subsistence agriculture

One of the most memorable passages in political philosophy, quoted by many who do not know the source, is Thomas Hobbes’ description of life in a state of nature:

“Whatsoever therefore is consequent to a time of war, where every man is enemy to every man, the same consequent to the time wherein men live without other security than what their own strength and their own invention shall furnish them withal. In such condition there is no place for industry, because the fruit thereof is uncertain: and consequently no culture of the earth; no navigation, nor use of the commodities that may be imported by sea; no commodious building; no instruments of moving and removing such things as require much force; no knowledge of the face of the earth; no account of time; no arts; no letters; no society; and which is worst of all, continual fear, and danger of violent death; and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.”


For Hobbes, the state of nature was no idyllic peaceable kingdom, but the arena of the war of all against all — a violent vision of anarchy at odds with many subsequent romanticized visions of anarchy.

There has always been an undercurrent of dissatisfaction with civilization that leads to a romantic and idyllic of life without civilization — Freud devoted a famous essay to this, Civilization and its Discontents, and I dedicated a significant portion of my essay “The Moral Imperative of Human Spaceflight” to what I call the hostile argument against civilization. During the Enlightenment Rousseau was perhaps the most famous critic of civilization who celebrated the state of nature, but not everyone was convinced:

“We were favoured with Sir James Colquhoun’s coach to convey us in the evening to Cameron, the seat of commissary Smollet. Our satisfaction of finding ourselves again in a comfortable carriage was very great. We had a pleasing conviction of the commodiousness of civilization, and heartily laughed at the ravings of those absurd visionaries who have attempted to persuade us of the superior advantages of a state of nature.”

James Boswell, The Life of Samuel Johnson, LL.D: Including a Journal of His Tour to the Hebrides – Vol. 2, NEW YORK: DERBY & JACKSON, 119 NASSAU STREET, 1859, p. 449

From the point of view of indoor plumbing and modern conveniences, we might today look at the condition of Boswell and Johnson as being little raised above the state of nature, but even with all our creature comforts the seductive idea of a simpler life that is better because it is simpler continues to haunt us. The appeal is not universal, but some are so enthralled by the idea that they can only conceive of the good as the destruction of the civilized order that we have built up over the past ten thousand years. I discussed the source of this some time ago in Fear of the Future, in which I argued that, “apocalyptic visions graphically illustrate the overthrow of the industrial city and the order over which it presided… While such images are threatening, they are also liberating. The end of the industrial city and of industrial civilization means the end of wage slavery, the end of the clocks and calendars that control our lives, and the end of lives so radically ordered and densely scheduled that they have ceased to resemble life and appear more like the pathetic delusions of the insane.”

Kenneth Clark added his voice to those who question the pretensions to preferring a state of nature to civilization:

“People sometimes tell me that they prefer barbarism to civilization. I doubt that they have given it a long enough trial… they are bored by civilization; but all the evidence suggests that the boredom of barbarism is infinitely greater. Quite apart from the discomforts and privations, there was no escape from it. Very restricted company, no books, no light after dark, no hope.”

Kenneth Clark, Civilisation: A Personal View, New York, et al.: Harper & Row, 1969, p. 7

A distinction should be made among the detractors of civilization, between those who look upon a violent convulsion in which civilization is brought to an end as a necessary purging of contemporary wickedness, and those who look rather to the peaceable kingdom they believe will follow after the work of the destruction of civilization is completed; these are two very different motives for welcoming the end of civilization.

Those who wish to fight in a cosmic war in order to be part of the grand work of destroying our wicked civilization — whether it be judged wicked for its wealth, its lack of religious piety, its industrialization, its pollution, its tolerance of individuals who where not tolerated in traditional regimes, or any other reason — have a distinct set of motivations from those who want to inhabit the post-apocalyptic peaceable kingdom, and I will not address these former individuals or their motivations at present, as I have dealt with them elsewhere (e.g., in Kierkegaard and Russell on Rigor).

