A fascinating article in today’s Washington Post confirms the old adage that there’s always a bull market somewhere: right now, namely, in the seed selling business. The article notes that a combination of two factors has led to the dramatic rise of seed sales: the economic downturn, and fears over the diseases lurking in our industrially processed vegetables.

The cultivation of some measure of our own food is good in itself, and good for other ends as well, particularly the inculcation of the virtues that have traditionally been associated with, indeed are essential to, the cultivation of crops. Raising one’s own food teaches virtues of patience and delayed gratification. It teaches (to echo some of Mark Mitchell’s sentiments today) gratitude for gifts given and a bounty earned, and an appreciation for an order to nature that we do not command, but which – if well-tended – provides our daily bread. Raising one’s own food rewards the farmer or the gardener not only with fresh and delicious produce, but a sense of accomplishment and pride that we suddenly may notice is otherwise missing from lives in which we produce very little on our own.

The article asks an important question: will this mini-boom in gardening fall by the wayside if and when there is an economic recovery? The deeper question underlying this one is, is virtue simply the consequence of necessity, and nothing more? Is the new austerity, the new frugality, the re-discovery of gardening a passing fad forced upon us by circumstance, not choice? And, if so, can it really be called virtue at all?

This is an issue I have thought about a good deal elsewhere, and in partial answer, let me direct your attention to an earlier post on this general theme. My thoughts and conclusion there:

Many readers, respondents, and critics of the arguments I have made here in many of my postings point to one simple fact as dispositive proof that arguments on behalf of virtue are a fundamental repression of natural human liberty or at best a lifestyle option for traditionalist minded people. Namely, they point out that, given the option, people have chosen to dispense with traditional notions of virtue, to pursue their individual satisfaction and make choices without great thought or regard for future generations. Given the option, people have moved off the farms and into the cities or the suburbs. Given the option, people choose to live in suburban developments and not in traditional towns or “new urbanist” communities. Given the option, people prefer to shop at Wal-Mart than the town general store, at Home Depot rather than the town hardware store, at McDonalds rather than the local diner. Given the option, people would rather engage in hook-ups rather than date and marry. Given the option, people prefer educations that ensure upward mobility rather than a moral formation. Given the option, people prefer mobility over community. Given the option, we prefer a conception of liberty that represents an absence of constraint rather than a conception of liberty that rests upon self-governance. And so on.

At the base of this argument – a compelling one, it must be granted – is a more fundamental argument that what the pre-moderns called virtue was really mere necessity. Indeed, the ancient phrase “to make a virtue of necessity” – originally coined by Chaucer and later immortalized by Shakespeare – might even be construed to mean that virtue is a way of re-defining necessity itself. Given the lack of the many options that modern man enjoys, pre-modern man argued on behalf of self-governance as the path to human excellence and human flourishing, and thereby (it might be assumed) endeavored to make otherwise poor and opportunity-less premodern peoples more reconciled with their impoverished condition. People could congratulate themselves for their great virtue and their limitless capacity for self-governance only because of the absence of other options. However, given the option to live differently, people chucked off virtue faster than their bodices and chastity belts.

I think that this notion represents an overstatement in lots of ways. Still – if we credit some part of the insight of those critics who suggest that ancient “virtue” was nothing other than necessity – then we must simultaneously credit the possibility that such calls to virtue were made not wholly as a result of necessity or the absence of options, but from some other source of knowledge about the undesirability of an ungoverned life or unrestrained appetite. Otherwise, there would be no need in the first place to suggest that necessity should be defined in any other way – given that it was permanently and inescapably necessity. One only need to read Plato or Aristotle to recognize that ancient thinkers regarded a life lived in accordance with unrestrained appetite to result in the deformation of the human character and the likely rise of tyranny, which would use any and all other humans, as well as the world, for the means of the tyrant’s personal satisfaction. While we might regard ancient conceptions of appetite as permitting only comparatively unsatisfactory satiation, nevertheless in matters pertaining to a range of conceptions of common good – from seeming private behaviors of eating, sex, work, childrearing, to more public matters pertaining to politics and commerce, pre-modern thinkers argued on behalf of restraint of appetite as a fundamental necessity for human flourishing. Absent self-governance, we were nothing more than slaves to our desires.

Here’s the intriguing part of the argument: by dint of the widespread acceptance of such conceptions of virtue, ones embedded deeply within cultures that habituated their young in virtue and which transmitted this culture from generation to generation – one especially seen in the institutional and cultural life of the Church that was at the center of cultural life for pre-modern, post-classical European humanity – pre-modern civilization effectively forestalled the development of modernity and prevented the release of appetites that we now see culminating in the ravaging of the planet and the obscenity of modern culture, so-called. What some attribute as “the lack of options” in fact was the cause, not the effect, of those lack of options. Conscious of the human capacity for limitless appetite, without even knowing the possible outcome of a society premised upon the release of unrestrained human appetite, nevertheless pre-modern theories of virtue were keenly aware of the deforming results of such a course. While one won’t find predictions of resource depletion and food inflation in pre-modern arguments on behalf of self-governance, we live all too familiarly with their anticipations of the deforming experience of enslavement to desires and the tyrannies that arise as a result.

