Back to the Land – Orthodoxy and Agrarian Economics

"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. . ."

Originally appeared at: Orthodox Truth

Recently, while in Serbia to visit family, I had the pleasure of giving two lectures to an association of young people dedicated to Orthodoxy, monarchism, and Serbian patriotism.  As are we here in the States, they also are facing the prospect of persecution by the current rise of the totalitarian World State, and they also are facing the need perhaps to provide for themselves outside the finance-oligarchy-controlled economic system.  With this in mind, I thought it opportune to get them thinking about an Orthodox perspective on economics based on land ownership and providing one’s own living through the labor of one’s hands, and what resulted was two lectures that also fit in well with many of the concerns we are addressing in Orthodox Survival Course.  So it makes sense to share these talks with you too.  

We have already addressed the topic of a truly Orthodox economics, in our recent talk on Christian Marriage, when we spoke of the married couple as a new Adam and Eve tilling the garden of their family property in response to the Lord’s command to labor given both before and after the Fall. I suggest you go back to Orthodox Survival Course #64, “Male and Female He Created Them,” and re-listen or re-read the section entitled “Be fruitful and multiply…have dominion…”. 

Lecture I on the Southern Agrarians and Organic Society: An Orthodox Perspective 

Belgrade, November of 2021


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. 

In our next talk, I hope to tell you more about the Southern Agrarians, and discuss with you how some of their insights can be applied to your situation here in Serbia.

Lecture II on the Southern Agrarians and Organic Society – An Orthodox Perspective

Belgrade, November of 2021 

Introduction – The Southern Agrarians as Poet Philosophers 

In the climactic scene of the Odyssey, Odysseus slays all of the suitors who have been trying to steal his wife and his property, including a priest.  But he spares the poet, because poets are beloved of the gods as those who express the mind of the gods to man.  In traditional societies, in general, it is the artists of language – the poets, bards, and storytellers – not professional academics or scientists, who convey the deepest,  universal, and immortal truths to ordinary people.   This is certainly the case with the group of writers called the Southern Agrarians.  Though they wrote a great deal about philosophy and society, they were not primarily academic philosophers or scientists, but poets and novelists.    They began their association as students of English under the tutelage of John Crowe Ransom at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee, where they formed a group informally called “The Fugitives.”  Along with Ransom, his students Allen Tate, Cleanth Brooks, and Robert Penn Warren, created the most influential school of poetry criticism in the 20th century, called “The  New Criticism,” which focused on the text of the poems themselves instead of analysis based on the author’s social or historical context.   Because of decades of cultural genocide against the South, these men have been thrown down the “memory hole” of mainstream academia and publishing, and now in 2021 you have to search hard to read their writings and read about them.   But in the mid-20th century, they were regarded as giants of literature and social thought even in mainstream academia North and South. 

The names of the Southern Agrarians who published *I’ll Take My Stand* in 1930 are these:  Donald Davidson, John Gould Fletcher, H.B. Kline, Lyle H. Lanier, Stark Young, Allen Tate, Andrew Nelson Lytle, H.C. Nixon, F.L. Owsley, John Crowe Ransom, John Donald Wade, and Robert Penn Warren.    Last week we drew on ideas in the essay by Andrew Lytle that appears in I’ll Take My Stand, “The Hind Tit,” to discuss aspects of traditional society vs. industrialized society.  Tonight I’d like to talk about Allen Tate’s essay “What Is a Traditional Society?, “ that appears in a collection of his essays entitled Essays of Four Decades published in 1969.  

Allen Tate and the Definition of Traditional Society 

At the conclusion of “What Is a Traditional Society?” Allen Tate offers this answer:  

“…”Ante-bellum man, insofar as he achieved a unity between his moral nature and his livelihood, was a traditional man. He dominated the means of life; he was not dominated by it.  I think that the distinguishing feature of a traditional society is simply that.  In order to make a livelihood men do not have to put aside their moral natures.  Traditional men are never quite making their living, and they never quite cease to make it.  Or put otherwise:  they are making their living all the time, and affirming their humanity all the time.  The whole economic basis of life is closely bound up with moral behavior, and it is possible to behave morally all the time…. “

By “ante-bellum man,” Tate means the Southern landholder, and especially the small farmer, living prior to the War Between the States, as well as those who continued the ante-bellum life as much as possible after the war.  Tate states four essential principles here: 

One:  Traditional man dominates his means of life; he was not dominated by it.  He works to live; he does not live to work.   Also he owns private means of production and has authority over it.   

