Thursday, February 28, 2013


The classical Greek understanding of agrarian life was carried on by the Romans, much like most of Greek culture.  Lucius Quinctius Cincinnatus (520-430 BC) is probably the best-known Roman farmer.  He began his life as a member of a noble patrician family, and grew up a wealthy politician who was a constant opponent of the plebians: the free, land-owning Roman citizens.  He prevented the plebs from passing laws that would protect their rights as citizens and their private property.  In fact his son, Caeso, was accused of capital crimes by the Senate when he drove the plebians out of the Forum, disrupting their meetings.  Caeso was condemned to death and Cincinnatus had to pay a large fine.  The payments forced him into the position of selling most of his landholdings and becoming a subsistence farmer on a small property.

Later, when Rome was at war with the Aequi and Sabine tribes, Cincinnatus was called on by the Roman Senate and elected consul.  His senators came to him while he was ploughing his field with a request for him to become dictator, or "Master of the People," for a period of six months.  Livy states that Cincinnatus immediately came to Rome and ordered every man of military age to be summoned to war by the end of the day.  The Aequi tribes were quickly routed by Cincinnatus and his men, who spared their lives.  Sixteen days after becoming dictator, Cincinnatus resigned his position and returned home to his farm.

Later, Cincinnatus was called upon once again to become dictator.  This time his job was to capture Spurius Mealius, who had conspired to crown himself king of Rome.  He once again brought about a swift justice and sent Mealius to trial where he was killed.  He then resigned his commission a second time and went home to farm.

Cincinnatus' pattern of taking on the mantle of authority two times, and willingly laying it down was deliberately reflected in the action of George Washington.  Two terms he was elected president before he willingly lay down his executive power and went home to his farm.  Consequently, every American president (except Franklin Roosevelt) followed this pattern, until it became law in the 22nd Amendment to the Constitution.

Wednesday, February 27, 2013


Hesiod was another poet who lived concurrently with Homer, in around the 8th century BC.  I am indebted to the agrarian writer Ernest Nathan Manning for his observations on Hesiod in his epic Works and Days.  This poem is primarily a discussion of practical agricultural work, but begins with a call to the Muses to help the poet come and sing Zeus' praise.  Hesiod says that Zeus gave man "good strife" to appease the gods and make him work hard, otherwise men would become lazy.  Much like the ancient Egyptians, Hesiod sees his religion and his farming as intertwined, and the gods smile on those who farm the land.  He speaks of agriculture by saying, "The man who works is much dearer to the deathless ones" (Works and Days 309).  Those who do not farm are warriors, whom Hesiod calls the "Men of Ares" who "do not eat bread."  Men who eat bread--who farm--are called to peace.

In passages 458-461, Hesiod describes the ideal farmer as one who works alongside, and in the same way, as his slaves.  "As soon as the ploughing-time reveals itself to mortals, then go at it, yourself and your laborers."  He praises what he calls "wealth," but a closer examination of his description reveals that he means living just above subsistence, not rich like we moderns imagine.  He calls wealthy the man who is able to provide for his family at least one full meal a day.

The classical Greeks, much like the Egyptians, veered somewhat from what the Hebrews thought of farming.  The Torah clearly places a high premium on the rights of individuals to own property, their obligation to use that property productively, and their duty to pass on property as an inheritance to their descendants.  However, there is no clear indication that the Hebrews viewed farming as morally superior to other pursuits--Father Abraham was a nomadic shepherd.  Still, the resultant political philosophy of the Greeks closely mirrors that of the ancient Hebrews; this being a healthy skepticism towards centralized authority, and the need of each household to be an independent sovereignty.  Self-sufficient farmers tend to be less dependent upon a centralized authority.  Hesiod criticizes his political leaders, and holds many of them in contempt.  Manning states that "These traits--a distrust of the concentration of power and a critical mind are essential to a politically conscious and active citizenry, and therefore the functioning of a democratic government."

