January 22, 2012
None of this political speculation on the race for the Republican nominee for us! I’m sure both of my regular readers could care less about Newt and Mitt (sounds like a comic strip, don’t it?). My readers woke up this morning wondering who the next food ethics icon would be. My tendency would be to find someone with three names so that I can follow up the pattern of three previous blogs on George Washington Carver, Liberty Hyde Bailey and Ralph Waldo Emerson. Let’s see: Mary Baker Eddy? William Dean Howells? Except that as far as I know, neither of them had much to say about food ethics.
So we turn to Xenophon, who lived from approximately 430 – 354 BC, according to Wikipedia. Xenophon was a Greek general who led a hair-raising retreat following the defeat of Cyrus the Younger. He then retired to a farm near Sparta where he wrote a series of books, including a recounting of the expedition in support of Cyrus called the Anabasis. A loose English translation of Anabasis would be “Going Up the Country”. This leads me to speculate that Xenophon was the inspiration for Alan “Blind Owl” Wilson, who penned the immortal words “Well I’m so tired of cryin’ but I’m out on the road again. (I’m on the road again).” But that’s probably another story entirely.
Xenophon also wrote the Oeconomicus, which is mostly devoted to a philosophical discussion of agriculture. It’s set up as a dialog between Socrates and Critobulus, which shifts to a dialog between Socrates and Ischomachus, who is portrayed by Xenophon as being widely known among Athenians as an expert farmer. Of late, people have mostly focused on some passages where Ischomachus tells Socrates about how he instructed his newly wedded wife (some 15-25 years younger) in the arts of household management. He comes off as your run-of-the-mill male-chauvinist pig in this literature, except that no one uses the expression “male-chauvinist pig” any more. But that’s probably another story, too.
The Greeks are interesting because they developed a cluster of city-states, each of which institutionalized some form of political freedom and self-governance. They had to invent ways of talking to one another and deciding collectively what to do. They came to believe that some walks of life prepared a person well for the tasks of self-governance (which included self-defense), while others did not. Contemporary feminists (and I include myself here) fault them for thinking that women were unfit for these tasks, and Ischomachus’s instruction to his young wife is sometimes cited as exhibit A.
However, Ischomachus and Socrates both seem to agree that agriculture and farming are pretty central to the skills and talents of self-government, and since I live in world where I am surrounded by women farmers, I do not tend to read Xenophon’s praise of agriculture as particularly sexist. Some of it is dead obvious: “…where cultivation is inefficient, the garrisons are not maintained and the taxes cannot be paid.” But lots of it is rather subtle. A lot of it explores the links between self-discipline and the ability to inspire others. Other major portions are given over to explaining why “agriculture is the noblest of the arts because it is the easiest to learn.” This latter thought is connected to self discipline because a poor farmer can’t claim ignorance as an excuse, according to Xenophon, (eh, I mean Ischomachus). This leads him to the conclusion that “Husbandry is the clear accuser of the recreant soul.” That is, among farmers it’s pretty easy for us to separate the sheep and the goats, while among flute players or craftsman, one would need to have the arcane knowledge of the art to discern quality in its practitioner.
And speaking of arcane knowledge, there’s some pretty fascinating stuff implied by the way that Ischomachus convinces Socrates that agriculture is the easiest of the arts to learn: To wit, that Socrates (who was not a farmer) already knows everything about farming that allows Ischomachus to be the exemplary farmer that he is. Ischomachus convinces Socrates of this through a series of leading questions that exemplify Socrates’ own theory of knowledge and philosophy of education as it is presented in Plato’s Meno. But that’s probably another story entirely, and it wouldn’t make you a food ethics icon, in any case.
Paul B. Thompson holds the W. K. Kellogg Chair in Agricultural, Food and Community Ethics at Michigan State University