Two: Traditional man makes a living in a moral way; he is not two people, an amoral man at work and a moral man at home.   He does not suffer the mental and spiritual schizophrenia of the modern worker, who performs meaningless and oppressive tasks x hours per week in order to have a comfortable life at home divorced from his means of support. 

Three:  Traditional man is not trying to acquire money in order to eventually avoid work; his work is intimately bound up with his life, and he is always not quite secure but always working.  In other words, he is obeying God’s command to Adam to labor as a condition of a truly human life, while at the same time depending on God, not his money, to take care of him.  He lives in the present and trusts God for the future.  God, not money, will provide for him. 

Four:  The economic basis of life is inseparable from moral behavior: Truly human – much less Christian – economics is a sub-category of ethical philosophy and moral theology, not an independent, amoral pseudo- science of numbers, graphs, and charts aimed at maximizing material gain, power, and pleasure for autonomous individuals considered in isolation from their moral obligations to God and man. The purpose of the science of economics is to ascertain what means of livelihood provide a sufficiency for the needs of man in such a way that he can please God and be truly human through his work, not in spite of it or in opposition to it.     

By contrast, “…finance-capitalism, a system that has removed men from the responsible control of the means of a livelihood, is necessarily hostile to the development of a moral nature.”  The modern system of economics, based on money manipulation to maximize profit regardless of the inherent worth of the labor or the product involved, and regardless of its effect upon the soul, is inherently evil.  It is good to recall here the insight of Dante, who places usurers and sodomites in the same circle of Hell, for the sodomites take what is naturally fertile and make it sterile, while the usurer takes what is naturally sterile and makes it fertile; he makes money breed.  

In this regard, I’d like to share the insight of a great Roman Catholic social philosopher of the 20th century, Fr. Denis Fahey.  In his two *magna opera*, *The Mystical Body of Christ in the Modern World* and *The Mystical Body of Christ and the Re-Organization of Society*, Fr. Fahey makes a simple and compelling comparison:  In a Christian economic system, finance serves production, production serves man, and man serves God.  In a diabolic system of economics, God is forgotten, man serves production, production serves finance, and the financiers worship money as their god, or, ultimately, the devil.      

There is actually a connection between Fr. Fahey and Allen Tate, in that, in middle age, Tate converted from the Protestant faith of his recent ancestors to Roman Catholicism.  This choice was bound up with his views on economics and traditional society.  

Allen Tate and Traditional Religion 

Like nearly every American of his generation, Allen Tate knew nothing about Eastern Orthodoxy.  As far as he knew, the most traditional and ancient form of Christianity was Roman Catholicism.   Tate converted to Catholicism not because of the things that separate us from the papists:  papacy, filioque, created grace etc.- doctrines concerning which we have no evidence of his interest or opinion.   He converted to Catholicism because of the aspects of that faith that is has in common with Orthodoxy:  the liturgical and sacramental vision of life, the symbolic and anagogical function of created natures, and the coherence of traditional theology with the traditional way of life.  Recall that for most of Tate’s lifetime, the Roman Catholic countries of Europe and Latin America were still primarily agrarian societies, while the economic giants of industrialism  were primarily the Protestant nations.  

As did the other Agrarians, Tate did not regard the Southern philosophy of life as something whole and complete.  They all regarded the Southern culture as something that had a lot of potential, but because of its short lifespan was not allowed to become mature and lasting.  The most defective aspect of the Southern culture was its most critical:  It had the wrong religion!  Far more clearly than the other Agrarians, Tate came to the critical realization that the South had a religion – Protestantism – that was poorly suited to support the actually Southern way of life.   He realized that the form of Christianity that existed in the ancient world and the middle ages – sacramental, liturgical, symbolic, embracing the whole of human activity with grace and transfiguration – was absolutely necessary as the religious basis for the traditional life that he and the other Agrarians believed in.    

As Orthodox Christians, we have been given the fullness of the faith that Allen Tate was seeking.  It is our sacred duty to apply the grace and truth we have received to our understanding of what constitutes moral economics, and take whatever steps we can – however small – to realizing that vision in our lives and passing it on to our children.  

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