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Cultivating Soil and Virtue in the Christian Agrarian Tradition

By Zac McEachran

Our environment is unhealthy; our earth “cries out to us because of the harm we have inflicted on her by our irresponsible use and abuse of the goods with which God has endowed her.”.  Erosion has denuded fields, sediment has clogged rivers, forests have changed in composition, biodiversity loss is extensive, and excess nutrients have clogged the waterways with so-called “dead-zones”.  Agricultural productivity has increased wildly, but rural communities are experiencing widespread decay.

One solution commonly offered in political discourse is that of scientific and technological progress offering us more eco-friendly solutions and higher efficiency, but the mechanist worldview that often accompanies these advances lacks the ability to discern how to morally implement these technologies.  A mechanist worldview, in which nature is just a complex machine, denies nature an inherent dignity and leads into manipulation of the “machine” for our benefit, easily leading to a decrease in natural beauty and form, and long-term sustainability.  “Technology, which, linked to business interests, is presented as the only way of solving these problems, in fact proves incapable of seeing the mysterious network of relations between things and so sometimes solves one problem only to create others.”

Secular environmentalism is also offered as a solution to our environmental problems in contemporary discourse, but is incomplete.  Although many environmentalists have recognized that there is a profound dignity inherent in nature, secular environmentalism as a political movement generally lacks a consistent philosophical foundation grounding the dignity of nature within a sound metaphysics.

Due to the aforementioned difficulties arising from proposed solutions to the environmental crisis, it is necessary to develop and popularize a holistic environmental ethics compatible with Christianity.  Christianity is often caricatured as an anti-ecological belief system, either through being “anti-science” to mechanists and too “anthropocentric” for some secular environmentalists, and is even accused of being a cause of our current crisis .  These interpretations of the Christian perspective on environmental issues do not consider the rich Christian Agrarian tradition that is especially suited to engaging the problem of environmental degradation.  In this essay, we will explore the Christian Agrarian tradition within a classical eudaimonist ethics system.

Agrarianism is a way of thinking about our life on the land that is in harmony with the order and function inherent in the land .  The ancient Christian Agrarian tradition is agrarianism in the context of the Christian faith, which recognizes the source of the order as the Divine and as glorifying God.  The order that pervades nature can be grasped by reason alone, but also informs our understanding of and relationship with the Divine.  To analyze how this tradition can inform a land ethic that allows all people to morally evaluate their actions with respect to the environment, we will consider the ethics we can discern from reason alone, grounded in an Aristotelian-Thomistic philosophy of nature and human action.  Then, we will discuss the Christian Agrarian tradition in Divine Revelation as completing and perfecting that known by our natural investigations.

Eudaimonist Ethics

Eudaimonist ethics is a system of ethics revealed through the investigation of the natural order and the use of reason, but has a special place within the Christian tradition, especially for those Christian thinkers heavily influenced by Classical thinkers such as St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas.  Eudaimonist ethics provides a systematic way to think of human actions and its foundations are intuitive and rooted in everyday experience.  Further, it adequately accounts for the fact that human beings are not merely souls in a shell of a body, but rather a unity (a rational animal) because it affirms that material things are goods (Genesis 1:31) worthy of pursuit, but that our actions in pursuit of these goods must be guided by right reason.  For a more thorough exposition, I direct readers to Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics; the following short discussion comes primarily from Chapter 1 of this work.  Readers are also directed towards Book 3, chapters 2-3 and 16-18  of Aquinas’ Summa Contra Gentiles.

Every action aims at some good; ultimately, all actions aim towards an ultimate good, the Good.  Without this apex Good, intermediate goods would be ultimately futile and our desires baseless.  This Good is happiness, or human flourishing (in Greek eudaimonia, hence “eudaimonist ethics”).  Many disagree about what constitutes this happiness, but considering what makes specific things good informs how we should understand the Good.  Aristotle offers that goodness is proportional to function, or how well a thing accomplishes the ends towards which it is naturally directed in virtue of what kind of thing it is.  For example, the function of this journal is to communicate ideas clearly via written text; it is a good journal if it fulfills this function, but if the ink smears easily, the text were too small, et cetera, it would lack with respect to its function and therefore goodness.  For a human, then, the Good constitutes living in accordance with the function of a human being.  Human beings are rational animals – we share animality with many other kinds of things, but are unique because we are rational.  Thus, the exercise of the rational powers unique to humans is the defining element of the Good for rational animals.  However, flourishing does not result from an individual action, but rather from an excellent character state; our character is a cultivated state that is the sum of our virtues and vices.

Virtues or vices are not innate, but rather we habituate ourselves into a character state.  Practice makes progress, whether learning how to play the piano, studying for class, running a marathon, or pursuing the good life.  Thus, right action is exercise for the soul, conditioning it into a virtuous state.  The state of our character manifests in the fruit we bear which are our individual actions, and “A good tree does not bear rotten fruit, nor does a rotten tree bear good fruit.” (Luke 6:43, New American Bible).    Thus, the good life is one in which we have a virtuous character state, from which proceeds virtuous actions, which are actions in accordance with reason.

