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Posted by on Jul 7, 2014 | 9 comments

The Aristocratic Ethics of the Agrarian Ideal

The Potato Growers by Jean-Francois Millet

In his essay, “Why I am Not Going to Buy a Computer,” Wendell Berry tells the world why he has no intention of buying a computer. Berry makes it clear throughout the essay that he believes choosing not to using a computer is the morally superior course of action. Some of this is because of the harm reduction in terms of the environment, but he also clearly believes that avoiding this new technology will enable him to be more fully human. This does not, for Berry, extend just to computers, as he mentions in passing that, “[a]s a farmer” he chooses  to “do almost all of [his] work with horses.”[1] Indeed, it seems that behind Berry’s argument in the essay is the classically American blend of agrarianism and Aristotelian virtue ethics that sees land ownership and the labor of farming as the forge that will shape virtuous citizens for the republic. I cannot say with certainty that this is what undergirds Berry’s thinking, having only read this one essay, but it is certainly well represented in similar writers, such as those over at the Front Porch Republic, many of whom are certainly great admirers of Berry.

There is much to commend the thinking of Berry and his admirers at FPR, certainly in their goals, and I suspect in many of their methods as well. I have definitely been an avid proponent of their thinking in the past. There is, however, one serious issue with this line of thinking that I wish to raise. Given my own sympathies for this viewpoint, even if such sympathies have waned, I by no means intend to tear down their whole edifice with this critique, but I think this criticism is well worth airing.

The problem, as I see it, is that their agrarian ideal is deeply aristocratic, opening virtue to a set of the population who must rely, in turn, on the labor of others to open up that lifestyle to them.

This is a problem with a long history in Western philosophy. Neither Plato nor Aristotle were under any illusion that their ethical ideal was open to all. To reach the forms (in Plato’s case), or to live the virtuous political or intellectual life (in Aristotle’s case) required wealth and leisure. Women, slaves, and the lower classes were by and large excluded from the virtuous life (with a small exception for women in Plato’s Republic). Indeed, even the Greek word for virtue, ἀρετή, means not only virtue, but “manliness.” In the American agrarian version of this ideal, it meant that only land owning whites were given the vote. When virtue is only open to a particular form of life, then only a narrow group of people can become flourishing human beings. The problem with this is that it is distinctly non-Christian. Christianity might hold that virtue is hard, some traditions would even say impossible, but we must believe that through Christ it is open to every human person, not restricted to a particular societally privileged lifestyle. And make no mistake, the life of Berry and those like him is extremely privileged, even if it is not a source of wealth. Their ideal, of course, is a wide distribution of the land, but the real feasibility of this is questionable.

For one thing, not all land is viable for subsistence farming. To have a place where you remain as a rugged farmer, tilling the land and growing in virtue as you do, you have to have land that works for this. It’s one thing if you have a Midwestern farm, but quite another if you are in southeastern America where the land is only good for growing cash crops like tobacco and cotton (and even then, only valuable if farmed with extremely low cost labor).  Even if those in less viable land wanted to move to places better suited for farming, they would lose the benefits of being historically rooted in a particular place which are so lauded by Berry’s ilk.

The necessary privilege goes beyond this accident of place, however. Most people simply cannot afford, financially, to give up job opportunities that force migration. This is especially true, I suspect, of the ethnic minorities in America[2]. Some, of course, choose transience for great wealth, but many more simply have no choice, especially if they are already loaded with debt from poor decisions earlier in life.

At least at this historical juncture, the life Berry lives is parasitic on the very kind of wealthy, transient lifestyle he decries. Berry does save money by avoiding expensive machinery, including computers, but he still needs money to pay for horses, candles, seeds, and all the other tools he’s morally okay with relying on[3]. Some of this money, undoubtedly, comes from his writings, others from his organic farming. In both cases, he lives in a kind of “eye of the storm.” He writes by hand, his wife types by typewriter, then he mails the manuscript off to a publisher who puts it into a computer, mass prints it, and ships it around the world for sales. Those who can both have the desire and the means to prefer organic, local farming are a wealthy, educated elite whose money comes from the world outside the agrarian bubble. Even if Berry himself is somehow able to avoid this entanglement, I highly doubt that others who wanted to follow in his footsteps could.

It is this, I suspect, that some of the responders to Berry were getting at when they made snide remarks about the utility of Berry’s wife[4]. Berry, for his part, found these remarks insulting to his wife, and they well may be, but they speak to the underlying reality of the privilege that allows Berry to live his ethically ideal life[5].

If FPR, Berry, and those like him want to propose a truly republican, and truly Christian, ethical framework that will open up a way forward for the sake of society and the environment, they will need to address this serious problem.


[1] Wendell Berry, “Why I am Not Going to Buy a Computer,” in What are People For? Essays by Wendell Berry, (San Francisco: North Point Press, 1990), p170.
[2] Indeed, I have a hunch, though I can’t confirm it, that the agrarian ideal that has so much hold on the imagination of white America might have less power in the African American community for whom the “golden” agrarian past is one of slavery and tenant farming.
[3] Berry, 171.
[4] Ibid., 172, 174.
[5] Ibid., 176.

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Kevin G.

I was born in Kenya and lived there for nearly four years. After returning to the states I moved to California, where I remained through to the end of college. I graduated from UCLA with a BA in philosophy in 2011, and recently completed a masters program in doctrinal theology in Vancouver, BC. I hope to eventually become a professor. I have an amazing family, incredible friends and a wonderful church community. Throughout my interests can be found an intense attraction to issues of human nature, be they in drawing people, philosophizing about human ethics or any number of other subjects. People fascinate me. My faith is, and always will be the central hub of my life, and more than just faith, my relationship to God and my place in His Kingdom.