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Jefferson’s Bequest

(p.277) Conclusion
The Agrarian Vision
Paul B. Thompson
University Press of Kentucky

Abstract and Keywords

It is better to be lucky than smart when it comes to sustainability. Jefferson's legacy resides in the indirectness of this approach. His goal was to avoid both dissolution and subjection from foreign powers, but he was also wary of consolidating too much power in the executive office. Jefferson was thinking more along the lines of functional integrity, although his notion of functional integrity was especially attentive to the economic and political conflicts that can rip a society apart. Jefferson himself, whatever his shortcomings, was the greatest champion of liberty this America has ever had. One thing is for sure, he was fully conversant in the philosophical language of rights as well as its applicability to problems of justice and liberty.

Keywords:   legacy, dissolution, integrity, liberty

When it comes to sustainability, it is better to be lucky than smart. This does not mean that we should abandon intelligence completely. Thomas Jefferson’s approach to the political sustainability of the new American republic illustrates how intelligence can be applied to the problem of sustainability with cunning and guile. When Jefferson became president of the United States in 1801, the immediate threats to the sustainability of America lay in factionalism and in the potential for foreign invasion. Jefferson might have approached this problem by appealing to Americans’ patriotic zeal, buttressed, perhaps, with a bit of fear. Instead, he followed a course outlined in his writings from the 1780s, pursuing policies to encourage the growth of farming at the expense of manufacturing and urban growth.

Jefferson’s legacy resides in the indirectness of this approach. Jefferson’s goal was to avoid both dissolution and subjection from foreign powers, but he was also wary of consolidating too much power in the executive office. As such, the path he followed was to populate the American republic with citizens whose abiding interest was coincident with the medium-term stability of the government. As Americans have seen in recent times, traders and manufacturers are not “tied to their country & wedded to its liberty & interests by the most lasting bonds.” Indeed, traders and manufacturers operate wherever in the world they find the most advantageous terms. Economic risks from insolvent or unstable governments are part of their calculations, to be sure, but these risks might be overshadowed by cheap labor or materials. And the economic risk of operating in an unstable political climate can be mitigated by an ironfisted application of power. Repressive regimes have proved to be quite capable of generating conditions favorable to manufacturing and trade.

(p.278) Farmers, in contrast, are invested in the improvement and development of their land. They are “tied to their country” (Jefferson’s words) in a literal sense. The word country in this phrase is felicitously ambiguous. It can mean “rural districts, including farmland, parkland, and other sparsely populated areas,” or, more simply, just “a tract of land,” but it also means “a state or nation” and “the land of one’s birth or citizenship.”1 It is the tie to the tract of land on which they farm that bonds farmers to the land of their citizenship so firmly. In choosing the Louisiana Purchase over Alexander Hamilton’s plan for industrial development, Jefferson thus exhibited a cunning in his approach to the sustainability issues of America circa 1800 that serves as a model for us today. It is worth exploring how this mode of thinking differs from a more direct approach.

We might think of straight-line rationality as fixing one’s goals, then choosing the shortest, most direct route toward them. This is the classic model of rational action favored by economists and utilitarian philosophers. This mode of thinking might lead us to think of sustainability in terms of resource sufficiency and then to calculate which public policies would achieve that goal. Had Jefferson thought in this mode, he might have favored Hamilton’s plan. It would all depend on how the comparative economic evaluation of the Louisiana Purchase versus investment in industrial development played out. Indeed, from this point of view, the Louisiana Purchase was industrial development: we could spend the money on factories or on land. In resource sufficiency terms, we evaluate this choice by computing the long-run returns on either option and then choosing the one with the most favorable returns, once externalities have been included. Consistent with an industrial philosophy of agriculture, farming is just one sector of an industrial economy. Using straight-line rationality to think about sustainability, we must evaluate investments in different sectors of the economy in common terms if we are to make a valid comparison of how each contributes to resource sufficiency. That is what it means to be smart.