For the rest, for those who look forward to the peaceable kingdom of a post-apocalyptic, post-industrial world in which human beings will live in harmony with nature (not, presumably, the nature of Hobbes, but rather the nature of Rousseau), what satisfactions will they expect to derive from the restoration of a subsistence economy lacking the creature comforts that we today take for granted, like flushing toilets, hot showers, clean clothes, and our choice of foods made available from the entire world?

Looking around the surrounding world of nature, what will natural man — the noble savage — do in order to seek satisfaction? He may attend to his bodily needs, using his mind and his hands to build shelter, sew clothing, hunt or gather food, and perhaps preserve some part of that food for a future time when the supply of food is less certain. When his bodily needs are met, he may choose to amuse himself, making up stories, or singing, perhaps using his mind and hands again to create a musical instrument or a painting or a piece of sculpture.

In short, natural man in search of satisfaction will begin to transform himself into unnatural man, and thus begin the long process of creating civilization. In the midst of the plenitude of nature, natural man draws upon his own resources to go beyond nature. In other words, he creates civilization as a natural response to his desires. This process, iterated over generations, gives us the traditions of agrarian-ecclesiastical civilization.

Recently in David Hume and Scientific Civilization I quoted from an essay by Susanne K. Langer, “Scientific Civilization and Cultural Crisis.” Here is the passage I quoted:

“There is no denying that the spearhead of this ruthless social revolution is something we all… honor and desire: science. Science is the source and the pacemaker of this modern civilization which is sweeping away a whole world of cultural values.”

Of this scientific civilization Langer further observed:

“It is only rather recently that we are realizing what it has destroyed, and also the very grave fact that in its advance it is still destroying many things of undoubted and irreplaceable value — social orders of rank and status built up by a long national or local history, religious faith and its institutions, arts supported by solid and good traditions, ways of life in which people have long felt secure and useful. Such losses are not to be taken lightly.”

It would be an interesting exercise to parse the above quote in detail, as contains so many interesting assumptions, but I will desist for the time being, except to note that the “social orders of rank and status built up by a long national or local history” closely resemble the traditions described alike by Marx and Edmund Burke (and which I discussed in Globalization and Marxism).

For now, I only want to observe that the satisfactions of life in a subsistence economy — really, a subsistence economy for the great mass of humanity, and a luxury economy for the privileged few, since agrarian-ecclesiastical civilizations invariably take the form of a mass of peasantry working the land and living hand-to-mouth while elite culture is reserved for the small fraction of the population with the leisure for art and literacy — are precisely those cultural institutions slowly built up over the course of ten thousand years of agricultural civilization, and rudely brought to an end by scientific civilization.

I do not doubt that, given enough time, humanity could be re-acculturated to these institutions, but I suspect that this process would require generations to become effective, and that individuals acculturated in the world today would largely reject these satisfactions of life specific to a subsistence economy — frequent religious festivals, occasional spectacular entertainments (theater, jousts, processions, etc.), etc. — as insufficient compensation for the loss of modern plumbing and the re-imposition of heavy physical labor.

Of course, what I have elsewhere called neo-agriculturalism (in Another Future: The New Agriculturalism) need not necessarily be so technologically rudimentary. I recently considered something like this in Ash Wednesday and Identity Politics, in which I quoted from one of my unpublished manuscripts:

Let us suppose, merely for our private amusement, that human civilization lasts long enough for the pendulum to swing completely, and that our civilization is slowly transformed into its opposite, from its present decadence into renewed, post-modern medievalism. This new epoch of medievalism would be an age with technology superior to our own and a more complete record of the past than we possess. Would these medievals look back upon us as the Golden Age, or upon the Middle Ages as the lost Golden Age? Would they nod while reading the Scholastics and react with horror to the existential excesses of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries? Would they want to preserve our pagan learning, or would they feel entirely justified in extirpating it? Upon such twists of fate do our efforts enjoy success or come to grief.

