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