Jefferson, however, was thinking more along the lines of functional integrity, although his notion of functional integrity was especially attentive to the economic and political conflicts that can rip a society apart. An industrial society might have sufficient resources to sustain itself, but the “mobs of great cities” may well incite political tensions that cannot be overcome without violence or repressive applications of state power. Recall that Jefferson had been ambassador to France not long before the (p.279) Reign of Terror that lasted for nine months beginning in September 1793. The sustainability that Jefferson was seeking required “the manners and spirit of a people which preserve a republic in vigour,” and these were to be achieved by facilitating vocations that would encourage Americans to see themselves as irrevocably wedded to a common fate. Citizens in this mold would be less tempted by factions that sought dissolution into smaller and weaker political units. They would turn up for military service and would not abandon their country in search of more attractive terms for trade. They would be equally leery of too much consolidation at the federal level. Because they could not preserve both their wealth and their freedom by immigrating to new lands, they would guard their liberty through “eternal vigilance.” Jefferson’s praise of farming must be seen in this historical context if we are to appreciate his legacy for approaching sustainability today.

Jefferson, of course, did not speak in terms of sustainability, much less functional integrity. Jeffersonian democracy was articulated by an appeal to agrarian ideals. It was a language quite unlike that of the complex economic and ecological models used to flesh out resource sufficien-cy or even ecological integrity today. There is no calculating “the greatest good for the greatest number” with Jefferson and no appeal to the general welfare at all. This omission is not because Jefferson suffered from math anxiety. The man loved numbers, but he did not appeal to them in his moral and political writings. Contemporary historian Garry Wills is fond of quoting a passage from a letter Jefferson wrote to his ward Peter Carr in 1787: “State a moral case to a ploughman & a professor. The farmer will decide it as well, & often better than the latter, because he has not been led astray by artificial rules.”2 One point we should take from this is that the language of virtue and moral character may possess more cunning than putatively smart approaches that address sustainability solely through the lens of complicated mathematical models.

It is also quite striking that Jefferson’s approach to the problem of sustainability eschews any talk of rights and justice. The reason is simple. The problems that Jefferson was addressing in his celebrated passages on farming and democracy were not about rights and justice. They were about the sustainability of a democratic polity. This is an especially poignant observation in light of Jefferson’s status as an advocate of human rights through his authorship of the Declaration of Independence and the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom (1779), as well as his insistence (p.280) on the inclusion of a Bill of Rights in the U.S. Constitution. As historian Edmund Morgan writes, “Jefferson himself, whatever his shortcomings, was the greatest champion of liberty this country has ever had.”3 If there is one thing we can be sure of, it is that Jefferson was fully conversant in the philosophical language of rights as well as its applicability to problems of justice and liberty. Yet unlike contemporary political theorists who presume that all public goals (including sustainability) must be rationalized in terms of welfare and utility, on the one hand, or rights and justice, on the other, Jefferson did not hesitate to express one of the most fundamental tenets of Jeffersonian democracy in terms of moral character, “the spirit of a people,” and agrarian ideals.

We dishonor Jefferson’s bequest if we insist on reading the agrarian passages too literally. These are not simpleminded exhortations to engage in farming! Even in his own time, Jefferson realized that encouragement of manufacturing was essential to the future of American independence. What we should take from Jefferson’s agrarian writings is his general approach to the problem of sustainability. It is notable for being indirect rather than “smart,” for its reliance on the moral and philosophical language of virtue and character, and for the way it grounds that language in the daily, material habits of citizens. These material habits do indeed affect our thinking, but not by encouraging us to “make better choices,” as an advocate of straight-line rationality might suggest. The habits of the farmer make certain needs, problems, and interdependencies transparently obvious. And it is through cultivating such habits that we get lucky instead of smart. But it is patently obvious that the problems of sustainability we face are quite different from those faced by Jefferson. As such, our use of agrarian ideals requires adaptation and even revision if they are to serve us well. Perhaps at this point it is worthwhile to return to Thomas Inge’s five themes:

  1. 1. Religion. Farming reminds humanity of its finitude and dependence on God.

  2. 2. Romance. Technology corrupts; nature redeems.

  3. 3. Moral Ontology. Farming produces a sense of harmony and integration, while modern society is alienating and fragmenting.

  4. 4. Politics. Rural autochthony provides the backbone for democracy.

  5. (p.281) 5. Society. Rural interdependencies and reciprocities provide a model for healthy community.

A reformulation of Inge is clearly in order if we are to move toward an adequate conceptualization of sustainability. Although earlier chapters provided the basis for rethinking some of Inge’s themes, others have only been touched on.


