The Shepherd’s Philosophy: Pastoral and The Good Life

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.

When Rome’s urban, imperial culture went into decline during the Middle Ages so did the popularity of pastoral. But with the increasing complexity of social organization and centralization of power that accompanied the growth of cities during the Renaissance, the literary praise of the good life in the countryside once more came into prominence. Beginning with Petrarch and Boccaccio in Italy, we find pastoral conventions spreading to France, Germany and Tudor England. There the urban poets of Elizabeth’s court produced a flood of works about the Good Life in the country, including Sidney’s Arcadia, Spenser’s The Shepeheardes Calender, and Shakespeare’s As You Like It. The same social forces that generated this Golden Age of pastoral poetry caused widespread decline in the quality of actual rural existence and also led explorers, pioneers and missionaries to search for the Good Life in the primitive Edens of the New World–Florida, Virginia, El Dorado. Indeed this country’s original identity is based on a pastoral myth of independent farmers and pioneers, living close to nature and free of the decadent, oversophisticated complexity of European society.

The pastoral theory of the Good Life remained influential during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, as the urbanizing process proceeded, but it was not until the early nineteenth century that it regained the vigor it had achieved during the Renaissance. The English Romantics like Blake, Wordsworth and Coleridge, and their American successors like Emerson, Thoreau and Melville experienced the onset of the Industrial Revolution like a locomotive tearing through a garden. In response, many of them retreated to the woods–not only in imagination, as earlier pastoralists had done, but in person. From places like the Lake District in England, Walden Pond in Massachusetts, and the South Sea Islands, they wrote about the burgeoning mercantile civilization they left behind with a mixture of horror and contempt. Repeatedly condemning the urban world of “getting and spending” as “too much with us,”–in Wordsworth’s phrase–they glorified the countryside for aesthetic beauty and their rustic neighbors for spiritual strength absent in their readers. Pastoral still thrives in modern American culture, both in the popular form of cowboy legend and in the serious work of writers like Hemingway, Faulkner, Steinbeck and Frost.

It was, in my opinion, this tradition of literary pastoralism, with its uncompromising rejection of materialistic ambition and its enthusiastic commitment to “the other world,” which provided a legitimating context for the Nearings to depart from the city on their own in 1932 and to take up a rural existence in Vermont. It is even more likely to have been the Romantics and their spiritual heirs, the liberal academics of the sixties, who inspired Carolyn Lewis’ sons to move to the country thirty five years later–this time not as isolated individuals but as part of a wave of social movement. That same wave propelled me and my wife to leave our comfortable apartment, our interesting circle of friends and our promising careers in New York and to light out for the wilderness of British Columbia in the Spring of 1970.

The back-to-the-land movement in which we took part was at least at its outset, one of readers and thinkers. Composed largely of students, dropouts, recent graduates and a goodly quota of faculty members, many people who went seeking the Good Life in the country got their ideas of it in Humanities courses. The most telling similarity I found between the interior of the Nearings’ house and the many homebuilt places I visited or lived in lies not in the mudrooms, the woodstoves, and the kerosene lamps but in the prominent wall lined with books”among them invariably, Living the Good Life. These books tie the counterculture of the sixties and seventies to a rich tradition which makes the move to the country not just a counter reaction but a culture of its own.

Before making our own departure for the territory, my wife and I liquidated all worldly possessions that wouldn’t fit into our red Ford van–except for ten cartons of books and papers which we stored and later had shipped to us. Among them were notes for a doctoral dissertation on pastoral literature in which I had been trying to systematize the traditional bucolic ideals of the Good Life. I had categorized the ones most interesting to me as ideals of innocence–conceptions of an original unfallen condition that was inherent in human nature but that had been corrupted by history and by repressive methods of education. Throughout the tradition, I had found visions of peace, pleasure and creativity that crystallized longings for such innocence I shared with many of my contemporaries. They included: 1) a life of moral and material purity that would put us into rapport with children, simple folk and nature; 2) a capacity for sexual love untainted either by lust or by jealousy, and 3) a freshness of perception that would restore infinite delicacy and intensity to the experience of the five senses.