Perhaps the satisfactions of life in a subsistence economy might be rendered more acceptable if we could retain some of our creature comforts. But supposing the transition could be made with plumbing intact but our intellectual horizons severely constrained, would this be any better? If the great mass were kept more or less comfortable but deprived of the possibility of expanding their horizons intellectually, and living in a society without expanding intellectual horizons, would this be easier to accept than a straightforward return to idyllic primitivism? This is a question that could only possibly be settled by a social experiment on a civilizational scale. And it suggests another experiment: suppose we preserve the open intellectual horizon but take away the creature comforts — how would this fare as a form of social organization? And of any of these social experiments, we could ask whether they really would restore us to some sense of the presumed satisfactions of a subsistence economy, or whether this has become strictly unimaginable to us.

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The Truth is Out There

It is a demonstration of the perennial character of philosophical thought that one of the fundamental distinctions that has defined Western philosophy — the distinction between realism and idealism — finds itself clearly instantiated in contemporary popular culture. For realism may be adequately summarized as the view that “the truth is out there” while idealism (which admittedly takes many forms) is equally well summarized either by the “new age” idea that you make your own reality, or by the academic parallel to this, which is deconstructivism, in which anything can mean anything. Everything old is new again.

I just finished listening to Timothy Ferris book, Seeing in the Dark: How Backyard Stargazers Are Probing Deep Space and Guarding Earth from Interplanetary Peril. Timothy Ferris is one of my favorite science writers, and indeed his earlier book The Red Limit is one of my favorite books.

While Ferris frequently invokes the kind of anti-philosophy that I have become accustomed to encountering in the writings of scientists, he also cites philosophers has diverse as Hegel and Wittgenstein (the latter of whom he has read thoroughly enough to even know his wartime journal, which is not widely read). Despite these philosophical citations, his philosophical formulations remain true to scientific anti-philosophy in their thoroughly naive spirit. For example, he frequently employs the idiom of the objects of astronomy being “really out there” as a kind of visceral reminder of realism:

“Once the sky was fully dark I had a look at the Triangulum galaxy, which at a distance of less then three million light-years from Earth is a local object by intergalactic standards. Its rangy spiral arms, tangled with glowing clouds of gas, spilled out beyond the field of view. As often happens, I was struck by the fact that all these things, unimaginably big or small or hot or cold as they may be, really are out there. Like giant squid or loaves of French bread — and unlike, say, postmodernism or public opinion polls — they confront us with the regality of the materially real.”

Timothy Ferris, Seeing in the Dark: How Backyard Stargazers Are Probing Deep Space and Guarding Earth from Interplanetary Peril, 2003, p. 64

For Timothy Ferris, the truth is out there, as poignantly palpable as any any visceral sensation. Which leads us to another, better known, visceral assertion of realism, from Boswell’s Life of Johnson:

After we came out of the church, we stood talking for some time together of Bishop Berkeley’s ingenious sophistry to prove the nonexistence of matter, and that every thing in the universe is merely ideal. I observed, that though we are satisfied his doctrine is not true, it is impossible to refute it. I never shall forget the alacrity with which Johnson answered, striking his foot with mighty force against a large stone, till he rebounded from it — “I refute it thus.”

James Boswell, Life of Samuel Johnson

The responses of Samuel Johnson and Timothy Ferris may be charitably characterized as an embodied philosophical doctrine, a practical realism arising from an engagement with the world. This practical realism is better known as scientific realism, which is an ontological doctrine. The corollary of scientific realism as expressed in scientific practice is methodological naturalism.

Acts of practical realism, as engagements with the world, constitute what Bertrand Russell called the enlargement of the self. I previously discussed Russell’s conception of the enlargement of the self in Too see is to forget the name of the thing one sees. It is important to understand that Russell is not talking about the enlargement of the ego, but rather the antithesis of this. Russell also calls this an ethic of impersonal self enlargement: “when the desire for knowledge is alone operative, by a study which does not wish in advance that its objects should have this or that character, but adapts the Self to the characters which it finds in its objects.”

This is the moral component of science, which makes practical realism not only an intellectual imperative but also a moral imperative, and by way of the moral imperative — being primarily intellectual and intangible — we draw closer to a purely theoretical realism.

