April, 1983 Archive

The Shepherd’s Philosophy: Pastoral and The Good Life

Thursday, April 28th, 1983

An Address to Philosophy 152: Theories of the Good Life
Claremont McKenna College
April 28 1983

I want to talk about this week’s topic–The Good Life as Living in the Country–by loosely braiding three strands of material into a single line of argument. These strands consist of your assigned readings by Carolyn Lewis and Scott and Helen Nearing, a discussion of the pastoral tradition in literature, and an account of some of my own experiences with living in the country for the better part of nine years.

The idea that the Good Life is to be found outside the limits of civilization in a rural, natural setting is as old and as widespread as civilization itself–a word whose root signifies the culture of cities. Urban people have often reacted to the conflicts and tensions of their existence with the wholescale rejection of their artificial environments and with affirmations of what they imagine to be the simple, happy lives of those who live in the country. This attitude has been dubbed “primitivism” by historians of philosophy, who have discovered its traces in some of the earliest Sumerian and Babylonian texts.

Primitivism has always been especially popular among writers–poets, dramatists, essayists, novelists. Their utterances of love of nature and hatred of the city have constituted a distinct literary genus called pastoral or bucolic–after the shepherd or cowherd whose occupations seem to embody the primitivist ideals of simplicity, unpossessiveness, rapport with nature, and the leisure for erotic, artistic and contemplative pursuits. Some pastoralists assert the theory of the Good Life in the country from the heart; others do so primarily to display their ability with words.

One can see evidence of the breadth and self-consciousness of this pastoral tradition in the way each chapter of the Nearings’ book begins with numerous epigraphs from sources ranging from ancient Chinese proverbs to Shakespeare and Thoreau. These epigraphs indicate that much of what follows has been said many times before and for that very reason bears repeating. The pastoral theory of the good life in nature and of the corruption of civilization dominates the Bible. We find it also in Homer and Hesiod–who project visions of the Golden Age before cities were founded; in the Phaedrus–where Plato paints an idyllic scene of erotic philosophizing outside the city walls; and in the Bucolics and Georgics of Vergil”which praise the quality of life far from the seat of Empire.

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The Shepherd’s Philosophy: Pastoral and The Good Life

Thursday, April 28th, 1983

An Address to Philosophy 152: Theories of the Good Life
Claremont McKenna College
April 28 1983

I want to talk about this week’s topic–The Good Life as Living in the Country–by loosely braiding three strands of material into a single line of argument. These strands consist of your assigned readings by Carolyn Lewis and Scott and Helen Nearing, a discussion of the pastoral tradition in literature, and an account of some of my own experiences with living in the country for the better part of nine years.

The idea that the Good Life is to be found outside the limits of civilization in a rural, natural setting is as old and as widespread as civilization itself–a word whose root signifies the culture of cities. Urban people have often reacted to the conflicts and tensions of their existence with the wholescale rejection of their artificial environments and with affirmations of what they imagine to be the simple, happy lives of those who live in the country. This attitude has been dubbed “primitivism” by historians of philosophy, who have discovered its traces in some of the earliest Sumerian and Babylonian texts.

Primitivism has always been especially popular among writers–poets, dramatists, essayists, novelists. Their utterances of love of nature and hatred of the city have constituted a distinct literary genus called pastoral or bucolic–after the shepherd or cowherd whose occupations seem to embody the primitivist ideals of simplicity, unpossessiveness, rapport with nature, and the leisure for erotic, artistic and contemplative pursuits. Some pastoralists assert the theory of the Good Life in the country from the heart; others do so primarily to display their ability with words.

One can see evidence of the breadth and self-consciousness of this pastoral tradition in the way each chapter of the Nearings’ book begins with numerous epigraphs from sources ranging from ancient Chinese proverbs to Shakespeare and Thoreau. These epigraphs indicate that much of what follows has been said many times before and for that very reason bears repeating. The pastoral theory of the good life in nature and of the corruption of civilization dominates the Bible. We find it also in Homer and Hesiod–who project visions of the Golden Age before cities were founded; in the Phaedrus–where Plato paints an idyllic scene of erotic philosophizing outside the city walls; and in the Bucolics and Georgics of Vergil”which praise the quality of life far from the seat of Empire.
(more…)