In 1934, the philosopher Martin Heidegger, tired of his ill-inclined maneuvering to become the celebrity intellectual who would steer the Nazi Party into greatness, resigned from his rectorate at Freiburg and returned to focus on philosophy, a return resulting in the famous “Turn”—die Kehre, which many forget better translates as “the Return”—of his own thinking that would come to light just a few years later. He was then offered a similar position at the University of Berlin, which he declined. One month after his resignation, he wrote a short article titled “Why do I Stay in the Provinces?” for the local newspaper explaining his choice. The metropolis of Berlin was not his preferred “work-world.” That title belonged to a small hut standing at an “elevation of 1150 meters” on “the steep slope of a wide mountain in the southern Black Forest,” pervaded by the “great comings and goings of the seasons,” the “gravity of the mountains and the hardness of their primeval rock,” the “persistent growing of the fir trees,” and the “stern simplicity of the flatlands” farmed below. On a “deep winter’s night” in this place hidden within the Black Forest of southern Germany—that, for Heidegger, was the “perfect time for philosophy.”
According to Mary Cuff’s latest article in Modern Age, “Is it Time for the Robert Penn Warren Option?”, such a stance is possible for “only the most privileged people” who can “afford to quit their jobs and their urban and suburban lifestyles to become gentleman farmers living off the land.” For it is impossible to retreat from modernity into the forest of intentional living and working. But even if one could, his state would not last long, as inevitable forces would corrode his utopia in due time, whether through economic bankruptcy or cultural wear. The problem, for Cuff, lies deeper than economic privilege. The call to return to the land and the actual return to the land are futile if “mainstream thought” remains “unconverted.” Influencing how Americans think, not how they work, must be the ultimate goal.
Cuff therefore argues for a different kind of agrarianism than that concerned with actual attachment to the land through work. It is a “mental agrarianism” which privileges the history, literature, and narrative of a people. This mental agrarianism teaches the inhabitants of modern culture that they come from a time, place, and past they cannot—and should not—fight to escape. What matters is not living but “values” of living. These values appeal to “those who have little patience” with agrarians but recognize the “significance” of their “cultural diagnosis.”
Cuff lauds the poet and literary critic Robert Penn Warren as the exemplar of this mental agrarianism. The two-time Pulitzer-winning author of All the King’s Men, who came to see his earlier association with the Twelve Southerners as a futile response to WWII’s mass mobilization, managed to adapt to the postwar industrialism while still harkening back to his old values. (Cuff does not mention this, but part of that adaptation involved leaving his position at Louisiana State University, where he founded The Southern Review, for the University of Minnesota and then Yale University.) Warren succeeded, Cuff writes, because he did not praise “ideal” local communities and instead wrote of men and women tumbled headlong into the modern world yet still bound to their pasts and places. By following Warren’s lead, we may thus reconcile both the present and the past, the ideal and the real, through sheer literary—mental—effort.
But Heidegger knew that this “internalized agrarianism” is not enough. Those who rest content in admiring the folkways of a people are at best only city-dwellers “stimulated” by such ideals. Heidegger asserted that true philosophical work is instead “of the same sort” as that of the farm boy dragging his sled down the hill or the herdsman “lost in thought and slow in step” guiding his sheep. The work of thinking, for Heidegger, had to be “intimately rooted in and related to the life of the peasants.”
When one roots oneself into this life, the agrarian thinker falls into a “world,” a “rhythm” of thought, and in a “fundamental sense” the thinker is not is not at all “in command of this hidden law.” Strictly speaking, the thinker is not having a so-called experience or explicitly ‘thinking’ in the conceptual or valuative sense. As the farmer does not consider his agriculture an ‘agrarian experience’ but the simple fact of his work, likewise the truly agrarian thinker operates without attention to conceptual constructs of the agrarian ethos, value, or even history. Rather, he lets the world in which he lives guide him through practice, repetition, and habitation—what the later Heidegger would emphasize as dwelling.
In this sense, Heidegger does agree with Warren in seeing that “agrarianism is just a word.” But whereas Warren aimed to move past agrarianism to the concepts and values which undergird it, Heidegger argued that agrarianism itself is an abstraction, that what matters is not the values of agrarianism but the life from which agrarianism derives its values.
This realization led Heidegger to address the “very fashionable obtrusiveness” of his day that promoted “concern for the world” of the peasant,” which he saw as “contrary” to the real task at hand:
to keep one’s distance from the life of the peasant, to leave their existence more than ever to its own law, to keep one’s hand off lest it be dragged into the literati’s dishonest chatter about ‘folk character’ and ‘rootedness in the soil.’ The peasant doesn’t need and doesn’t want such citified officiousness. What he needs and wants is quiet reserve with regard to his own way of being and independence.
For Heidegger, it would be wiser for one unacquainted with the work of the peasant to keep quiet rather than pretend to promote the latter’s thinking. For thought is only accessible in its fullness through dwelling, a specific dwelling which is shaped by the land and, in return, safeguards it from harm. And if such existence is ignored, as Cuff allows it to be, then the worst is bound to happen. Heidegger attacked those from the city who thought they knew the country, most often the skiers and, in 1934’s Germany, the Nazi propagandists promoting the so-called Volk, who took their superficial experiences of rustic living as actual attachment to the rural life. In fact, they were only treating the countryside as a recreation center. Though they left the city for a time, the world of the city never left them. Heidegger asserted that “such goings-on destroy more in one evening than centuries of scholarship about folk-character and folklore could ever hope to promote.” What is required is not “chatter” about values or restorative experiences in the country but rather the quiet tenacity to continue the agrarian life in the face of modernity.