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Farming and The Cyclops

The Israelite nation was not the only one in the ancient world to hold a high view of farming.  As mentioned with Moses, the Egyptian culture was entirely dependent on farming for their civilization, and worshiped the Nile River, which made their way of life possible.  The Egyptians had a haughty view of the agrarian lifestyle and looked down on other ways of life, despising the Hebraic shepherds and nomads (Genesis 46:33-34).  Farming was the noble mark of high civilization, anything else was barbaric.

Other ancient cultures held a similar view of agrarianism.  In the 8th century BC, the time of both the poets Homer and Hesiod, most of Greece's population was rural.  This was the time between the Mycenaean Period and the Archaic Period.  The Archaic Period marks the rise of the great Greek city-states, such as Athens and Sparta, however even during this time the majority of Greece was rural.

In The Odyssey, Homer's poem telling of Odysseus' 10-year journey home to his farm after waging war against Troy, Homer not only describes the trials Odysseus endures, but also his encounters with civilizations who were more barbaric than the Greeks.  When Odysseus' men encounter the Cyclops he states:
"We came to the land of the Cyclops race, arrogant lawless beings who leave their livelihoods to the deathless gods and never use their own hands to sow or plough...They have no assemblies to debate in, they have no ancestral ordinances; they live in arching caves on the tops of hills, and the head of each family heeds no other, but makes his own ordinances for wife and children" (Odyssey IX.113-124).

The Cyclops were the very definition of a barbaric race, which is evidenced by their attitude towards farming ("never use their own hands to sow or plough"), which results in a disorganized government.  They have no assembles or laws, but are each ruled by a patriarchal caveman.  Had he known him, Homer would not have thought highly of Abraham.

Monday, February 25, 2013

Farmer Kings of Israel

An interesting note about the Israelite kings is that they shared the same agrarian mindset as their earlier ancestors.  The Book of Proverbs was written by Israel's greatest king, Solomon, and the book is written by a man who is intimately familiar with farm life.  Solomon--the king, landowner, and farmer--is exhorting his son, who is clearly a farmer as well.  "Honor the Lord with your wealth, with the firstfruits of all your crops; then your barns will be filled to overflowing, and your vats will brim over with new wine" (Proverbs 3:9-10). 

The book also highly recommends a life of self-government, which is somewhat surprising when you consider that it was written by a king: "Go to the ant, you sluggard, consider her ways and be wise!  It has no commander, no overseer or ruler, yet it stores its provisions in summer and gathers its food at harvest" (Proverbs 6:6-7).

Even Proverbs 31, which is a description of a virtuous woman, describes a landlady who manages multiple farms.  In fact, this particular woman was the mother of the king: "She considers a field and buys it; out of her earning she plants a vineyard" (Proverbs 31:16).

The later kings of Israel continue to show an interest in agrarian endeavors, which includes the importance of the private property rights of their subjects.  The story of Naboth's vineyard in I Kings 21 illustrates a problem that would be unique in the ancient world: a king who is frustrated by his inability to take eminent domain.  King Ahab desired the vineyard of a farmer named Naboth, but when he offers Naboth a large sum of money for his vineyard, he refuses to sell his family's inheritance (Leviticus 25).  Ahab whines and pouts so much about this refusal that his scheming wife Jezebel has Naboth killed so that Ahab can take over his property.  Most tyrants of Egypt or Babylon would just take the land anyway, without even bothering to ask for it; but in Israel, Naboth had the legal right to say no, even to the king.

The history of the Hebrews illustrates the respect they had towards farming, land, and an individual's right to hold private property.  Their law created a culture where productive land, privately-held by self-governing landowners, was the key to individual liberty and freedom from oppression.  This tradition continues to all those who read and followed the Old Testament; through Medieval Europe down to the Puritans who came to America.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

A Longing for Egypt

Some 400 years later Moses is born, and Jehovah has told him that he is to lead the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt and into the land of Canaan.  This is the land he promised to the nomadic Abraham; a land "flowing with milk and honey."  However, the Israelites follow him grudgingly, at best, and must be taught that a free existence in Canaan is better than slavery in Egypt.

