Ralph Waldo Emerson

January 15, 2012

Are farmers more virtuous than the rest of us? Is farm work character building? Does the small farm environment encourage the formation of positive character traits, at least in comparison to city life?

I’m not sure how either of my regular readers would answer today, but there was a time when affirmative responses to all of these questions would have been taken for granted. I suspect that even if many people would be skeptical or hesitant about it now, the thought that working on the farm is good for you in a spiritual sense still lurks in the unconscious. Getting a little vicarious virtue is part of the CSA way.

This idea shows up in a number of different cultural traditions, and it takes on different shadings and hues. I’ve noted before that people who attribute this idea to Thomas Jefferson generally don’t understand Jefferson, who was interested in a fairly specific sense of political loyalty when he wrote that “farmers make the best citizens.” I think that for Americans, the idea that farmers cultivate virtue at the same time that they cultivate their crops really starts to take hold later. It’s a theme that emerges in what some say is the first authentically American literary movement: Transcendentalism.

As for myself, I’ve always thought that there was something inherently bogus about this term “transcendentalism”. I could say more, but it would be boring, I assure you. So just go with the thought that the word is magniloquent and the whole movement panegyric (e.g. bogus) and we’ll get right to the point about farming and virtue. There’s no doubt that the doyen of Transcendentalism was Ralph Waldo Emerson and that Emerson did, indeed, think that farming was deeply connected to moral virtue. As for myself, I’m just happy to throw words like “doyen” and “panegyric” around on a grey January Sunday, if only to display my own personal magniloquence.

Emerson believed that human beings come into the world with a set of aptitudes and undeveloped abilities. To live well—to live a morally good life—is to realize those aptitudes as fully as possible. We do this through engagement with whatever environment we happen to find ourselves inhabiting. Emerson himself started out as a Congregationalist preacher, and he thought that writing poetry was his own personal path to self-realization. He came to believe that he had been mislead by living in a hothouse intellectual environment that was not actually all that well suited to expression of the most fundamental human capabilities.

So relatively late in his life, Emerson wrote an essay called “Farming” in which he praises the work that farmers do as more closely aligned to the capabilities that human beings have “by nature”. Think if it like this: A dog can be taught to walk on its hind legs by being placed in an environment where getting treats and avoiding beatings depends upon it. But herding sheep or tracking a pheasant would be a more natural expression of the natural capabilities inherent to the species Canis lupis. The species Homo sapien has different natural capabilities, but can similarly be placed in environments where survival depends upon doing tricks that are actually contrary to our natures.

“Cities make men talkative and entertaining,” wrote Emerson, “but they make them artificial.” Emerson’s journals are full of entries where the farm life is praised for it’s “adaptive fit” with the traits that human beings have “by nature.” Emerson’s most adept student Henry David Thoreau doubted this, by the way. Thoreau had more practical experience with farmers than his mentor, and he saw that they could become mean and penurious. His time at Walden Pond should be read as an experiment intended to test Emerson’s theory about human nature. As for myself, I think Thoreau surpassed his teacher, who ever remained imprisoned in magniloquence.

Paul B. Thompson is the W.K. Kellogg Professor of Agricultural, Food and Community Ethics at Michigan State University

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