In light of today’s already-modernized world, it may seem Cuff’s ‘Robert Penn Warren Option’ is more viable than Heidegger’s path of “quiet reserve” and devotion to one’s place. But would taking Cuff’s path lead beyond the superficial praise of the country life or the values which undergird it? Or would it in the end reveal itself as only the plundering of pasts, histories, and places in the service of a selfish desire for catharsis and self-actualization? Those in favor of “internalized agrarianism” must answer those concerns, as the answer means the difference, for example, between the work of Thomas Kinkade or Harlan Hubbard—a sentimental lightness abstracted from reality, or a stern simplicity pervaded by the place around it and in turn giving light to its impressionistic actuality.
Many find Heidegger difficult to hold up as any kind of laudable example. He remained in the Nazi Party until the end of WWII and never publicly apologized for it, and his obscure diction seems ill-suited for any peasant. He himself might not have cared. What mattered to him was not the “astute report” of literati about him but the memory of his fellow-peasant friends, as he emphasized throughout his article, not the accessibility of his thinking but that his thought contoured to the pattern of life in his homeplace, which he tried to continue throughout his life.
But those unacquainted or uncomfortable with Heidegger may look to the American agrarians who have argued and lived the same, perhaps in ways better than Heidegger himself. Thomas Jefferson was among the first, as he worried that a truly democratic America could not exist unless populated by yeomen who owned their own property, worked their own fields, and took responsibility for their own homesteads. Republican values, for Jefferson, did not exist apart from republican work. Victor Davis Hanson, the classicist and California raisin farmer, has continued that tradition today in The Other Greeks, where he finds that the pillars of Western Civilization were built not by the Athenian urbanite but by the Greek γεωργός. For it is the uncouth farmer, he who “cared little for dress, shunned the palestra and gymnasium,” he who “judged the sophist in the assembly by the same yardstick” as his land and vines, he who only walked into town to vote, who therefore was the true progenitor of the Western mind which “speaks his due, fights his own battles, and leaves an imprint of self-reliance and nonconformity, a legacy of independence that is the backbone of Western society” (5-6).
Heidegger, Jefferson, and Hanson agree that one cannot think (or vote) well if one does not work well. And this is but a recognition of what Aristotle argues in Book I of Nicomachean Ethics, that it is necessary for a thinker to “be cultivated by fine habits”—only these “fine habits” are tending to the work of one’s hands rather than attending the theater. It is the opposite insight of Cuff: doing, not thinking, is the foundation of agrarianism. The hope is that in light of doing,πράξης, thinking—and above all, wisdom, φρόνησής—can be restored.
Finally, we may look to Wendell Berry himself, the poet farmer—a title which might have made the later Heidegger an envious admirer—whose main criticism of the Southern Agrarians was that they left home. In “The Regional Motive,” Berry contrasted the “mind of the South,” which could happily move on up to northern universities, to the “land of the South,” which demanded the “particularity” of personal virtue and work. Because the Southern Agrarians loved the South mainly for its “historical associations,” they were shackled to a sentimentality that thought “history makes the grass green whether the land is well-farmed or not.” Their promise was thus doomed from the start, a doom which actualized in their move from the South to northern universities, leaving behind a South still in need of stewardship.
In light of this critique, one might wonder if Warren wholly succeeded in his career. He was a fine writer and thinker. He earned his two Pulitzers and brought the tragic character of American history to the fore of many students’ and readers’ minds. But what if, for instance, he had not left LSU for Yale? The latter has never suffered for a lack of award-winning professors, while today the former is better known for its football team than its intellectual legacy. In part, this is due to a self-forgetting of its golden years during which Warren, Cleanth Brooks, and Eric Voegelin walked shaded under that campus’ stately oaks. But had these three men and others remained in place, would they have been influenced further by the oaks and cypresses and swampy waters of Louisiana and the ways of its people? And would they in turn have influenced its people and history and perhaps even its geography further? Since Warren and others “internalized” this place and its values, we will never know.
But Martin Heidegger knew his work and his place, and so in his case we do know the answer to those questions. His remains rest in the earth of the Black Forest in his hometown of Messkirch, where today many still travel to visit that small hut in the mountains in which he did his work. Even with his moral failings, Heidegger stands as one of the greatest thinkers of the 20th century. And while it might be more convenient for the scholar in some ways, one cannot divorce his thought from his time, place, and the role he played in them, as it came bound to the earth upon which he was grounded. Is that not the most ironic lesson of the 20th century—that its deepest thinker was one so unlike the century’s character of uprooting?
“Accepting the truth that we all have a past and a place,” as Cuff states, is indeed an important part of living, but so is accepting that we have a present and a place, and only one present and place, which demand from us the task of being and working. Responding faithfully to this demand in turn makes our thinking better. Heidegger’s word of warning, that only being and working in a very specific kind of place allows one to think well, is a hard word. But it is a word our deracinated culture needs to hear.