The Telos of Agriculturalism

9 July 2010


F. H. Bradley

One of the great philosophers of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries was F. H. Bradley. Bradley is little know outside the circle of professional philosophers, partly due to the fact that he is the greatest representative of what we now know as British idealism, a thoroughly defunct tradition. Bradley was one of the great stylists in the history of philosophy; together with Nietzsche, Rousseau, and Frege, we read Bradley not only for his ideas, but also for the beauty of the language in which his ideas are expressed.

In addition to many long treatises on logic and metaphysics, Bradley also expressed himself in a few telling aphorisms, often scattered through the texts of his technical philosophical writings (a stylistic device he shares with Hegel). Near the end of his major treatise Appearance and Reality, Bradley delivers himself of this memorable nostrum: “…short of the Absolute, God cannot rest, and, having reached that goal, he is lost and religion with him.” (p. 447)

This is a melancholy conclusion for Bradley to reach — one can sense his reluctance regarding the sad wisdom his philosophical inquiry has converged upon — but he accepts his own reasoning with resignation and a good will. For Bradley, and perhaps in defiance of his personal wishes, God is not reality but mere appearance. This sad wisdom reminds me a great deal of a passage from Coleridge that Tolstoy used as an epigraph to his famous Reply to an Edit of Excommunication.

Samuel Taylor Coleridge

The quote from Coleridge goes as follows:

“He who begins by loving Christianity better than truth, will proceed by loving his own sect or church better than Christianity, and and in loving himself better than all.”

The Coleridge quote doesn’t have the melancholy sadness of the Bradley aphorism — in fact, it is a somewhat cheerful, if self-justifying proclamation — but it takes a similar view to Bradley in regard to what Tillich called “ultimate concerns.”

For Coleridge and Bradley, there is an implicit and internal logic within the sphere of ultimate concerns that inevitably leads them to abandon the stable tradition with which they began in favor of a doctrine they had themselves formulated, which they came to believe followed from and superseded the earlier tradition, however hallowed by time. The Greeks called such a development a telos, from which we get the word teleology. In English we call it an end or an aim, although these don’t quite capture the Greek sense of telos.

It could be argued that civilizations, and indeed social paradigms within civilizations, also possess a telos. A few days ago in Pure Agriculturalism I wrote the following:

…deviations from the pure species of the genus of agricultural civilization represent either a looking back to nomadic socio-economic structures or a looking forward to industrial socio-economic structures.

This idea, superficially a theme of a pendulum swinging between extremes (the stable agricultural center of civilization oscillating either toward nomadism or industrialism), can be reconciled with the idea of a telos.

Once the hunter-gatherer nomadism of the Paleolithic Golden Age is abandoned in order to found settled civilizations, mankind has at this point embarked upon a great project of settlement, urbanization, and socially coordinated effort. It could be said of this long development of civilization, beginning with the first settled agricultural communities, that short of industrialization, agriculture cannot rest, and, having reached that goal, agriculturalism is lost, and the original form of agricultural civilization with it. (With apologies o F. H. Bradley) …

One could then theorize that the long ten thoutsand year history of agricultural civilization is a kind of arrested development of civilization, a lengthy period gestation during which the technologies necessary to full industrialization are development with painful slowness, and many interruptions. Indeed, these interruptions are also part of the pattern, as agricultural civilization occasionally stalls and even moves backward into dark ages and episodic nomadism.

This, then, gives further form and structure to our emerging conception of the character of the agricultural paradigm, going beyond our formulations in Pure Agriculturalism, because we can now see that agricultural civilization is not merely torn between regression to nomadism to progression to industrialism, but that the long agricultural interregnum of civilization is a ratcheting forward toward industrialism, which is its natural telos. This industrial telos does not deprive agricultural civilization of a unique character of its own, but it does suggest that agriculturalism must ultimately collapse back into nomadism or establish a fully industrialized society.

Each stage in the long history of agricultural civilization represents a slight, gradual increase in technology which, once it reaches a tipping point, overflows in an Industrial Revolution that ultimately utterly changes the character of the civilization that created it. But each stage of development is interrupted by the reassertion of reactionary elements in society that oppose the social changes that follow from technological change. In the most severe reactions to agriculturalism’s escalating technological refinements, agriculturalism itself all but creases, settled civilization comes under severe threat, retrenches, and temporarily accepts a lower standard of living until the storm passes.

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2 Responses to “The Telos of Agriculturalism”

  1. xcalibur said

    So the telos of agriculturalism is to metamorphize into industrialism. If it can’t attain its telos, then it must collapse and try again under new circumstances. In other words, the agricultural paradigm is like a pupating stage of civilization.

    This is ironic in a couple of different ways. First, agriculturalism has always been a stable way of life, which follows orthodox traditions and resists change – yet it’s a long transition by its nature. Second, agriculturalism has a fixation on the macabre – and it too must face dissolution to achieve its telos.

    Whether industrialism has a telos, or multiple outcomes, is an open question.

    • geopolicraticus said

      I would perhaps go further now and say that the telos of the nomadic hunter-gatherer way of life is agricultural civilization (cf. my post Satisfactions of Life in a Subsistence Economy), so that human activity, i.e., intelligent activity, inherently leads to civilization, and civilization develops into industrialized civilization. Industrialized civilization, in turn, if its technologies mature, leads to spacefaring civilizations.

      This admittedly over-simplified schema of history fits in well with my recent argument that encephalization is the Great Filter: once terrestrial life crosses the threshold of exponential encephalization and intelligent activity commences, then the development of civilization in all its phases is, if not inevitable (I dislike the word and would hesitate to use it), then a consequence of linear (non-exponential) development, that can be predicted to culminate in certain forms of emergent complexity as long as some event external to the developmental process does not frustrate this development.

      Recently on Twitter I wrote that, “An exponential growth curve is nature’s way of leaping over a barrier.” It was the above developmental sequence that I had in mind when I wrote this. Exponential human encephalization leapt over a barrier of emergent complexity that might not otherwise be surmounted.



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