Presented in this way, we must understand the eventual abandonment of old forms of life not as the eager and wholesale rush to escape pre-modern forms of virtue, but a long-term and concentrated assault by the progressive and elite agents and proponents of modernity upon the limits that pre-modern culture enforced. This long and ferocious battle required three victories. First, it required an understanding of nature as an opponent which we rightly sought to master. Second, it required the redefinition of human beings away from the pre-modern conception as creatures of and in nature whose flourishing required cultivation in keeping with our nature, instead to an understanding of humans as fundamentally self-interested and utility-maximizing creatures – homo economicus. Lastly, it required the displacement of God by man and the prospect of humanity achieving the creation of heaven on earth. While there were many proponents of this assault, three of its generals (respectively) were Francis Bacon, Thomas Hobbes and Friedrich Nietzsche. What these, and many other modernist thinkers share in common, was a shared objective of assault on the limits that had traditionally been imposed by a long-standing culture which rested upon longstanding belief in the central necessity of human virtue. While such ancient conceptions could not have exactly predicted our contemporary and frightening confrontation with awesome and irresistible limits, pre-modern humans well understood that the consequences of unrestrained appetite were severe and inescapable. Icarus may fly high for a time, but his plummet to earth is swift and merciless.

I reject the notion that given the “option” of freedom, people abandoned settled cultures and ways of life with the alacrity of rats from a sinking boat. One must see a vaster and even more nefarious story of concerted and ferocious efforts to weaken and undermine persistent forms of local culture, whether by dint of official policies that promoted mobility and encouraged indebtedness and gluttony, or more often by the subtle and nearly irresistible seductions of commerce that ultimately demolished every persistence of virtue in its path. We should note, too, that it was not easy – the battle was hard-fought and not-easily won – but being now won in most places, it is deeply and firmly entrenched and is highly satisfied that, having destroyed the necessary connection of a culture based in virtue that requires continuity between past and future, that the field has been captured and only some isolated immolation of a few injured opponents remains. Yet, even as it congratulates itself upon its victory, envisioning a globalized future of infinite prosperity, limitless growth, unchallenged mastery of nature and unending self-creation, the ancient premonitions daily assert themselves and doubt crosses the visage of the apparent victor.

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  1. Will it last, this interest in growing our own food? Probably not, unless the predicted “recovery” is widely understood to be no such thing. In other words, I think that this interest in gardening is driven primarily by circumstance, and isn’t (yet) a resurgence of virtue.

    On the other hand, should things stay bad for long enough, it just might lead to the revival of a culture based in virtue.

    It seems to me the dividing line between these two outcomes runs along the path identified in the last quoted paragraph:

    One must see a vaster and even more nefarious story of concerted and ferocious efforts to weaken and undermine persistent forms of local culture, whether by dint of official policies that promoted mobility and encouraged indebtedness and gluttony, or more often by the subtle and nearly irresistible seductions of commerce that ultimately demolished every persistence of virtue in its path.

    I suspect that most of these new gardeners are purchasing their seeds from Monsanto or Dow, through one of their wholly-owned seed wholesalers. It is generally impossible to tell the provenance of seeds unless the retailer divulges that information, and most do not. So, oddly enough, this bubble of interest in gardening supports the very sort of organizations of seductive commerce that ultimately demolished every persistence of virtue…..

    Yet, also oddly enough, one of the gardeners quoted in the WP article is saving seeds:

    Frandano in Falls Church has become so canny and thrifty a gardener that he repots tomato seedlings that otherwise would be plucked to make room for others, and harvests seeds from store-bought peppers for garden plants. “I have beans ready to go” from those he saved from last year’s crop, and he intends to allow some beans to ripen on the vine this season to sow for a fall crop. “We’ll eat beans all year long,” he said.

    Saving seeds from store-bought produce doesn’t usually work very well (store-bought = hybrid = doesn’t generally reproduce to type, if it reproduces at all). But there is something virtuous about allowing the natural process of plant reproduction to take place, and saving a portion of the harvest for seeds for the next season.

    Perhaps virtue is making a comeback. One can always hope….

  2. There’s the story, perhaps only legend, of Hayek mocking the Swiss garden as an irrational form of vegetable production, and Roepke’s response that this missed the point as it was a rational form of happiness production.

    In a society without a thick conception of the good, musn’t happiness always flux in response to whatever the context is. So gardening will soon depart, will it not, since it is understood only instrumentally and not as partly constitutive of the happy life.

    Plato in the Republic suggests that the democratic soul is, above all, inconstant in its activities and loves. So too on this.

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