Serious Read: Back to the Land

Serious Read: Back to the Land

One of our favourite websites is Russian Faith. Whether one is orthodox or not, it is full of wisdom, faith and inspiring reports. Today we take the liberty of reprinting a whole essay from this great site. It is the text of a lecture given by Father Steven Allen to a group of young traditionalists in Serbia - a country of which we are also particularly fond. It is entitled Back to the Land - Orthodoxy and Agrarian Economics. We believe that you will find it a welcome change from articles which, more often than not, sound the alarm and discuss problems, rather than solutions. As such, it is well worth putting aside the quiet time to read it and reflect upon its words and wisdom.

Today the specter of transhumanism, the radical distortion and degradation of human nature by means of genetic engineering, advanced techniques of mind control,  and behavior modification, haunts us as a real and present danger; it has by now become a concern not only to the specialized researchers and writers who have been aware of this thing for decades, but to ordinary people everywhere, because the crisis of the past year and one-half has included shockingly arrogant and public announcements by the transhumanists concerning their plans for the human race.   We know that there are powerful people under demonic influence who are using every available means of technocratic control – financial, scientific, medical, educational, media, the security apparatus, etc. – to bring this about.

In this frightening atmosphere,  it is easy for us to become consumed by worry over this danger and consumed by anger against these people, and for us to consume our energies and attention in reacting each day to the latest bad news – real or fabricated – about this and related issues.  My goal tonight and in our next talk is for us to withdraw from worries about the present and calmly to study the past, in order to understand how the human race, including us Orthodox people, has been prepared to accept such a terrible idea, has been prepared to surrender to such a terrible assault upon the image of God in man.  

Of course, we cannot cover all the related sub-topics – that would take several years of university level courses in all the humanities and sciences, as well as daily application of patristic wisdom and spiritual effort to our own souls and bodies.  Tonight we have a modest goal, to introduce the philosophy of agrarianism, the body of thought which explains, celebrates, and promotes the traditional and patriarchal life of the extended farming family as the foundation for the type of society that is most conducive to the truly human life, life lived in the pursuit of virtue.  

Many wise men, going back to pagan antiquity, have written on this topic (for example, Vergil in the Georgics) , but I have chosen to introduce you to a specific group of writers called the “Southern Agrarians”, simply because they are the agrarian philosophers I am most familiar with, and they lived very recently.  They applied an agrarian critique to the effects of industrialization on human family and community, and they predicted many problems that we have today.   I believe that there are Orthodox philosophers and writers who have addressed the topic, but because of my language limitations – I cannot easily read academic Romanian and Russian, and the Romanians and Russians seem to be the Orthodox people who most commonly think and write about such things – as a typical monolingual Anglo-American I can only speak confidently about the literature of my own people.    Their wisdom, however, is universally applicable and easily “baptized”; it fits in well with the traditional Orthodox teaching on man’s relationship with the rest of creation, on Christian community life, and the place of labor in the acquisition of virtue. 

Before we talk about the Southern Agrarians, however, let us ask, “What, in brief, are the Orthodox teachings on man’s relationship to nature, to community, and to labor, and how does this relate to our salvation?”  Having reminded ourselves of these things, we can then turn to the writings of agrarian philosophers of recent times – of whom the Southern Agrarians are one example – to help us form an Orthodox understanding of the terrible effects of industrialization and technocracy on human and Christian society.

Adam the Gardener 

God revealed to Moses that He placed our First Parents in the Garden of Paradise to “till and to keep it.”   The Holy Fathers teach us that this tilling and keeping were two-fold – Adam and Eve actually tended the plants in Paradise, and they also cultivated the garden of their spiritual intellects through constant attention and prayer of the heart.  Thus the ideal human life is revealed immediately in the first pages of Genesis as a life of working the earth in conjunction with the life of prayer.  An Orthodox person will right away, of course, identify this twofold activity as the foundation of monastic life, but, as we know, Orthodox family and civil organization are simply extensions into the world of the monastic ethos, not something essentially different. 

After the Fall, the labor of farming becomes man’s path of repentance:   he will draw his bread from the earth by the sweat of his brow.   The pleasant and painless work of Paradise has become toil and trouble.  But it is still blessed by God, and it is a holy obedience through which man will strive to repent and prepare his heart for the coming of the promised Savior.   For most of man’s history, both before and after the coming of Christ, this labor of farming was the occupation of the vast majority of mankind.   Family life, community life, and parish life, for the vast majority of Orthodox Christians, have been experienced in the setting of farming villages and communes.  As the Church missionized and baptized the nations, She also baptized the agrarian life – it became Christian. 