The dependence on God mentioned by Inge should stress ecological integrity, or it should involve an explicit theology that links God and nature (as contemporary ecology understands it). My discussion of agrarian ideals in chapter 1 draws on the ancient Greek poet Hesiod, who understood all of nature to be imbued with the divine presence. The connection with the religion of Hesiod thus links God, as Inge understands the deity when he talks of finitude and dependence on God, directly with nature or ecological integrity as I understand it throughout this book. The theology gets more complicated as we move into the Christian era. Historian Lynn White wrote a very influential article in 1967 arguing that some Christian beliefs might be the source of our present-day ecological crisis. White’s thesis is debated, but it is clear that early Christians took great pains to distinguish the Christian conception of God from the pantheistic ideas of Hesiod. T us, some bridge building is required between my development of nature as ecological integrity and a religious understanding of God that would be familiar to contemporary Americans. There are many contemporary theologians who have undertaken this kind of bridge building. The best known may be John Cobb, whose book For the Common Good, written with economist Herman Daly, is already a classic in the literature of sustainability.

Norman Wirzba has developed a theological approach that is directly mindful of agrarian ideals. Wirzba argues that one key task for a reformulation of the religion tenet is to disentangle it from the metaphysical assumptions of the Cartesian age, which saw “mind” and “matter” as wholly discrete realms of being. The soul comes to be identified with Descartes’ idea of the “subject”—a disembodied onlooker to the events of a person’s life. It is a conceit seductively conducive to religious traditions that stress the immortality of the soul. It encourages religious believers (p.282) to dissociate themselves from their embodied experience. It is easy to see how this picture becomes attractive to anyone approaching death. My own mother (hardly a conventional Christian) spoke of her own death in terms of leaving behind a body racked with multiple debilities and dancing on the clouds. But however consoling this picture might be, a religious faith constructed around mind-body dualism becomes bogged down in numerous difficulties when it is used as a guide for life. It can be taken to imply that we need not take care of our bodies or, in extreme cases, that we can denigrate and even torture our bodies (and others’) in pursuing purity of soul. Most especially, it suggests that the earth is not really our home and that faith is primarily about something that happens elsewhere. Religious faith ceases to address living in this world and becomes obsessed with how to get out of it. Wirzba’s subtle and rewarding treatment of these themes draws on Wendell Berry’s work, and especially on the long chapter “The Body and the Earth” from The Unsettling of America. That same text was the primary focus of my discussion of Berry in The Spirit of the Soil, and I refer readers to Wirzba or to my book for a more developed discussion of how we might take a more fully embodied and alive approach to Inge’s religion tenet.

There are also more straightforward connections between religion and food. British philosopher Roger Scruton interprets the contemporary environmental movement as an attempt to recover some sense of piety “in a world where the results of human presumption are so apparent.” He sees vegetarianism, for example, as an instinctive response to “the impious nature of much that we do by way of supplying, fulfilling, and displaying our appetite for the flesh of other species.” In a passage reminiscent of Albert Borgmann’s remarks on the culture of the table, Scruton writes: “Rational beings are nourished on conversation, taste, manners, and hospitality and to divorce food from these practices is to deprive it of its true significance.” The traditional religious practices of saying grace and of fasting or feasting situate food consumption within a nexus of meaning that gives rise to fundamental understandings of personal and community identity. Like Borgmann, Scruton decries fast food because it has deprived us of the full sense of being at home. Eating, in other words, is a proper domain for piety, which Scruton defines as “the underlying recognition of our fragility and dependence, and the attitude of respect toward the world and the creatures that live in it, upon which religions draw for much of their inspiration.”4

(p.283) Clearly, nothing that can be said in a brief conclusion will satisfy the need for a full-scale revision and reconstruction of any of Inge’s tenets. This may be especially true of the religion tenet. The important point about the farmer’s sense of humility before God is that it comes readily to an agrarian people by virtue of their closeness to and dependence on divine providence as expressed through changes in the weather; raiding by insects, birds, or other “pests”; and the loss of fertility through erosion, nutrient depletion, and genetic drift. Can more mindful food practices help us recover a sense of natural piety? One would think that food practices need to recapture some of farming’s vulnerability to the vicissitudes of nature to do so, but that is a question that only a more extended effort in environmental philosophy (abetted, one would hope, with some experimentation) can answer.


