Memoir of a Moral Farmer-Philosopher
Roger Scruton is one of those unique philosophers in that he has abandoned the city in favor of more rural climes. Philosophers, by contrast, have generally sought the city, even in the face of politicians who have a nasty habit of placing them in the gaol or hanging them from some hastily constructed gibbet. The perils of philosophizing are well known and we have but to consider the career development of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn following the publication of One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich to understand that there are certain dangers in seeking “the whole truth.”
The art of philosophizing in the postmodern world has, for the most part, devolved into mere sophistry or the bloviated mutterings of court lackeys seeking their fifteen minutes of fame. However, there is a small cadre of thinkers who have eschewed the obligations of modernity and make inquiries armed with an accurate understanding of human nature, prudence, and the “wisdom not to attempt that which is beyond human power to achieve.” Roger Scruton has made a career out of puncturing the sophistry of his erstwhile opponents, in both polemical and scholarly works; here, he attempts a defense of that most denigrated life (at least by the urban elites), that of a farmer.
Scruton’s book is an important memoir in that it is predicated, I think, on the most profound question submitted before the Delphic Oracle whose famous response was gnothe seauton or “know thyself.” It is in the act of “knowing” and “self” that the author has established his household on the Wiltshire claylands, adapted to its customs, and embraced its people with the passion of a man seeking not only a humane existence but wisdom as well. Written in an avuncular, mellifluous style, given to great detail about the workings of country folk, the intricacies of the land, the plethora of wild and domesticated critters, his memoir conflates, in story, history, philosophy, and theology, the depth and meaning of community and place. But, this is no utopia; there lurks the power of the centralized state, ever eager to muck up the lives of people who on one hand would seek to divorce themselves from the bureaucrat, and on the other are inevitably seduced or forced by reduced circumstances into accepting his programs. Thus, the travails of the countryman are needlessly exacerbated by the state.
However, the farmer is uniquely situated to contest the vagaries of nature and the intrusions of state through centuries of attacks on the settlement. Some weather the storm and pass on their hard-earned expertise to their progeny; others are overrun in their stand. “It could be that this experience,” Scruton writes, “of oneness with protected animals is the true reason why people stay farming. It is an experience that brings with it a deep sense of locality. The is not merely living in a particular place, but dwelling there, sovereign over the herd, and belonging where they belong, who belong to him. That is why, when a livestock farmer can no longer make ends meet, he does not sell up and join the dole queue in the city. He nods goodbye to his herd, then turns away and shoots himself.”
Scruton’s description of the nexus between farmer and herd is similar to his explanation of the farmer’s relationship to the soil. When these relationships are in right order they represent the acceptance of the harmony of being, of having an appropriate place in the order of things. When compared to the life of the urban citizen, where his primary motivation is the accumulation of wealth, or merely surviving, a man who by definition has yielded to the state, the casual philosopher might declare that while the urbanite may find comfort, pleasure, and stock options, he is not likely to know peace, harmony, or contentment.
Even when the author is describing his neighbors, all of whom are truly interesting country folk, he retains a certain profundity. There is Mick, the owner of Clitchbury Farm, and his infamous bull; Roddy, the jack-of-all trades, hired man, and assassin of crows and magpies; there is the unnamed farmer, an anonymous Christian, who looks after Vince, the troubled youth; there is Molly and Bill, who dwell in an old farmhouse and hold the key to a special room. These are but a sampling of a myriad of people, each stamped with unique idiosyncrasies, whom the author has entered into his record of place. They are people who have lived-perhaps dwelt would be a better word-on their farms, raised their children, rang their bells, and celebrated their lives and the lives of kith and kin in song and dance. They have drunk deeply from the well of life and have been the better for it.
One thing that differentiates the English countryman from his American counterpart is the “hunt,” and Scruton’s description of the hunt is one of the more interesting aspects of his book. “The thrill of jumping,” he writes, “is not—as many people imagine—merely an equestrian experience. It is the thrill that comes from the dissolution of a boundary, and the annihilation of all the artificial claims of title that go with it. . . . This sense of common ownership and common destiny is part of what turns the land into a landscape. The fields that we see form our window do not end at our boundary but stretch beyond it, to the place where the hounds of the Vale of the White Horse hunt must be called off from the territory of the Old Berkshire, where ‘ours’ becomes ‘theirs,’ and the riot of followers must turn at last for home.”
Needless to say, the hunt, where the elusive, wiley, and chicken-stealing fox is remorselessly pursued is much too much for the authorities. Everyone from the RSPCA to urbanites who never leave their built environs have banded together to silence a centuries-old tradition that unites peer, commoner, tradesman, and farmer and provides the good service of culling the ubiquitous fox.
The reader will find Scruton’s memoir both charming and interesting. It is a layered and nuanced apologetics, brilliantly rendered, for a class of people who hover on the verge of extinction. And, while he writes of the intimate relationship among the farmer, his land, and stock his theme concerns the philosophical question of how we should live. “Settlement,” he writes, “is not a bond between the cells of an organism but an association of free beings, who treat each other as sovereign. It is the relation on which markets ultimately depend, and it thrives in rural areas because people are compelled to assume responsibility for their lives, in an economy that places a premium on trust.”
Scruton then has committed the great sin of critiquing the city utilizing his well-known acuity and facile pen. Were he a lesser man, his career would be in ruins but he has become one of them, a claylands farmer, a maker of muck piles, and as such, he will make his stand there, among his own. It is a comforting thought that there still exist such men.
Robert C. Cheeks writes from Lisbon, Ohio. His work has appeared in the American Enterprise, Human Events, The Washington Times, The Pittsburgh Tribune Review, Southern Partisan, and elsewhere.
Posted: March 19, 2007
A Blinkered Life of Burke
Francis Canavan, S.J.
Volume 33, Number 4 (Fall 1993)