This does not mean that farm and village life is idyllic and sinless – we know better than that.  But it is that form of life blessed by God from the beginning as being the paradigmatic labor of man living in obedience and repentance before the Lord.  Only specific and small orders of society lived in cities before the industrial age – the royal, episcopal, and intellectual elites, craftsmen, and those involved in commerce and banking.  And even among the elites, the healthier elements of the aristocracy always preferred living on their country estates and managing their own land, “hands-on,” providing leadership for their tenants and peasants. It was always understood that urban life – and especially commercial activity – presented many temptations to moral corruption not present on the farm, and that the royal power must especially be zealous in curbing the influence of finance and commerce on the ethos of the nation, for these activities have a strong tendency to degrade the soul by their very nature, and zealous to protect farmers from the predations of the moneylenders and the corrupting influence of the commercial class and commercial culture.    Cities were intentionally limited in size and growth, and they served limited and specific functions within the society – they were neither the paradigm nor the normal setting of human existence.   The Jerusalem on high is indeed our goal, but the Jerusalem below remains what it has always been – the city that killed the prophets and murdered the God-Man Himself.   

So the model for Orthodox life is the monastery, which in its economic structure is essentially a farming commune, in which the Paradisiacal twofold labor of ora et labora is carried out from  now until the end of the world, as redeemed Adam continues his lifelong act of repentance and obedience, awaiting the Second Coming of Christ.  To the extent that family and civic life are Orthodox, they will strive to adapt this model to their circumstances.   In  such a social structure, agrarian economic organization will predominate, and the cities will serve an essential but auxiliary function, in support of the normative life of the majority, which is the life of the village.  (As an aside, I recall that Alexander Solzhenitsyn was once asked if Orthodoxy had its own form of environmentalism.   He replied that our environmental problems would be solved if the world were covered with Orthodox monasteries).     

The American South – Paradise Lost 

Discussion of the American South invariably becomes a heated argument about the institution of slavery and race relations.  This is because Marxist and progressivist propaganda, from antebellum times to our own day, has created a one-dimensional caricature of Southerners as a race of cruel slave-masters and violent racist fanatics; it is the only thing people imagine that they need to know – or think they know – about the South.   I shall not waste time rebutting such an intellectually vapid reductionism, which is not our task tonight.  At any rate, the writers called the “Southern Agrarians” are not figures from the slavery era, from antebellum times or the War Between the States.   They are 20th century men who reflected on the experience of their own people – the conquered and impoverished Southern people  –  who were, at the very time these men were writing, undergoing a destructive transition from an agrarian to an industrial society, a destruction these thinkers regarded as far worse than the military invasion and wanton destruction wreaked by the Federal armies during the years of 1861 to 1865. For the new destruction, unlike the old, was neither imposed from without nor intended to be temporary:  the Southerners brought it upon themselves, and it accomplished what neither Mr. Lincoln’s invaders nor even the fanatical postwar program of “Reconstruction” could not – an almost instant and radical elimination of the traditional way of life accomplished with a view to creating a permanent future state of things in determined opposition to the past.  I am speaking of what is called the “New South” – the transformation of the South into a modern industrialized society which took place between the 1920s and the 1960s.  In the period marked by my grandparents’ and parents’ lifetimes, Southern life became almost unrecognizable, nearly indistinguishable from the life of the long-commercialized and mechanized Northern states.   

There is no time now to tell this whole story and of all of its effects on our lives. There is no time for me to introduce you to all of the Southern Agrarian writers.  But I’d like to take a slice of life, an incident, as interpreted by one of these writers, to illustrate the difference between the technocratic and the agrarian perceptions of two bedrock realities:  time and space.  This is from the essay “The Hind Tit,” by Andrew Lytle, included in the original, classic collection of Agrarian writings, entitled *I’ll Take My Stand*, first published in 1930:  

“The most unique example of a garbled interpretation is found in the journals of one [Northerner named] Olmstead, who traveled through the South in the early [18]50s. In the hill country he called to a young ploughman to inquire the way, and when not one, but several ambled over and seemed willing to talk as long as he cared to linger, his time-ordered attitude was shocked at their lazy indifference to their work.  Others who were mixed in their geography, who thought, for example, that New York lay to the south of Tennessee, amazed him.  Although he could never know it, it was the tragedy of these people that they ever learned where New York lay, for such knowledge has taken them from a place where they knew little geography but knew it well, to places where they see much and know nothing.”  

So here we have the typical modern, industrialized man meeting traditional, agrarian man, and they exhibit clearly opposed attitudes towards time and space:  

Time: For the modern man, “time is money,” and therefore one should not stop work too long in order simply to converse with others:  you are going to lose money!    For the agrarian man, farming is not about making money, it’s about making food, and he knows that the work will get done, bit by bit – there’s no rush.   Meeting a fascinating foreign visitor, spending time with him, sharing one’s humanity with another, is worth sacrificing some hours of labor – work was made for man, not man for work.   And money is neither here nor there.   