Antitechnology Romanticism is rampant in contemporary debates on food and agriculture. The photographic images in Andrew Kimbrell’s Fatal Harvest: The Tragedy of Industrial Agriculture emphasize the tec-tonically built and technologically maintained appearance of modern farming. In contrast, the front cover of Tom Lyson’s Civic Agriculture shows a barefooted young woman harvesting vegetables in a basket. Opposition to genetically engineered crops has been a signature for those enrolled in the sustainable agriculture movement, while boosters of industrial agriculture continue to insist that it will be needed to feed the world. There is thus a sense in which Inge’s romance tenet—that technology corrupts while nature redeems—hardly needs any revising at all. Although few contemporary advocates of alternative agriculture would be comfortable spouting faith in the farmer’s natural piety, many seem quite at home with the view t hat technology will inevitably lead us astray.

This attitude hardly seems generalizable to larger questions of sustainability. It seems obvious that achieving any semblance of sustainability with respect to energy use, pollution and toxins in the environment, or climate change will require us to embrace new and better technology. Modern bicycles, hybrid cars, wind turbines, geothermal heating cores, and solar energy technologies are in no sense a throwback to earlier technologies, much less a return to nature. Although many people seem to think that we can preserve a romance tenet when it comes to food and farming, almost no one thinks we can do so when it comes to other aspects (p.284) of sustainability. So here, it appears, the articulation of agrarian ideals provides little insight into problems that are not directly related to farming.

I would caution against this reading of Inge’s remarks on technology, however. A revised version of the romance tenet should be fully articulated in terms of the link between environment and technology expressed by Albert Borgmann and David Strong. This theme is discussed at some length in chapters 5 and 6. My point there is that the agrarian ideal of community is still critical for a meaningful and rewarding life and that technologies have been inimical to the habitual daily practices that create meaningful lives. Borgmann’s view of technology is also a key topic for Aiden Davison in his book Technology and the Contested Meanings of Sustainability. Davison follows Borgmann in claiming that technology corrupts because the convenience provided by technical devices eventually drains our lives of meaningful encounters with people and things. The entanglements and complications of working out our material lives—eating, staying warm, getting dressed, cleaning up—may seem annoying, but one may find that being relieved of these entanglements and complications also leaves one disembedded, alienated, and adrift.

An important task for sustainable living is to find patterns and habits that connect one to nature and to other people. There is thus an important complementarity between meaningful work and the religious virtue of piety. Although one can hardly object to devices that relieve human beings of toilsome entanglements, the simple fact is that friendship, community, appreciation of beauty, enchantment, and personal satisfaction grow out of the trouble we take to accomplish the normal tasks of daily life. One by one, technologies relieve us from toil and entanglement, and we are satisfied that the benefit of such relief compensates for any decline in the satisfaction we take from our trouble. When all those tasks can be accomplished well enough without an engaging, open-ended encounter with things—without what Borgmann calls a focal practice—life becomes empty of meaning. Our interactions with others become defined by the paradigm of commodity exchange, and we find ourselves isolated, alone, and profoundly disappointed by technology’s unfulfilled promise. Nature redeems in the sense that natural things are replete with possibility, but also in the sense that the classic agrarian lifestyle paints a picture of the way the farm household becomes thoroughly embedded in nature through normal practices of husbandry and household care. We need (p.285) not all become farmers, but we may indeed recapture focal meaning in our lives by pursuing what Borgmann calls “the culture of the table.”

Moral Ontology

Moral ontology is not a phrase that comes dripping off the tongue of the common person. But the theme of moral ontology has appeared throughout the chapters of this book, even if it surfaced as an explicit topic only briefly in chapter 6. The great French philosopher Michel Foucault (1926–1984) characterizes moral ontology as having a four-part structure: (1) the substance éthique, or the aspect or part of myself that is concerned with morality; (2) the mode d’assujettissement, or the way in which people are invited or incited to recognize moral obligations; (3) tekhné, or the means available for becoming ethical; and (4) téléology, or the kind of being to which we aspire when we behave in a moral way. Foucault’s schema can help us unpack what Inge means by moral ontology.

