A Civilized Countryside
21 February 2013
When I returned from my recent trip to Tokyo my sister picked me up at the airport and on the drive she asked me about the weather. I said that it was cold and windy, but also very clear and sunny. How cold? I had to pause. I didn’t really know how cold it had been. I didn’t even know whether or not it had been below freezing. In a rural environment one would know immediately whether or not the temperature had dropped below freezing, but in the urban intensity of Tokyo there were no obvious (natural) signs of the temperature. One would only know that it was freezing if puddles in the street were frozen over; if there are no puddles, as when it is cold and clear, there are not obvious signs of the temperature. This made me think about the differences between urban and rural life, and ultimately rural and urban civilization.
In Kenneth Clark’s Civilisation: A Personal View the author introduces the idea of a civilized countryside, immediately after describing what he considered to be one of the high points of (urban) civilization in Urbino under Federigo and Guidobaldo Montefeltro:
“…there is such thing as civilized countryside. Looking at the Tuscan landscape with its terraces of vines and olives and the dark vertical accents of the cypresses, one has the impression of timeless order. There must have been a time when it was all forest and swamp — shapeless and formless; and to bring order out of chaos is a process of civilization. But of this ancient, rustic civilization we have no record beyond the farmhouses themselves, whose noble proportions seem to be the basis of Italian architecture; and when the men of the Renaissance looked at the countryside it was not as a place of ploughing and digging, but as a kind of earthly paradise.”
Kenneth Clark, Civilisation: A Personal View, pp. 112-113, I have selectively Americanized Clark’s irritatingly British orthography
There are several themes in this passage that touch on concerns to which Clark returned repeatedly in his survey of civilization: his mention of “timeless order” invokes his earlier emphasis on permanence and the ambition to engage in monumental, multi-generational projects. Yet it is a bit odd that Clark should mention the romanticization of the countryside during the renaissance as an earthly paradise, as this points to older models of the countryside as an Arcadian paradise, as in Virgil’s Pastorals, in which shepherds play the lyre and sing poetry to each other. This is an idyllic picture of the Golden Age in which the countryside is most definitely not civilized, but rather a retreat from the corruption of civilization.
It would be easy to dismiss the whole idea of a civilized countryside both for its internal contradictions and romantic idealization of country life that has little to do with the reality of life in the country — however. However. The civilization of the European Middle Ages, which was a pervasively agrarian civilization, and especially in so far as it approximated pure agriculturalism, was essentially a rural civilization. The great manors or feudal lords were located in the countryside because this is where the food production activity that was the basis of the medieval economy was centered. In other words, the economy was centered on the rural countryside, and not on cities.
Certainly during the Middle Ages there were thriving and cosmopolitan cities engaged in sea-borne commerce with the known world, but these were at this time essentially centers of luxury commerce that touched the lives of only a very few persons. The vast majority of the population were peasants working the land; a few percent were landed nobility and a few percent were churchmen. This left only a very small fragment of bourgeoisie — people of the town, i.e., of the berg (bourg) — who were engaged in urban life year-round. This was important, but not central, to the medieval economy. What was central was agrarian production on great landed estates, which were the true measure of medieval wealth. Having money scarcely counted as “wealth.”
It is a bias of industrial-technological civilization to assume that cities are the center of civilization, because cities are the centers of industrial-technological civilization, and the industrial city is the center of industrial production. This early paradigm of industrial cities is already changing as industrial production facilities move to industrial parks on the outskirts of cities, and we tend to identify the great cities as centers of administration, education and research, the arts and cultural opportunities, and so on. But whatever the function of the city, whether producing articles of manufacture or producing prestige requirements, the city is central to the kind of civilization we have created since the end of the Middle Ages and the end of medieval agrarian civilization.
The life of the countryside has its own complexity, but this complexity is of a different order and of a different kind than the complexity of life in the city; in the city, one finds that the primary features of the intellectual landscape are the actions of other human beings whereas in the country the primary intellectual landscape is that of the natural order of things. These differing sources of complexity structure lives differently.
A certain kind of mind is cultivated by urban life in the same way that a certain kind of mind is cultivated by life in the country, which latter of course Marx dismissed as rural idiocy. The mind and life of the country, as opposed to the city, results in its own distinctive institutions. The kind of civilization that emerges in the countryside is the kind of civilization that is going to emerge from the kind of mind that is cultivated by life in the country, and, contrariwise, the kind of civilization that emerges in the city is the kind of civilization that is going to emerge from the kind of mind that is cultivated by urban life.
At least for the moment, the tradition of rural civilization has been lost to us. The great demographic development of our time is the movement of mass populations into urban areas — and the corollary of rural depopulation — as though by a spontaneous agreement the world’s peoples had decided to attempt to prove Doxiadis right about ecumenopolis as the telos of the city and of human life. This demographic trend shows every sign of smoothly extrapolating into the future, so that we can expect even more urban growth and rural depopulation over time.
Nevertheless, it remains possible to consider alternative futures in which this trend is reversed or replaced by a different trend — or even a different civilization. Global networking means that anyone can live anywhere and be in touch with the world’s rapidly changing knowledge. If you have a connection to the internet, you can live in a rural village not necessarily be subject to the idiocy of rural life that Marx bemoaned. However, this doesn’t seem to be enough right now to keep people in the countryside, especially when all the economic opportunities are to be found in the world’s growing cities.
But there is nothing inevitable about the relentless expansion or indefinite continuation of industrial-technological civilization. Agrarian civilization, like the European Middle Ages with which it is identified, is a completed part of our past, which stands like a whole, with a beginning, a middle, and an end. In this way we can fashion a narrative of agrarian civilization, but we cannot yet fashion a narrative of industrial-technological civilization, since this is today a going concern and not a completed whole. There is a sense in which we can treat scientific civilization — what I have called modernism without industrialism — as a completed whole, a finished era of history. Although I do not regard it as likely, it is possible that our civilization may join the ranks of finished civilizations that have run their course and added themselves to the archive of human history.
I have touched on these possibilities in several posts, as when I have considered Invariant Civilizational Properties in Futurist Scenarios and in my argument for Viking Civilization, which constituted a very different kind of civilization — neither rural nor urban, but mobile, i.e., a nomadic civilization. This latter is the possibility that seems so apparently remote but which most fascinates me. Other kinds of civilizations have existed in the past; distinct forms remain possible today, however unlikely.
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