Space:  For the modern man, the earth beneath his feet and the sky over his head are matters of indifference:  what matters is “knowing where New York is,” that is, the superficial mastery of fragmented data about foreign places and random stuff that are essentially meaningless in the day to day business of one’s own actual life.   A traditional man, by contrast, knows every inch of the place where he lives – the little streams, the kinds of trees and flowers, the habits of the animals,   the constellations that wheel overhead, the seasons of the year and their ancient rhythm, the condition of the soil from which he wrests his bread, the beloved nooks and crannies of a house and a garden inherited from generations before him and which he hopes to bequeath to his posterity.   The modern man is consumed by the frantic acquisition of a quantity of material goods and fragmented information.  The traditional man concerns himself over the quality of his experiences and acquiring wisdom.   I need not draw for you the obvious conclusion as to which outlook is more compatible with the life of the Orthodox Christian.  

So the great catastrophe for the South was not that we lost The War in the 1860s; the true catastrophe, rather, was that the type of man exemplified by the 1850s ploughboys in the story was rapidly disappearing in the 1930s.   The Union armies could only destroy our bodies, but we voluntarily destroyed our souls by chasing the Golden Calf of mechanized comfort and industrialized farming funded by debt and causing a massive flight to the cities that destroyed the patriarchal family life of farm, clan, and local community. 

Industrial Man Is the Predecessor of the Trans-human 

Earlier in the same essay, Andrew Lytle, writing in 1930, predicted precisely the outcome we are seeing today, which is that by the unlimited pursuit of technological control over nature to produce wealth and comfort, man would destroy himself.  He is asking, “What is the great conflict of our time?” And his answer is that it is the conflict between man’s remaining human vs. being destroyed by the technology that he himself has created.  Here’s what he says: 

“This conflict is between the unnatural progeny of inventive genius and men.  It is a war to the death between technology and the ordinary human functions of living.  The rights to these human functions are the natural rights of man, and they are threatened now, in the twentieth, not in the eighteenth, century for the first time.  Unless man asserts and defends them he is doomed, to use a chemical analogy, to hop about like sodium on water, burning up in his own energy. 

“But since a power machine is ultimately dependent upon human control, the issue presents an awful spectacle:  men, run mad by their inventions, supplanting themselves with inanimate objects.  This is, to follow the matter to its conclusion, a moral and spiritual suicide, foretelling an actual spiritual destruction.”  

In the earlier stage, then, of industrialism, man destroyed his natural family and community life.  Now, in another stage foretold by Lytle in the words above, man is actually replacing himself with his technology, making a “new humanity” that is something not quite human.   To look at this from the Orthodox perspective, we see that our sin of wanting power, comfort, and wealth, and cooperating in the Babel Tower project of modern and post modern technocracy, has brought upon us the judgment of God in the form of technocratic control that threatens not simply our freedom but our very existence.  

The forces arrayed against us are immense and, from the earthly point of view, impossible to defeat.  The demonically possessed global elites face no serious power centers of opposition to withstand the transhumanist project.    But we must at all times remember the absolute truth that everything and everyone is under the Providence of God and the sovereign Will of God.   The demons themselves are held in the unbreakable chains of His divine will and are inescapably the servants – albeit unwilling servants – of His plan for our salvation.   We must understand that they and their human slaves have been allowed to go this far in their plans for our destruction  by God.  And why?  To bring us to repentance.  And if there is sufficient repentance, God will have mercy, and once again, as has happened often in the past, the end of man will be postponed by God, as He once promised Abraham to spare Sodom if ten righteous men could be found there.  

Therefore, it is repentance that forms the Orthodox framework for a return, or at least a partial return, to agrarianism:  Returning to simpler and more human ways of living our lives will be pleasing to God, will be the agrarian component of our repentance.   Obviously more prayer and fasting, more frequent attendance at Church services, more confession and the reception of Holy Communion, are all components of repentance.  But it is not only the directly spiritual activities that constitute repentance – there must a radical re-evaluation and consequent revision of one’s way of life, so that our little, humble, daily activities reflect man’s obedience to God to labor and pray in simplicity of heart, so that we limit our appetites, so that we force our minds to pay attention to the real world around us, so that we are grateful for the earth beneath our feet and the sky over our heads.  Of course, we know that we are all products of postmodern, mechanized society; we have grown up from childhood alienated from the natural functions of traditional society, addicted to the convenience and comfort offered by technology. We are all products of the system and dependent on the system.  And there is a lot of technology that, obviously, we can use for the good. But in many small ways, to some extent at least, we can all take counter-revolutionary steps to return to the sanity of pre-technological life:  grow food, tend livestock, sing traditional songs and play music in our homes instead of only listening to music coming from electrical devices, learn a traditional craft and teach it to our children, tell stories and read books instead of gluing our eyes and minds to the news and social media, etc.   Young families should think seriously about  moving back to their ancestral villages or acquiring agricultural land anew if at all possible, and get away from the cities.   As one of the troparia of the Great Canon says, let us flee Sodom in time!   This will be difficult, and many of our efforts may fail or be very imperfect.  But with God all things are possible. 


To read the second lecture, you'll have to visit the Russian Faith site itself, where you will find it directly under this first one.