After the Israelites conquer the Canaanites and take their land, each tribe and family is given property.  The Hebrew law book, the Torah, provides guidelines for private property and farming.  Leviticus 25 explains that land could never be permanently sold, but had to remain in the family.  By the time of the Book of Judges, the Israelites had transformed themselves into a decentralized, agrarian society.  The Egyptian slaves have now become free landowners and farmers.  There was little or no central government in early Israel; Jehovah was their king, and the society was centered around the worship of God at the tabernacle.

Eventually, out of envy, the Israelites insist on an earthly king.  The judge Samuel explains that the king will take their produce, their land, and their own children (I Samuel 8:11-17).  Then he states, hearkening back to their situation under Pharaoh, "and you yourselves will become his slaves."  Having Jehovah as their king prevented the growth of tyranny and protected their lands and families, but a desire for the glory and centralized government of Egypt will also bring back the slavery of Egypt.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

From Nomads to Slaves

While Adam was the first farmer, his son Cain became nomadic only after he was cursed.  However, the story in Genesis now focuses on Abraham, who was a nomadic shepherd.  His story becomes one of God taking the wanderer and giving him land to settle in.  Abraham never owned any land in Canaan, except for his own gravesite (Genesis 23:4), but God promises to make his descendents landowners again.  Even after this promise, however, Abraham's descendents wander even farther, and must take refuge in Egypt because of a famine.  Since the famine was so severe, even the Egyptians could not afford to buy grain from Pharoah and sold themselves into slavery in order to eat.  Adam's descendents have now gone from farmers to nomads to slaves.

The Egyptians, incidentally, had a "high" view of farming, which was snobbish and idolatrous.  As they worshiped the fertility of the Nile River, they looked down on barbaric societies that had to herd animals or rely on hunting and gathering for food (Genesis 46:34).  This tradition of the pure nobility of farming is a philosophy that was likely handed down to the Greek civilization and later became an integral part of classical philosophy--from Greece and Rome to Thomas Jefferson and Wendell Berry.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

The Fruit of the Vine

Again, in opposition to modern anthropology, Genesis insists that the nomadic, tribal lifestyle does not occur until after the first murder.  Cain the Farmer is cursed for killing is brother, much like the ground that he works in.  Since he spilled his brother's blood on the ground, he may no longer farm fruit from it.  As a result, Cain becomes a wandering nomad, although he later built a city for his son.

Adam and Eve's other descendents, however, remain agrarian.  When Lamech's wife gives birth to a son he names him "Noah," which means "rest."  He prophesies that Noah will "comfort us in the labor and painful toil of our hands caused by the ground the Lord has cursed" (Genesis 1:29).  One of the ways he does this is by becoming a husbandman of a vineyard after the Flood.  The introduction of wine-making is one way that Noah redeems the fruit of the ground, as opposed to Cain's cursed wandering from it.

Friday, February 8, 2013

Cursed Fruit

The Hebrew tradition is unique among ancient civilizations, in that it calls farming the oldest profession.  Most modern scholarship insists that humans engaged in hunting and gathering for thousands of years before permanent cultivation of land took place, but the Jews have it backwards.  In the beginning God created a Man, put him in a garden, and told him to work.  He gave him a wife, told him to “be fruitful and multiply,” and to “fill the earth and subdue it” (Genesis 1:28).  The job given to Adam and Eve was one to get fruit from the ground and fruit from each other, filling the whole earth with farmers.  This husbandry, wedded to the art of housewifery, was put to work in subduing the whole earth: land, plants, and animals.  

However, after the Fall, the ground is cursed.  Farming becomes difficult and the ground resists cultivation.  Weeds and thistles grow to choke out man’s food.  Man’s vain job becomes one of struggling with the earth from whence he is made his entire life, only to die and rejoin the soil.  In fact, Adam and Eve’s children reflect this curse when Cain the Farmer becomes the seed of the serpent when he kills his brother, Abel the Shepherd.  God chooses animals as a sacrifice, not the fruit of man’s own struggle with the ground.