AN APPRAISAL OF RURAL AND URBAN LIFE
My grandfather acquired a hundred acres in 1893, land that was hilly and rocky but forest blessed. With not much more than an axe and his wife, he hued out a space, built a house, cleared for a garden, fashioned logs into a barn, and other buildings and began to have children. My grandmother had ten children but only five boys and one girl survived. So when the boys matured their alternatives were to get another hundred acres or to go to the city to find work. My father went to the city with my mother and found work. The Roaring Twenties lured many to the cities; the Great Depression returned many to the country. I was one of them. I spent many of my happiest days on my grandfather’s farm and learned to love rural ways. The sunsets viewed from the porch were exquisite poetry.
After WWII when I was in college on the GI Bill, there came a time for me to decide what to do after college. I thought seriously about going back to the farm and living the life my grandfather had. But “progress” made such a choice egregiously eccentric if not incomprehensible and economically quixotic to urban minds. So I worked a compromise: I became a teacher in winter and a farmer in summer. I am now a lawyer but I have continued to farm to some extent all my life. I believe that man and woman evolved in accordance with nature’s laws and nature designed him and her to live near the land, the waters, the skies, to watch the stars and moon, to propagate, to plant and cultivate and harvest crops for their sustenance and to create artistically. I have not been alone in this strangeness of mind. Listen to Thomas Jefferson’s appraisal of rural life:
“Those who labor in the earth are the chosen people of God, if ever He had a chosen people, whose breasts He has made His peculiar deposit for substantial and genuine virtue. It is the focus in which He keeps alive that sacred fire, which otherwise might escape from the face of the earth. Corruption in the morals in the mass of cultivators is a phenomenon of which no age nor nation has furnished an example. It is a mark set on those, who, not looking up to heaven, to their own soil and industry, as does the husbandman, for their sustenance, depend for it on causalities and caprice of customers.
“Dependence begets subservience and venality, suffocates the germ of virtue, and prepares fit tools for the designs of ambition. This, the natural progress and consequence of the arts, has sometimes been retarded by accidental circumstances, but, generally speaking the proportion which the aggregate of the other classes of citizens bears in any state to that of the husbandmen, is the proportion of its unsound to its healthy parts, and is a good enough barometer whereby to measure its degree of corruption.” —Jefferson’s “Notes on the State of Virginia.”
Jefferson was a deist who considered Jesus’ teachings the “most benevolent and sublime ever taught.” But Jefferson did not believe that Jesus was the son of God or that he arose from the dead and is a member of the Trinity. Jefferson’s God set things in motion and retired to let His infinite and omnipotent character shape the world, including life on it. And He shaped man as a part of nature just as He shaped all life evolutionarily. Thus, the virtue in man is a natural heritage, a heritage from God. Man on the land is at home; for it is from the land he evolved. And it is the land that birthed and nourished the virtue that evolved in him, a virtue that is ever needful of closeness to its origin.
Man on the land was independent. But man in the city is dependent; and dependence “begets subservience and venality, suffocates the germ of virtue, and prepares fit tools for the designs of ambition.” That is, the man who has migrated to the city and left his ax and hoe behind has “need to prepare fit tools for the designs of ambition.” Jefferson wherever he is must be appalled at the multiplicities of the tools the ambitious have designed to advance their ambitions, to entice and bilk the masses in order that they may have for cheap the essential products produced by the rubes of the hinterland and have cheaply the labor of those who left the land for the sidewalks hoping to live a sweat-free life. Nature’s virtue in those who design and those who suffer from the design has been undermined and compromised. Virtue hobbled the designers in their need for a life to which they were accustomed and it relegated those who were the victims of the designers to muteness faced with endless exploitation. So both, the former to exploit and the latter to fight exploitation abandoned virtue and engaged in retaliation. Virtue is a victim in the struggle between master and slave.
Corruption opines Jefferson, in a state, is greatest in the city where man is divorced from the land and less in the country where man lives on it. But the migration to cities around the world has been a 20th Century phenomenon and is continuing unabated. Mexico City now has 30 million inhabitants, all of whom left acres for streets and forests for high-rises and tenements and entered an environment fashioned by man so that he can acquire much and pay little and live from the sweat of another’s brow. Divine virtue atrophies sundered from its source.
In “The Meaning of the City” Jacque Ellul supports Jefferson by enumerating the evils of the city. Here is a bit of his appraisal of urban life: “The man who disappears into the city becomes merchandise. All the inhabitants of the city are destined sooner or later to become prostitutes and members of the proletariat. And thus man’s triumph, this place where he alone is king, where he sets the mark of his absolute power, where there are no traces of God’s work because man has set his hand to wiping it out bit by bit, where man thinks he has found all he needs, where his situation separated from Eden becomes tolerable—this place becomes in truth the very place where he is made slave.”
Crime is created; it is not innate. No person healthy of mine and body would commit a crime unless a web of circumstances, internal and external, caused him to act anti-socially. Rural environment and life conduces people to cohere communally and to eschew criminality. Whereas in the city the man-made environment, with its extremes of wealth and poverty, its void of all that is natural and appealing to the very core of man’s esthetic nature, its blocks of degenerate and decadent enticements, its baited lures and conspired inducements to indulge in the fleshpots, conduces people to involve themselves in a web of circumstances that birth criminality. Jefferson’s “substantial and genuine virtue,” in the city, exhausts itself in search of rural nourishment and languishes for lack of it.