When Fewer Men Farm, A Civilization Dies

Daniel Lattier | August 16, 2016 | 12,962

When Fewer Men Farm, A Civilization Dies

At the time of the America’s founding, 95 percent of its population lived on farmland, and only 5 percent lived in urban areas.

Fast forward to today, and these numbers have dramatically flip-flopped. Currently, a whopping 81% of people live in urban areas and only 19% live in rural areas. What is more, only about 1.6% of the American labor force is engaged in agriculture.

Many of us hear these numbers and are not overly troubled by them. We have a vague idea that this phenomenon has brought us “more efficient” agriculture and cheaper food, and are content with that. Plus, most of us have been raised in and conditioned by urban environments, and have little to no desire to return to the land.

But perhaps we should be a bit more troubled by the rural flight. For throughout history, a large-scale turning away from the small family farm has been one signal of a civilization in decline.

Professor Carl J. Richards aptly sums up the consensus in the ancient world about the virtues of an agrarian society:

“The pastoral theme was as much a staple of classical political theory and history as of Greek and Roman poetry. Aristotle argued that the best republics were predominantly agricultural. Polybius, Plutarch, Livy, Tacitus, and Sallust considered Sparta and republican Rome models not merely because they had possessed mixed governments, but also because they had been agricultural societies. These historians credited the triumph of Sparta and Rome over their vice-ridden, commercial adversaries, Athens and Carthage, as much to their pastoral virtues as to their government forms. Both produced virtue, the agricultural life by fostering frugality, temperance, and independence, the balanced constitution by encouraging moderation, cooperation, and compromise.”

Historian Victor Davis Hanson has described the farmers of Ancient Greece as “the dynamos from which the juice of Hellenic civilization flowed,” and claims that Hellenic society’s demise was linked with the disappearance of the small family farm. And in Rome, as Will Durant has noted, things began to change after the Second Punic War with Carthage:

“The Second Punic War changed the face of the western Mediterranean. It gave Spain and all its wealth to Rome, providing the funds for the Roman conquest of Greece. It reunited Italy under Rome’s unquestioned mastery and threw open all routes and markets to Roman ships and goods. But it was the most costly of all ancient wars. It ravaged for injured half the farms of Italy, destroyed 400 towns, killed 300,000 men; southern Italy has never quite recovered from it to this day. It weakened democracy by showing that a popular assembly cannot wisely choose generals or direct a war. It began the transformation of Roman life and morals by hurting agriculture and helping trade; by taking men from the countryside and teaching them the violence of battle and the promiscuity of the camp; by bringing the precious metals of Spain to finance new luxuries and imperialistic expansion; and by enabling Italy to live on the extorted wheat of Spain, Sicily, and Africa. It was a pivotal event for almost every phase of Roman history.”

Prior to the Second Punic War, it was Carthage that was dominated by commerce. But afterwards, Rome increasingly inclined to commercial interests and witnessed the decline of the small family farm. In the first century A.D. Pliny the Elder summarized the sentiments of many Romans of the time in the succinct epitaph: latifundia perdidere Italiam—“the large farms have destroyed Italy.”

Versed as they were in the classics, many of the Founding Fathers of America were well aware of the importance of promoting the pastoral life in the newly-formed Republic. For instance, Thomas Jefferson critically referred to British commercialism at the time as “Carthaginian,” and lauded the pastoral character of America:

“Cultivators of the earth are the most valuable citizens. They are the most vigorous, the most independent, the most virtuous, and they are tied to their country, and wedded to its liberty and interests by the most lasting bonds… I consider the class of artificers as the panders of vice, and the instruments by which the liberties of a country are overturned... I think our governments will remain virtuous for many centuries; as long as they are chiefly agricultural.”

Richards mentions that classical historians have attributed the fall of Rome to “the Punic Curse”—the turn to commercial interests that ensued after their defeat of Carthage.

Perhaps America is now suffering under the Punic Curse, as well.  



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