Inge’s statement of the moral ontology tenet overlaps substantially with the way I reformulated his romance tenet: farming produces a sense of harmony and integration, whereas modern society is alienating and fragmenting. It can also be read as expressing what Foucault calls a téléology: we aspire to harmony and integration when we behave in a moral way. Many moral philosophers would interpret “harmony and integration” as holding an internally consistent set of moral beliefs, but Inge’s contrast with the alienation and fragmentation of modern society suggest a different mode d’assujettissement. We are invited into morality not through an adjustment of our beliefs but through an appreciation of how the life lived by farmers creates a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts. The tekhné at work here is practice, rather than rational reflection. All this suggests a substance éthique in agrarianism that can best be appreciated in contrast to the substance éthique that characterizes most of twentieth-century philosophical ethics, including the main approaches in environmental philosophy discussed in chapter 1.

In mainstream environmental philosophy (and in much of philosophical ethics in general), each element in Foucault’s structure revolves around the Cartesian subject, understood implicitly as a disembodied decision maker. It is one’s facility of choice, one’s will, that is the focus of morality: the substance éthique. One is invited into a consideration of morality (mode d’assujettissement) in environmental ethics through a challenge to one’s beliefs, by considering environmental impacts. The (p.286) tekhné is argument, persuasion, and the application of standards for logical consistency. For utilitarians and other consequentialists, one aspires to be ethical by aligning one’s preferences with those outcomes that produce the best result for everyone affected. Those who emphasize rights or intrinsic values in nature hope to align their conduct with the appropriate constraints on one’s opportunity set that make us moral. The behavior that defines the téléology of both approaches is that of rational decision making in full cognizance of environmental impact: being smart. These approaches differ from one another in only the narrowest terms.

Contemporary environmental philosophy (and here I include environmental economics and other approaches to environmental policy) has been embroiled in an unsatisfying debate over the way this dogma of environmental impact should be understood. Is the value we attach to environmental impacts human centered or nature centered? Under the reign of the Cartesian subject as the only credible substance éthique, valuation is an exercise in reflecting and respecting subjectivities. The most politically persuasive approaches have been anthropocentric: it is consideration for other human subjects that we should find persuasive. Radical environmentalists have labored to persuade us that animals, ecosystems, Gaia, and other entities in nature are adequately subject-like. In this they broaden the substance éthique beyond the conventional notion of will, and they suggest a téléology inclusive of a capability for recognizing this broadened conception of value. Yet by maintaining a commitment to the tekhné of rational persuasion, they ultimately return to a very human notion of the substance éthique. It is ultimately the will, the decision-making facility, that is affected by argument.

In suggesting that harmony and integration are achieved through practice rather than rational persuasion, agrarian ideals point toward a different substance éthique. They express profound senses in which humans are both dependent on nature and more fully realized when they are at home within it. Humans risk all and forgo any chance of true fulfillment when human will becomes the touchstone for moral philosophy, but an ideal of pristine nature in which humans are absent is of little help at all. It is thus not the case that we must look for analogues to the Cartesian subject in the natural world. My frequent references to Aristotle and the ancient Greeks hint that a moral ontology focused on the rights and duties (or pains and pleasures) of conscious or sentient creatures is much less salient for sustainability than a moral ontology attentive to virtues, (p.287) to the formation of moral character, and to the expression and realization of the community ideal.

This suggests that a more appropriate substance éthique might be embodied practice, especially in quotidian tasks in which one’s sense of self as a subject recedes entirely into the background as one becomes fully absorbed in a task. It suggests further that the téléology of harmony and integration is pointed toward relatively unreflective habits, where one may not experience oneself as a decision maker at all. We aspire to be lucky rather than smart. The mode d’assujettissement is very indirect, as when Jefferson tried to promote sustainability not through exhortation but by the encouragement of farming. Tekhné emphasizes doing and practice over thinking. Of course, Jefferson and I both exhort others to consider their beliefs and to think in new ways. It is not as if intelligence is irrelevant to sustainability. The point, however, is that an environmental ethic is much less concerned with valuation and decision making and far more focused on trying to understand how our habits and material practices can be made more sustainable.