Many of the urban flower children of the sixties fantasized about achieving these ideals of innocence in the other world of the country, and the Be-ins in the parks and the music festivals in the fields seemed to bring their pipe dreams into reality. As the chorus in Joni Mitchell’s famous song about Woodstock insisted, “We have got to get ourselves back to the garden.” As one example of that contemporary pastoral vision of the good life, I’d like to play you a song by John Lennon and Paul McCartney called “Mother Nature’s Son.” Its impact is enhanced by juxtaposition with “Yer Blues,” the preceding song on the Great White Beatles album of 1968:

Black cloud crossed my mind
Blue mist round my soul
Feel so suicidal
Even hate my rock and roll
Wanna die yeah wanna die
If I aint dead already
Ooh girl you know the reason why.

Born a poor young country boy–Mother Nature’s son
All day long I’m sitting singing songs for everyone.

Sit beside a mountain stream–see her waters rise
Listen to the pretty sound of music as she flies.

Find me in my field of grass–Mother Nature’s son
Swaying daisies sing a lazy song beneath the sun.

In accordance with the ancient convention, the lovingly described rural landscape offers just what the heart desires without exacting toil or effort; it is a neverland, or what French medieval writers referred to as a pais de Cockaigne.

A similar contrast between city hell and pastoral vision of the Good Life comes from Cannned Heat:

I’m goin up the country
Friend don’t you want to go
I’m goin to some place that I’ve never been before

I’m goin where the water tastes like wine
We can drop in the water
Stay drunk all the time

I’m goin to leave the city
Got to get away
All this fussin and fightin
I know I sure can’t stay

My reading of literature had brought me in touch with similar celebrations of the rural landscape in the Old Testament:

Come love, let us go out to the open fields
And spend our night lying where the henna blooms,
Rising early to leave for the near vineyards
Where the vines flower, opening the tender buds,
And the pomegranate boughs unfold their blossoms.
There among the blossom and the vine I will give you my love
Musk of the violet mandrakes spilled upon us….

This and several other lyrics like it from the Song of Songs provided models of imitation for dozens of Renaissance poems expressing an intellectual, emotional and physical yearning to get back to the bosom of nature. Here, for example is Christopher Marlowe’s familiar, “The Passionate Shepherd to his Love”:

Come live with me, and be my love
And we will all the pleasures prove
That vallies, groves, hills and fields
Woods or steepie mountain yields.

And we will sit upon the rocks,
Seeing the shepherds feed their flocks,
By shallow rivers, to whose falls
Melodious birds sing madrigals.

And I will make thee beds of Roses
And a thousand fragrant poesies
A cap of flowers and a kirtle,
Embroidered all with leaves of myrtle…

And here is a song from Shakespeare’s As You Like It, set to music by Donovan in 1966:

Under the greenwood tree
Who loves to lie with me
And turn his merry note
Unto the sweet bird’s throat
Come hither, come hither, come hither
Here shall he see
No enemy
But winter and rough weather.

All these invitations to delight in the beauty and innocence of nature are also songs of seduction. In terms of our modern Freudian mythology, the world outside the walls of civilization and its discontents is ruled by the Pleasure Principle. Country life offers release from repression of instinct–a chance to let down your hair and take off your clothes, protected by a green bower of bliss from the censorious eyes of the straight world. The Good Life envisioned by pastoral is thus often a sexual utopia–a Golden Age of Free Love like the one described by Torquato Tasso in the early sixteenth century, where the curse of Honor is unknown and “S’ei piace ei lice”–“whatever gives pleasure is right.” Compare this to some of the slogans that graced the walls of Berkeley, Columbia and the Sorbonne in 1968: “If it feels good, do it!” “Make Love, not War.” “It’s my life; I’ll do what I want.”

The pastoral ideal of the Good Life has a spiritual as well as a physical side. After doors of perception sealed by the strict world view of the fifties were blasted open by psychedelic drugs, many people felt that going to the country could provide a permanent high. There not only could one escape the muggers, the police, the president and one’s parents, one could also find in the solitude and the change of scene a setting conducive to mystical contemplation. In this sense the “country trip” could be what it was for Petrarch and Thoreau, a hermitlike retreat. I had found a beautiful expression of that particular theory of the Good Life in the seventeenth century poetry of Andrew Marvell:

What wondrous life in this I lead
Ripe apples drop about my head;
The luscious clusters of the vine
Upon my mouth do crush their wine;
The nectarine, and curious peach,
Into my hands themselves do reach;
Stumbling on melons, as I pass,
Ensnared with flowers, I fall on grass.