It is interesting to note that Russell employed the idiom of “objects” in the Russell quote above, since this point of view shares some similarities with object oriented ontology in its various forms. I have discussed this recent philosophical school in several posts, and I suggested a moral interpretation, an object oriented axiology, in Metaphysical Responsibility.

In Russell’s sense of an impersonal enlargement of the self through scientific understanding we have a concern for objects for their own sake, which “adapts the Self to the characters which it finds in its objects.” Russell felt a metaphysical responsibility to the objects of science. I think that Boswell felt a metaphysical responsibility to the perennial character of stones, as Ferris feels a metaphysical responsibility to the stars and the galaxies.

The astronomer takes responsibility for planets, stars, and galaxies and seeks to give an account of them that gets them right for their own sake. The paleontologist takes responsibility for bones and fossils and seeks to give an account of them that gets them right for their own sake. The physicist takes responsibility for fundamental particles and the mathematician takes responsibility for numbers and each seeks to give an account of their chosen field of endeavor that gets the objects right for their own sake.

All of these are examples from the natural sciences, sometimes also called the “hard” sciences, and although it would be a little more difficult to give the parallel formulations for the social sciences, with certain qualifications I think that the parallel cases hold.

In Object Disoriented Axiology I cited a short quote from Jung, “No one has any obligations to a concept…” as embodying the antithesis of the perspective of object oriented axiology. Jung’s claim was simply a special case of moral nihilism — a moral nihilism directed exclusively at those who employ concepts, which is ultimately and eventually all of us.

The formulations above from the physical sciences, taking as my examples the astronomer, the paleontologist, the physicist, and the mathematician, have their conceptual parallel in the philosopher. The philosopher takes responsibility for concepts and seeks to give an account of them that gets them right for their own sake. In this parallelism of science and philosophy, we can see also a parallelism between practical realism and theoretical realism. The philosopher formulates a pure theoretical realism in light of his responsibilities to concepts. In so doing, the philosopher gives the science of concepts, as scientists give the philosophy of non-conceptual objects.

Thus, despite the fashionable anti-philosophy of many scientists, that often leads them to say unkind things about purely philosophical inquiry, I see the enterprises of science and philosophy as parallel undertakings, and I grant the scientists their due in this endeavor. A complete account of the world cannot be written without the contributions of scientists, who give an account of scientific objects from the point of view of those who feel an obligation to these objects. But a complete view of the world is equally elusive without the contribution of those who give an account of non-scientific objects.

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Sigmund "sometimes a cigar is just a cigar" Freud

Sigmund "sometimes a cigar is just a cigar" Freud

Freud has been variously quoted as saying that psychoanalysis could treat hysterical or neurotic misery, but that it could not treat ordinary human unhappiness. The most a patient of psychoanalytic therapy could hope for was deliverance from the neurotic misery; pscyhoanalysis, in the words of a famous novel, does not promise you a rose garden. This comes from the concluding paragraph of Freud’s Studies in Hysteria, which has been translated many times, hence the varying words of the quotation:

…much will be gained if we succeed in transforming your hysterical misery into common unhappiness. With a mental life that has been restored to health, you will be better armed against that unhappiness.

Freud, Studies in Hysteria, translated and edited by James Strachey

The DSM — the official go-to guide for mental disorders — has eliminated the classification of “neurosis”, and “hysteria” is a term held in even greater suspicion given its past usage. Both were crucial terms for Freud, but it is difficult to find an authoritative definition of terms no longer current in scientific usage.

Biology online gives the following definition of obsessional neurosis:

A psychological disorder with a pervasive pattern of inflexible perfectionism which begins by early adulthood as indicated by many of the following symptoms: an unattainable perfectionism with overly strict standards which often make it impossible to complete a task; preoccupation with details, rules, lists, order, organization, or scheduling to the extent that the major point of the activity is lost; unreasonable insistence that others submit to exactly his or her way of doing things; an unnecessary, excessive devotion to work and productivity to the exclusion of leisure activities and friendships; rumination to the point of indecisiveness; overconscientiousness about matters of morality, ethics, or values; restricted expression of affection; lack of generosity in giving time, money, or gifts when no personal gain is likely to result; and an inability to discard worn-out or worthless objects even when they have no sentimental value.