This book has dealt quite a bit with questions of political theory. Readers who want more should consult Kimberly Smith’s book Wendell Berry and the Agrarian Tradition for a complementary approach to agrarian political theory. We have gradually moved through many of the keystone ideas showcased by one political theorist or another: utility, libertarianism, the social contract. In every case, I have tried to soften the way contemporary professors of politics have formulated these ideas in terms of what Jefferson would have called “abstract rules” and tried to articulate them in light of agrarian ideals. This means that my own approach to politics is rather unlike Inge’s emphasis on rural autochthony, although one can articulate autochthony in various ways. Inge’s approach to politics is actually rather close to the central agrarian tenet: farmers make the best citizens. Yet unless I am just dead wrong about Jefferson, he did not believe that rural autochthony is the backbone of democracy. What he believed was that farmers’ interests and practices were more consonant with those of an emerging republic. In lieu of recapitulating the argument of the entire book under the heading of the politics tenet, it may be more useful to make a few additional comments on Jefferson’s bequest.

(p.288) Jeffersonian democracy is, as I understand it, committed to liberal political ideals that are familiar points of debate among utilitarians, libertarians, and egalitarians. It differs from contemporary political theory in two important ways. First, it takes agrarian ideals quite seriously. Part of what is important here is merely the word ideals as distinct from utilities or rights. Efficiency, too often overspecified in economists’ definitions, is a perfectly respectable ideal and one that, as I argued at length in The Spirit of the Soil, is a great legacy of the agrarian tradition. As an experientially based and slightly vague notion that informs our thinking without dominating it, the ideal of efficiency gives useful direction to political debates. It may even counterpoise ideals of liberty and equality in some settings. But consonant with the main thrust of this book, there is more than just this theme of ideals. Jefferson’s rhetoric of farming was actually his way of addressing problems of political and social sustainability—problems that might be articulated in terms of solidarity. By countenancing agrarian ideals, the Jeffersonian democrat adopts a political vocabulary in which the polity’s ability to reproduce itself from one generation to the next is both a problem worthy of attention and deliberation and one that is addressable by attending to those practices that both reproduce material culture and situate human activity within the natural environment.

Second, the Jeffersonian democrat takes the notion of place very seriously and gives it a legitimacy that it lacks in mainstream liberal politics. This is one way in which we might interpret autochthony. Arguably, Steinbeck learned this lesson by following the harvest gypsies as he was researching The Grapes of Wrath. Steinbeck may have set out to document the emergence of a true working-class mentality, one forged in resistance to the dominating power of elites. He ended by tempering this theme with a voice that speaks of reciprocities and solidarities defined and articulated as being of the soil at a given place. But this is a qualified notion of indigenous identity, and it should not be confused with a celebration of autochthony that sees the farming family as a world unto itself, caring little for commerce and needing nothing from the manufacturing classes. As Donald Worster shows in his treatment of the American Dust Bowl, the reality of the Great Plains was very far from any such notion of autochthony in the 1930s. The idea of radical independence and self-sufficiency that is sometimes associated with autochthony has thus been (p.289) thoroughly reworked in the notions of place and community that emerge from this book.

The politics tenet needs to be further reformed by becoming more complicated and less central than the central agrarian tenet. The solidarity and place politics celebrated in agrarian ideals must be understood as one thrust among many in the complex dialectic of democratic politics. Throughout, my hope has been to resuscitate agrarian ideals for the role they can play in environmental ethics and the political pursuit of sustainability. I see them as offering an important counterwisdom to political excesses that occur when utilitarian, libertarian, and egalitarian ideals—the philosophica l ideas that underlie an industrial philosophy of agriculture—become dominant in the shared vocabulary of a people. But this does not mean that we abandon human rights, fairness, and promotion of the general welfare. That would hardly be a fitting tribute to Jefferson. A healthy conception of sustainability will arise when industrial and agrarian ideals are incorporated in the mix of goals, hopes, and story lines that shape our public life.


Inge’s society tenet already provides a dialectical counterpoint to an overly strong emphasis on autochthony. Rural life is valued for its independence and self-reliance, but those traits are attained through interdependence and reciprocity. Clearly, however, the society tenet needs to be continually updated with a thorough study of changes brought about by agricultural industrialization. Nor would we want to take its implied praise of rural life too seriously today. I have hinted at this throughout the book, but it is a task that has been executed more thoroughly in the sociology of agriculture. Starting with Walter Goldschmidt’s landmark study, it has become clear that the realization of industrial values in the rural countryside has rather thoroughly upset interdependencies and reciprocities in today’s heartland. Yet if we have truly agrarian ideals in mind, perhaps there is little need for a dramatic reformulation of Inge here. Rural interdependencies and reciprocities can provide a model for healthy community, especially when it is the rural America of Jefferson, Emerson, or even Teddy Roosevelt we have in mind.