Meanwhile the mind from pleasure less,
Withdraws into its happiness:
The mind, that ocean where each kind
Does straight its own resemblance find;
Yet it creates, transcending these,
Far other worlds, and other seas;
Annihilating all that’s made
To a green thought in a green shade.

At this point you may be wondering what such a theory of the Good Life as sex, drugs and rock and roll has to do with the enjoyment of building rockpiles all day and eating raw cabbage for dinner, as propounded by the Nearings. At least I often asked myself this question when I realized that their righteous call to an austere New England Puritan’s existence was as compelling in its own way as the beckoning of wood nymphs.

Their theory of the Good Life as one of self-sufficiency, discipline and moral rectitude had a special attraction for those who had taken part in struggles for peace in Vietnam, racial equality, economic justice and student rights during the preceding years. By 1970 many of us felt that despite our confrontations and arrests, no real progress had been achieved, and we drew the conclusion that our society under Richard Nixon or any other leader was too morally sick to be cured. Not only that, the draft board was on my case; the University-owned building I lived in with its friendly black doorman was the target for rioters from Harlem down the block with whom I claimed to identify; the nuclear reactor across the street kept shutting down with maintenance problems; the vegetables I bought at the corner grocery were covered with soot, and the air I breathed reeked of exhaust and a strange chemical odor of burnt coffee grounds. There were plenty of moral and practical reasons to make the hard life in the country sound good.

In my reading of pastoral literature, I had already discovered that this “hard primitivistic” moral and practical view of the Good Life in the country often coexisted with the “soft primitivist” vision of innocence. Mixed in with amorous nymphs and shepherds one could always find some herdsmen uttering enthusiastic descriptions of the joys of work, practical advice on how to get things done and righteous exhortations against the temptations of pleasure and power. Indeed, the second stanza of “Under the greenwood tree/who loves to lie with me” goes as follows:

Who doth ambition shun
And loves to live in the sun
Seeking the food he eats
And pleased with what he gets
Come hither, come hither, come hither.

According to Shakespeare’s plot, the singer here is one of a number of people who have been exiled to the wilderness by a usurping and tyrannical government and are hence trying to make a virtue of necessity–shades of blacklisted radicals in the thirties and draft resisters in the sixties. Their spokesman, the Duke Senior, gives an eloquent discourse on the Good Life epitomizing the realistic sobriety of hard primitivism:

Now my co-mates and brothers in exile
Hath not old custom made this life more sweet
Than that of painted pomp? Are not these woods
More free from peril than the envious court?
Here feel we not the penalty of Adam,
The seasons’ difference, as the icy fang
And churlish chiding of the winter’s wind,
Which, when it bites and blows upon my body
Even till I shrink with cold, I smile and say
‘This is no flattery; these are counselors
That feelingly persuade me what I am.’
Sweet are the uses of adversity,
Which, like the toad, ugly and venomous
Wears yet a precious jewel in his head;
And this our life, exempt from public haunt,
Find tongues in trees, books in the running brooks
Sermons in stones and good in everything.

If the sermons in stone here remind us of the Nearings’ solid foundations and walls, the phrase that echoes most through the pastoral tradition is the one about the cold wind which “feelingly persuades” the Duke of what he is. That same phrase “resonates in [her] brain” when Carolyn Lewis asks her “unambitious, gentle country offspring” how he likes living three hours away from the nearest large city and he replies, “Just fine. You see, here I know who I am.”

I too learned a good deal about who I was during my first winters in the wilderness–stuffing log walls with old socks, placing cans under leaks in the roof, brushing off snowy lumps in the forest to find firewood. Among other things I learned how much I like to be dry and warm. People on a neighboring commune took this quest for self knowledge even further; like Socrates in The Symposium, they tested the civilized custom of wearing shoes and toughened themselves enough to go barefoot in the snow. They learned that such heroic abstinence leads to chilblains–a painful, chronic inflammation of the toes. Such were the attractions of austerity.

