Among other things, Allen Tate, Donald Davidson, and the rest warned decades ago that an overemphasis on industry and applied science would alienate man from the natural order.Why the Agrarian critique of American culture rings true today – Catholic World Report
With the American political scene having clearly devolved into dysfunctionality, those of us seeking a constructive response are bound to reconsider first principles, examine alternative viewpoints, and delve into unexplored avenues of the American tradition.
For instance, it has been largely forgotten that although Thomas Jefferson was himself a man of wealth and privilege, his political theory cherished “the small landholders,” who were in Jefferson’s view “the most precious part of a state.” According to Jefferson, the yeoman farmer enjoys a self-sufficiency and self-reliance quite alien to the hired laborer – or for that matter even the shopkeeper, who is still somewhat dependent upon the goodwill of his customers. With a little fertile land and the skill to work it, a man might never want for bread or a roof over his head, and so might never be controlled by a “boss,” be that boss an actual manager, a group of investors, or the bureaucracy of a leviathan state.
So the self-sufficient landholder would be a man in a position to think for himself, vote however he liked, and express his honest opinions on public affairs without fear or favor. Hence Jeffersonians have tended to regard the decline of the family farm not merely with melancholy but alarm, for they foresee in the collapse of traditional farming communities the decline of the republic itself. In 1930, concern for the American republic inspired a particular group of Jeffersonians to collectively issue their now-famous manifesto, I’ll Take My Stand.
A number of specific issues provoked the aforementioned volume’s twelve authors to rally together. Most pressing, perhaps, was their concern regarding the deteriorating effects of industrialism and mass culture upon their home states and communities. Moreover, several of the Vanderbilt cadre had traveled abroad and/or served in the army during the First World War, and when they returned home to the rural South they found themselves regarding it with fresh perspective – and deeper appreciation. More than a few were put off by the negative press directed at Tennessee in particular – and the Bible Belt in general – during the so-called “Scopes Monkey Trial.”
Last but not least, their manifesto is in part a retort to the sarcastic and atheistic Baltimore journalist H.L. Mencken, who in a scathing essay dubbed the South “the Sahara of the Bozarts.” In effect, Mencken was insinuating that the only real American culture was to be found in Northern metropolises such as Boston, Philadelphia, or New York City.
So I’ll Take My Stand is first and foremost a defense of Southern rural culture, set in opposition to an aggressively urbanizing “New South,” which the authors regarded as little more than an imitation of the industrialist North – and a second-rate imitation, at that. That the Vanderbilt Agrarians did not oppose science, technology, or urban life as such is made clear in this excerpt from the “Statement of Principles” which serves as a preamble to the book:
An agrarian society is hardly one that has no use at all for industries, for professional vocations, for scholars and artists, and for the life of cities. Technically, perhaps, an agrarian society is one in which agriculture is the leading vocation, whether for wealth, for pleasure, or for prestige – a form of labor that is pursued with intelligence and leisure, and that becomes the model to which the other forms approach as well as they may. […] The theory of agrarianism is that the culture of the soil is the best and most sensitive of vocations, and that therefore it should have the economic preference and enlist the maximum number of workers.
So rather than say that the Vanderbilt Agrarians were against cities and technology and so on, it would be more accurate to say instead that they were very much for farmers and rural communities. And that they believed that cities which failed to maintain a healthy, vibrant relationship with the surrounding countryside would soon degenerate into squalid wastelands of ugliness and despair. To set up Progress as a god, they contended, was the surest way to rob men of their political liberty, stifle economic independence, and erode traditional culture.
Nor would insatiable Progress spare religious devotion, they continued:
Religion can hardly expect to flourish in an industrial society. Religion is our submission to the general intention of a nature that is fairly inscrutable; it is the sense of our role as creatures within it. But nature industrialized, transformed into cities and artificial habitations, manufactured into commodities, is no longer nature but a highly simplified picture of nature. We receive the illusion of having power over nature, and lose the sense of nature as something mysterious and contingent. The God of nature under these conditions is merely an amiable expression, a superfluity, and the philosophical understanding ordinarily carried in the religious experience is not there for us to have.
While the Vanderbilt definition of religion might have its limits, anyone doubting the claim that an overemphasis upon applied technology will lead to godlessness is invited to pay a visit to Silicon Valley.
Speaking of religion, it so happens that the Agrarians came to the approving attention of G.K. Chesterton, who saw their work as addressing some of his own concerns about the abuses of early 20th-century industrial capitalism. Indeed, Chesterton’s renowned friend and colleague Hilaire Belloc would personally engage the Agrarian project, contributing the anthropological study “The Modern Man” to Who Owns America?, the 1936 sequel to I’ll Take My Stand. Yet another contributor to Who Owns America? was Father John C. Rawe, S.J., an important advocate of the Roman Catholic rural life movement. Per Father Rawe, agricultural policy should be oriented toward the needs of family homesteads rather than the canons of investment and finance.
Later, two of the most prominent of the original Vanderbilt Agrarians would themselves became Catholic – one formally, the other through baptism of desire. The widely celebrated poet Allen Tate entered the Church in 1950 partly because he saw it as the only remedy for an increasingly depersonalizing mass-society, but also in part because of the persuasive powers of his friends Jacques and Raissa Maritain. As one biographer notes, the philosopher Maritain not only served as Tate’s godfather but somewhat romantically “compared Tate to the fifth-century Frankish king Clovis, whose conversion brought a nation into the church.”
As for the other Catholic Agrarian, Donald Davidson, his longstanding view of the Bible as the consummate tradition is illumined by the fact that – on the very night before he died – he revealed to his wife his intention to receive instruction in the Catholic Faith. (Mrs. Davidson subsequently became Catholic.)
To say that the Southern agrarian movement is out of fashion in this age of Zoom education, populist politics, and political-correctness on steroids is an understatement. So, no doubt many readers would just as soon gloss over any Catholic connection to it. Before allowing an unimaginative spirit of fear to dictate our intellectual life, however, we might concede the Agrarian thesis at least addresses many of the problems bemoaned by Catholic “natural lawyers” today.
Among other things, Tate, Davidson, and the rest warned that an overemphasis on industry and applied science would alienate man from the natural order. Given the perversities now taken for granted and the spectacle of COVID hermits living life in self-imposed isolation, all in a context of “trusting the Science,” how can any serious Catholic entirely dismiss the Agrarians’ warning?
We might also mull over Tate’s specific contribution to the Agrarian manifesto, wherein he identifies the technocratic dream for what it is – a surrogate religion:
We know that the cult of infallible working is a religion because it sets up an irrational value; it is irrational to believe in omnipotent human rationality. Nothing infallibly works, and the new half-religionists are simply worshipping a principle, and with true half-religious fanaticism they ignore what they do not want to see – which is the breakdown of the principle in numerous instances of practice. It is a bad religion, for that very reason; it can predict only success.
Note that even before coming into the Church, Tate questioned the dogma of technocratic secularism more than do many clergy today. In any event, neither absurdly off-target election night predictions, nor decades of worthless military reports about Afghanistan, nor protean COVID decrees have done all that much to diminish the cult of infallible working. If anything, the Agrarian critique rings sharper than it did when it was first issued.