The same internet site gives the following definition of hysteria:

a nervous affection, occurring almost exclusively in women, in which the emotional and reflex excitability is exaggerated, and the will power correspondingly diminished, so that the patient loses control over the emotions, becomes the victim of imaginary sensations, and often falls into paroxism or fits.

The chief symptoms are convulsive, tossing movements of the limbs and head, uncontrollable crying and laughing, and a choking sensation as if a ball were lodged in the throat. The affection presents the most varied symptoms, often simulating those of the gravest diseases, but generally curable by mental treatment alone.

In the quote from Freud above, as well as in the definitions of neurosis and hysteria, it is individual mental illness that is the apparently exclusive concern, but these formulations are highly suggestive, pointing to formulations that would describe neuroses and hysteria unique to collections of individuals. We have all heard of the “madness of crowds” and of tulipomania in early modern Holland and the whole history of speculative bubbles since then. Freud himself suggests in passing the possibility of universal neuroses. In his famous essay, The Future of an Illusion, Freud wrote:

“…devout believers are safeguarded in a high degree against the risk of certain neurotic illnesses; their acceptance of the universal neurosis spares them the task of constructing a personal one.”

Confessional communities, each with their distinctive religious rituals, while not in any sense universal, clearly embody what Freud had in mind and constitute neurotic and hysterical socio-cultural practices. It could be argued (and I think that this is implicit in Freud) that the hysterical and neurotic misery of the universal neuroses of religion are pathological, and that we can reasonably hope for deliverance from this religious misery into ordinary human unhappiness.

James Boswell, obsessive-compulsive journalizer of Samuel Johnson's life.

James Boswell, obsessive-compulsive journalizer of Samuel Johnson's life.

Not only individuals but also entire societies can be transformed from the neurotic misery of compulsive ritual into a state of common unhappiness. What is needed for this is a psychoanalysis of culture that goes to the origins of that culture and all its hidden horrors in order to discover the initial traumas that provoked the neurotic response. We already have a name for this, and it is history. The practice of history — history that rigorously embodies methodological naturalism — is the treatment for religious pathology.

Kit Smart wrote his poem Jubilate Agno while institutionalized in an asylum for religious mania.

Kit Smart wrote his poem Jubilate Agno while institutionalized in an asylum for religious mania.

At the present moment of history all this sounds a bit incredible, and the reader may well think I am joking, but during the Enlightenment the English poet Christopher Smart was institutionalized in St Luke’s Hospital for Lunatics for “religious mania” (notably not Bedlam, which was the only other asylum in England at this time). The confinement was controversial at the time, and Dr. Johnson defended Smart. Boswell, in his Life of Johnson, records the following conversation concerning the poet:

BURNEY. “How does poor Smart do, Sir; is he likely to recover?”
JOHNSON. “It seems as if his mind had ceased to struggle with the disease; for he grows fat upon it.”
BURNEY. “Perhaps, Sir, that may be from want of exercise.”
JOHNSON. “No, Sir; he has partly as much exercise as he used to have, for he digs in the garden. Indeed, before his confinement, he used for exercise to walk to the ale-house ; but he was carried back again. I did not think he ought to be shut up. His infirmities, were not noxious to society. He insisted on people praying with him; and I’d as lief pray with Kit Smart as any one else. Another charge was, that he did not love clean linen; and I have no passion for it.”

Was Kit Smart mad? No more nor less than Johnson, though Johnson himself might be institutionalized today, not for his religious observances but for his personal hygiene. In perhaps the most famous of Johnsonian apocrypha, there is a story that a lady said to Johnson that he smelled. Dr. Johnson is said to have replied, “Nay, madam. You smell; I stink.”

Would Samuel Johnson be committed today for disinterest in personal care?

Would Samuel Johnson be committed today for disinterest in personal care?

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