The hard and the soft visions of the Good Life in the country were difficult to reconcile in experience, and led to many of the conflicts that sent most exiles back home to the city before two seasons went by. Let me linger on just one example. Our first winter on the land has passed; it’s a hot July afternoon. Our infant son lies in a straw basket suspended from an old apple tree, gazing at the shifting patterns of light in the leaves, and through them at the tops of the tall firs surrounding the clearing in the forest. Two ducks glide across a pool in the babbling stream; baby goats and a lamb gambol on the moss-covered rocks, a climbing rose blooms on the corner of the weathered old house, peas ripen in the garden fenced against the deer. The sound of a guitar and singing voices rise from a circle of people sitting in the fresh tall grass. They are friends and ex-students who have hitchhiked from New York to join us in Arcadia. Inside the house my wife is alone, still weakened from the hard birth three months earlier and pale from staying up most of the night with the colicky baby. Heavily, she lifts a bunch of soapy diapers out of the tub of an old washing machine salvaged from the dump and runs them through the wringer. Next to the red van above the woodshed, I curse and pound a steel sledgehammer on a shake froe that’s stuck tight in a bolt of red cedar. I’ve been splitting for hours, but the stack of usable roofing material is tiny compared to the pile of warped and splintered rejects. All the clear shake logs have been scavenged long ago. Finding, bucking, hauling and splitting the material for my roof will take another three weeks of long summer days. Hearing a soft peal of laughter drift up from the meadow, I pound and twist more furiously, and the long flat board snaps free with a clatter. I remember the words of Sir Walter Ralegh’s “Reply” to that song, “Come Live with Me”:

If all the world and love were young
And truth in every shepherd’s tongue
These pretty pleasures might me move
To live with thee and be thy love.

The flowers do fade, and wanton fields
To wayward winter reckoning yields
A honey tongue, a heart of gall
Is fancy’s spring but sorrow’s fall.

Thy gowns, thy shoes, thy beds of Roses
Thy cap, thy kirtle, and thy poesies,
Soon break, soon with, soon forgotten
In folly ripe, in reason rotten.

By the time three years had passed, we did learn to survive economically and socially outside the system we had rejected–though not nearly as completely or as smoothly as the Nearings. We bartered meat and produce with local salmon fishermen, finished rebuilding house and barn, filled the woodshed in the summer, rented out cabins and put our guests to work. The satisfaction in these accomplishments outweighed the pursuit of country pleasures; the Good Life had changed from one of innocence to one of experience; rather than a way of recapturing childhood, living in the country had become a way of growing up.

Nevertheless the soft version of the Good Life still had a place in our rural community; it was there to be tapped during planting and harvest festivals, cider pressings, pig slaughters and holiday dances. The most harmonious reconciliation of the two theories of the Good Life took the form of a summer camp for children we ran for two years on our old homestead. There we could play like babes in the woods and at the same time take the role of rustic teachers, helping kids develop skills for living on the land.

In terms of my intellectual quest for the meaning of pastoral literature, I began to see the balancing of opposing claims about the Good Life as the central structure of the genre itself. Rather than asserting one or the other, most pastoral works when taken as a whole, left the controversy unresolved. The conclusion of Ralegh’s “Reply” is both a sarcastic rejection of innocence and at the same time a wish to return to it:

But could youth last, and love still breed
Had joys no date, nor age no need
Then these delights my mind might move
To live with thee and be thy love.

The discovery that unresolved debate per se was pastoral’s essential design led me to a new perspective upon its praise of country life itself. While living in the city, I hadn’t noticed that such praise more often than not was followed by a critique, a denial or an abandonment of rural existence–that pastoral frequently contained within itself a strong “anti-pastoral” component. But after living in the country I became aware for instance that the Biblical story has two parts: the vision of the good life in the garden and the revelation of its inadequacy. Now I could make sense of the way Shakespeare concluded his song with a stanza rejecting both soft and hard pastoral visions:

If it do come to pass
That any many turn ass,
Leaving his wealth and ease
A stubborn will to please
Ducdame, ducdame, ducdame
Here shall he see
Gross fools as he
An if he will come to me.

From that perspective, I can see the same movement of reversal, debate and ambivalence about primitivist values shaping the Nearings’ book. At its opening they address the reader who is fed up with the grind of daily life in an alienated society, promising to provide them with a sure-fire method to achieve happiness in the country. Most of the book embellishes that lure by showing how enjoyable, straightforward and successful every one of their projects turned out to be. Failures of any sort, doubts, inner struggles and disagreements between the two people involved are edited out of the story to strengthen the appeal. However, in the next to last chapter, “Living in a Community,” the tone of the book becomes less idyllic, and they confess that as a social experiment their model didn’t really work:

Considered in terms of individual health and happiness, our project was an emphatic success. Viewed socially however, even on its economic side, it left much to be desired … In the absence of effective neighborhood cooperation, the small size of the group … placed an undue burden of varied chores and tasks upon each member of the experiment.

