To be human is to be a craftsman, an ‘artist.’ And for this reason we should not only be concerned about agriculture but also seek in some way to practice it ourselves.
Socrates in Xenophon’s Estate Manager goes to the heart of the matter:
Whoever said that agriculture is the mother and nurse of all arts was right, because when agriculture is faring well, all the other arts are strengthened too.
Mother and nurse of ALL arts. Here is a profound matter of the first importance.
In every area of human practicality, the proper approach is that of ‘art.’ An art is a know-how, a reasoned ability of taking determinate means to achieve an end. Each person cannot be an expert in the various arts; it takes time, study, and experience to master an art. But nonetheless in all we do, such as in building a shed, preparing a meal, or attending to ill health, we should strive to act according to the principles of the relevant art; here: carpentry, cooking, or medicine.
Now since Socrates asserts that agriculture is the mother and nurse of the other arts, he says further that when the art of agriculture languishes so do the others. This says much about our age, including ourselves and our homes. In general we have lost this ever-fruitful source of life lessons, this 101 course as it were in being human. Agriculture—the art of caring for earth, plants, and animals—cultivates the basic dispositions of an ‘artist’ or craftsman as such, and therefore forms us at once for all the arts. Including the truest and ultimate art: that of living a good life.
When Socrates enumerates the unique characteristics of agriculture, it becomes clear that herein are the foundations not only of all arts of ‘making’ but also of living itself. In short, caring for land and living things teaches the all-important paradox of the simultaneity of two truths:
Life demands and rewards careful, hard work. And,
The fruits of my work are all gift.
This is especially visible in the best of farmers. Life calls for hard work. They know it and embrace it. Get rich quick schemes are just that: for schemers. Ingenuity and resourcefulness—yes. Shortcuts or shirking—never. Work is not simply a means; it’s part of the gift; as is working together. Competition is not thematic, but communion, shared resources, shared efforts, and shared fruits are.
This not a panegyric to good ‘farmers,’ as worthy as they are of recognition. At issue here, again, is cultivating these dispositions in all of us through the God-given means of ‘agriculture’—something that need be no further away than the backyard. For all of us. Today.
Our human nature within is screaming for this. The travails and sufferings of our current situation make this clear. We have lost real contact with the original meaning of ‘cultivation,’ the primordial form of human work, and the fertile field of any truly human imagination. We have lost contact with the mother and nurse. And so we languish in the barren fields and thorny patches of ‘immaturity’ and malnourishment.
But at least the beginning of the antidote is right at hand. We can start again in our homes. Just as surely as the art of cooking is not only for chefs, agriculture is not only for farmers! It is our universal and common inheritance and calling. Are you ‘retired?’ Then you can learn—anew or for the first time—to put seeds in the ground. Are you in the ‘prime’ of life and very busy? Then this is probably what both your soul and your body are calling out for—real, good work with your hands in the earth. It is not peripheral. It is the mother and nurse of how to live like an artist, a craftsman.
As Socrates points out, you can start right away and yet spend a lifetime mastering it. Those who are best at it are most willing to help and teach others. But might we fail? Ah—that is the question! The patient and earnest practice of this art never truly fails. Once again, in this it is the perfect mirror of human life. What can seem failure is but a stepping stone to fruition. It will lead to us to prayer. And more ultimately we learn to receive, through honest work that is part of the gift, the fruits that are beyond anything we could have imagined. ~ ~ ~
SHORT VIDEO on HOW TO BEGIN in YOUR BACKYARD. This fall you can get your SOIL ready for next spring!
Husband, father, and professor of Philosophy. LifeCraft springs from one conviction: there is an ancient wisdom about how to live the good life in our homes, with our families; and it is worth our time to hearken to it. Let’s rediscover it together. Learn more.