A growing number of contemporary authors have taken up the call to update the society tenet in light of contemporary experience. Tom (p.290) Lyson stands at the forefront. Like Goldschmidt, Lyson conducted empirical studies on social institutions and community development activities throughout the United States, but especially in the South. He became increasingly impressed by his findings that relatively low-tech and small-scale enterprises such as vegetable farms, farmers’ markets, craft activities, and voluntary efforts had more enduring effects in terms of the livability and economic vitality of American communities than seemingly larger and better capitalized efforts. His book Civic Agriculture continues this work by exploring how community gardens and community-supported agriculture experiments become the basis for social bonds that allow communities and the individuals that live in them to sustain themselves economically and spiritually. More thoroughly than anything I can provide in this limited space, Lyson’s work (along with that of Fred Buttel and of Europeans such as Terry Marsden and Jan Douwe van der Ploeg) lays the foundations for a thorough revision and updating of Inge’s society tenet.

My theme, however, is that the now almost forgotten interdependen-cies and reciprocities of agrarian life underwrote an implied experience of functional integrity within the agrarian world. The families that peopled this world felt that it had some semblance of stability at the same time that they recognized the precariousness of their situation. The tension between a stable future, somewhat like the past, and the vulnerability inherent in a way of life dependent on weather and other natural forces made them attentive to the role that reciprocity and mutual interdependence play in the reproduction of agrarian society. As such, I might revise Inge thus: rural interdependencies and the reciprocities of the agrarian farming style provide the model for sustainability. But sustainability is not the whole of what we want from society or even from farming. I concluded The Spirit of the Soil by writing that we might sacrifice a little sustainability to achieve some justice and equality. I don’t think that’s incompatible with agrarian ideals, although a hardscrabble agrarian might well balk at sacrificing much sustainability for improved welfare and personal comfort. But we in contemporary American society fail to devote much attention at all to sustainability, and we do so at great peril to justice and equality, not to mention the other living organisms on planet Earth.

The great virtue of agrarian ideals in this connection is the transparency with which the problems of sustainability come to be seen. Were (p.291) contemporary Americans to fully appreciate Aldo Leopold’s warning about the two spiritual dangers of not owning a farm (thinking that breakfast comes from the grocery store and that heat comes from the furnace), it might be far, far easier for us to undertake the challenges that lie before us in an era of climate change, declining oil reserves, and competition for resources. Furthermore, although too many environmental philosophers have neglected the way ecological reciprocities draw on the agrarian ideal of community, Leopold was one who did not. Leopold’s land ethic stresses the importance of expanding our notion of community so that it is inclusive of the land, of place, of our environment. My attempt to frame the social goals of agriculture, to examine food and community, and then to explore the various meanings of sustainability has all been undertaken in service to Leopold’s hoped-for expansion.

So Inge’s summary provides a sketch of some key agrarian tenets and yields a program for philosophical renovation and reform that might well result in a new kind of ecological ethic. It is an ambitious program. Sustainability itself is an ongoing project. Agrarian ideals can provide a potent and largely neglected set of considerations for understanding and pursuing sustainability. Chapter 12 attempted some reconciliation with those who understand sustainability as a social movement that is deeply committed to social justice, animal welfare, and human rights, but there is an important sense in which the philosophical rationale for these commitments is different from the way my agrarian interpretation of Inge’s society tenet speaks to the problem of sustainability. Critical ideals associated with human rights and welfare are almost certainly more reliably sourced in the ethical and political philosophies that gave rise to our conception of industrial society. I am not suggesting that we can forget them for a moment: eternal vigilance is the price of liberty. I end, therefore, with a tentative and hesitant move toward what I hope will be sustainability. As I envision it, sustainability is something we must both do and discuss together. No one’s book can possibly have the answer.


(1) . These definitions were taken from (accessed August 3, 2009).

(2) . Jefferson 1984, 902.

(3) . Morgan 1975, 376.

(4) . Scruton 2004, 86, 82, 86. Scruton is an opponent of “animal rights” philosophies, although in the article from which these passages are quoted, he is quite critical of industrial livestock production practices.

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