They also qualify their earlier claims about living the Good Life with the crucial admission that it left no room for raising children–which limits the application of their model to the young, the elderly and those who don’t care to reproduce. Thus, the book concludes not with a rousing summons to follow in their footsteps, but with a judicious “Balance Sheet,” as the last chapter is entitled. The bottom line of this account is the recognition that though they would do it all again, the reader would be well advised to hesitate before selling all and heading for the hills.

Carolyn Lewis returns a similar verdict at the end of her article about her sons’ way of life in the country:

Is my sons’ solution to the complexity and seeming intractability the answer for everyone? Of course not. Some of us have to stay in the cities …. But to choose small places, modest ambitions and values that are tolerant and loving is surely an admirable alternative.

In his reply to the question of the day, “How like you this shepherd’s life?” Touchstone, the court fool in As You Like\It offers a flip version of the same obvious but difficult recognition:

Truly shepherd, in respect of itself, it is a good life, but in respect that it is a shepherd’s life it is naught. In respect that it is solitary, I like it very well; but in respect that it is private, it is a very vile life. Now in respect it is in the fields, it pleaseth me well; but in respect it is not in the court, it is tedious.

It took years of living in the wilderness for me to arrive at this fool’s wisdom: there are evils and advantages of both city and country life; which one is the Good Life depends on where you are. As someone I knew once put it:

Who did you come to the country with
Who did you leave behind?
You say you cut loose from your relatives
Did you ever cut loose from your mind?

If pastoral was essentially debate and the Good Life was essentially the greener grass on the other side, as these conclusions suggest, the most desirable way to live would be to oscillate–not only between rural work and rural play, but between country and city environments. This is actually what my wife and I did after our first three years on the land. From 1973 to 1975 we lived in the city of Vancouver for the winter and returned to our farm for the five-month long summers, and from 1975 to 1978, we each worked at part-time jobs in a nearby town and spent half the week at home with the garden, the animals and the children.

This balanced arrangement turned out for me to be as close to the Good Life as I have ever come in any long-term experience. But it too had to pass–subject eventually to the final arbiter of styles of living, the passages of the life cycle. By the time I had reached my middle thirties a new set of less ambivalent values began to shoulder what was left of my old primitivisms completely out of the picture. As my children grew older and my parents became aged, I no longer saw my own self as separate from and opposed to the civilized world that had bred me. Instead, for the first time, I began to experience myself as a member of society and a bearer of its values. Though still not interested in wealth, I wanted a modicum of material comfort and security, and I preferred to devote effort to earning rather than saving money. More important yet, the fundamental pastoral principle of shunning ambition ceased to be true for me, for I recognized in myself an unequivocally civilized desire to develop a career, get ahead, make a name. The first step on that path was to rent out the farm on a long term lease and return to Stanford University to finish the dissertation I had abandoned years before, searching in the library and laboring at the typewriter until it was finally done.

My starting point in that study was a discovery about my literary subject matter that grew directly out of the examination of my own life history. A survey of the whole field of pastoral literature revealed the conspicuous absence of shepherds and rustics of middle age. The idealized residents of Arcadia were, with very few exceptions, people in their youth or elderly folk. From this observation I hypothesized a link between philosophical theories of the Good Life and stages of the life cycle. Soft and hard landscapes on the peripheries of civilization corresponded to the stages of life at the peripheries of the life cycle–youth and old age–while the urban, public life of ambition and action at the center–the vita activa–corresponded to middle age or the prime.

As I myself passed out of youth, I felt my ideals perceptibly shifting in accord with the same cycle of changes I was mapping in the texts. While I submitted my chapters and got my approvals, the vision of the Good Life as someone in a meadow playing the flute to his goats faded from my mind. In its place an alluring new image came into view: it was a scholar delivering a lecture before an attentive and thoughtful audience.

Snapshots from the end of the Road


Thanks to Greg Boban for scanning and MP3’s

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