Every action is an ethically significant action because it contributes to our cultivation of a character state.  Virtue is a mean that lies between two vices, one of deficiency and the other an excess, and is discovered by prudence and relative to specific people and situations.  For example, a large person may drink more before becoming drunk than a small one, and thus temperance for the small person would demand drinking less than the large person.  Further, the goodness or evil of a single action is determined using the Dionysian Principle – if one aspect of the act is evil, the act is evil .  Aspects of an act are threefold: the act in itself (object), the circumstances surrounding the act, and the intent of the agent (its end).  This is in contrast to the highly popular consequentialist ethics, in which the consequences of an act determine its goodness regardless of intent or the nature of the act in itself.  In consequentialism, no act is evil in itself .  If the torture of small children would achieve the greatest good for the greatest number, then that torture would be a morally good act aimed at the Good, and foster development of excellence in the torturer – an uncomfortable absurdity.

In summary, Aristotle argues that the end of all human action is human flourishing (eudaimonia), which is in harmony with the function of a human being, a rational animal.  The good life is the “pursuit of the best ends by the best means” (Francis Hutcheson), for which virtue, or habits to act in accordance with reason, is necessary.  This leaves us to analyze our choices with respect to the land by the criteria discussed.  When determining the aspects of an act, we must account for the thing we are acting upon – soil, water, plants, ecosystems, etc.  If an act is good, it respects and accounts for the dignity and function of the thing acted upon, as goodness is proportional to function.  For it is wisdom that “sharing and friendship and orderliness and moderation and justice bind together heaven and earth and gods and human beings, and that this universe is therefore called a kosmos (order)…” (Plato, Gorgias 508a).  It is this order and within this friendship by which the land and the whole universe become partners in our flourishing and glorify God.

Order and Function in Nature

Within a mechanist understanding of nature there is no function immanent in nature.  This is because if plants and animals are merely machines with no unified integrity of being, they do not exist as wholes with operations unique to them but rather sums of parts, or mere aggregates.  Aggregates do not have immanent directedness or functions: a pile of stones does not flourish.  Even aggregates that apparently have ends, such as a watch, only are directed towards ends externally and not immanently – there is nothing about the metal bits of a watch that entail a directedness towards timekeeping outside of the mind of an artificer.  Thus, only integral wholes are directed towards ends immanently, and these wholes move towards their ends because of the kinds of things these wholes are.  Because to a mechanist trees, beetles, deer, and the entire natural order is simply a set of complex machines, there is no moral order to their manipulation.  In fact, when coupled with a casual consequentialism, the manipulation of nature is a positive good if it results in beneficial material consequences for humankind.  However, the mechanist position rests on dubious assumptions and fails to account for the development of complex behaviors in the biological realm, especially consciousness and rationality in human beings.

If we go beyond the reductionist mechanist doctrine and take entities such as trees and deer and humans as possessing a real and fundamental nature , we can make our ethical decisions regarding them in the context of their functions, flourishing, and their broader attributes such as ecosystem niches.  This means we can look at an oak seedling and recognize its growth with respect to its end – to grow into a beautiful and mature tree that interacts with its environment in myriad ways and is suitable for certain uses such as for hardwood floors due to its durability and beauty of its grain.  These are not attributes that are known from analyzing the individual atoms that comprise the tree – they are from careful observation of the tree as a whole, including its aesthetic, ecological, useful, and biological characteristics.  This is in contrast to looking at that seedling and seeing a problem to be solved – a complex machine to be taken apart, examined, reassembled, and improved upon.  Thus, in the decision of whether to cut down the oak when it matures, a consideration of all of these factors is necessary to properly account for the order inherent in the tree as a means to fully understand the circumstance of the act.  This is not to endorse never cutting down trees, as less complex orders of nature are directed towards use by more complex orders, e.g., many animals tend to eat plants, which are then eaten by higher-order animals, etc.  Part of the function of an oak tree is its usefulness for humans – but this is only a part of its function to be respected along with all other parts.   

Christian Agrarianism

The Christian tradition reveals much about the order and function inherent in nature.  Christian Agrarianism is not simply a philosophical abstraction, but the affirmation and response of the whole human person, “Let the earth bless the Lord, praise and exalt him above all forever.” (Daniel 3:74).  Further, God gives us aid in our pursuit of Him, who is the Good, and “Grace perfects our natural abilities and properly disposes us to those gifts necessary to become faithful stewards of the earth.”.  There is a foundation in the Bible for Christian Agrarianism, but it has also been lived by Jews and Christians any time they have, for the glory of God and with humility to the function of the natural world, tilled a field, sat in wonder in the forest, hunted their game, or have simply eaten the fruit of the earth.

Ancient Israel was an agrarian society that depended intimately on the land for its existence; it was in the context of this agrarian society that the Biblical authors wrote.  Adam is formed from the dust of the fertile soil – in Hebrew, this is a wordplay, with human being and soil being closely related words that are related to another that refers to a red-brown color shared by the skin-tone common in the region and the soil .  The understanding of the Biblical writers and their choice of imagery, from the very earliest, was shaped critically by their experiences with the soil.  It is only after Adam’s transgression that mankind is sentenced to its toil, a struggle with imperfect knowledge of the order of things and concupiscence: “Cursed be the ground because of you! In toil shall you eat its yield all the days of your life” (Genesis 3:17).  In the New Testament, Christ’s followers included fishermen and his disciples often shared meals together, the fruits of the agrarian society in which they lived.  After Peter clambers to the shore of the Sea of Tiberias upon realizing the Risen Christ is there, he arrives to cooked fish and bread over a fire, prepared for them to share by the risen Christ Himself.

Consideration of function and integral order as the measure of the good allows us to go beyond the immediate temporal dimension.  Treating the land well requires us to respect its past and ensure its health for the future.  What is due must be given to the land because of its own inherent order, as well as to those people who have cultivated the land in the past and will depend on the land in its future.  This is sustainability – acting justly with respect to the land with consideration of the temporal order.  He who does violence to the land conditions himself to a vice opposed to Justice.  For Christians, time has a profound context that offers insights for what is due to the land and to our fellow humans.  This is in contrast to the mechanist who reduces all to the immediate temporal dimension, to whom life “will pass away like the traces of a cloud” (Wisdom 2:4).  The mechanist has no framework in which to recognize the history or purpose of nature, and so thus is apt to misuse its resources, because to completely describe the land is to describe it according to its parts, which are not temporally associated.  We see the fool say, “let us enjoy the good things that are real, and use the freshness of creation avidly.  Let us have our fill of costly wine and perfumes, and let no springtime blossom pass us by … Let no meadow be free from our wantonness…” (Wisdom 2:6-9).  The excesses of the flesh practiced by the fool are not limited to his gaining material pleasures, but also is connected to his wicked treatment of the needy (Wisdom 2:10) and his assertion that justice is the will of the strong (Wisdom 2:11).  A warped sense of justice and a warped understanding of nature have been cultivated by this fool, and we see that he uses Creation for his pleasure wantonly without regard to its Creator and thus without regard to its natural order.

In the Bible God establishes our role with respect to the land in the very beginning of time.  In Genesis we learn, “The LORD God then took the man and settled him in the garden of Eden, to cultivate and care for it,” (Genesis 2:15).  However, the verbs used for “to cultivate and care” may be interpreted as man “working for” the soil, and to “observe” the workings of nature to reveal its order and function .  The same verb is used in Jeremiah referring to the rhythm of the seasons – “…Turtledove, swallow and thrush observe their time of return…” (Jeremiah 8:7) .  Here we get the Divine command to enter into a special relationship with the land, as masters and as servants.  The proper way to treat the land is ascertained by careful observation of the natural rhythms of things.

A consideration of the end of time and our final end as humans offers us the reason for keeping to the principle of function measures goodness.  The final end of all things is God (Summa I, q, 44, a. 4); each species of the created order pursues God according to its nature.  The final end of humans, the ultimate happiness, is God and consists in the Beatific Vision in which we see God, who is the Good (Summa, I-II, q. 2, a. 8).  True flourishing is only found with God.  Although non-rational beings are incapable of participation in the Beatific Vision (Summa Suppl. q. 91, a. 5) and pass away, the natural world glorifies God (Daniel 3:57-90) and serves as a foundation for our knowledge of God and our pursuit of excellence.  If we injure our souls by disregarding the order inherent in it, we impede the pursuit of our own final end which is God.  “The violence present in our hearts, wounded by sin, is also reflected in the symptoms of sickness evident in the soil, in the water, in the air and in all forms of life.”.

Thus is the Christian grounds for an agrarian approach to land use.  Our history reveals a Divine order to observe and to care for the land according to its natural rhythms; our future reveals that the damage wrought to our own souls in vicious action against the natural order impedes our pursuit of our own final end, which is to reach the end of time to behold God for eternity in the Beatific Vision.  All of our actions are directed towards the Good, including actions towards the land.  We owe the land treatment according to its order and function, especially apparent when we consider the ultimate function of the natural order is glorifying its Creator, and we owe future generations the health of the land measured by that order and function via the natural virtue of Justice.


In this essay, we have explored how a land ethic in the Christian Agrarian tradition and classical eudaimonist ethics system is an intellectual framework in which Christians can morally evaluate their actions with respect to the land.  This tradition recognizes that we are situated in a specific time and place, and seeks to respect the order and function inherent in nature with respect to our situation in that time and place.  Classical eudaimonist ethics is a framework that lends itself well to formal consideration of our moral actions, and has been developed with rational argument in a rich tradition that continues in contemporary serious philosophical discourse for Christians and non-Christians alike.  However, it is only by the consideration of the fullness of time and its culmination that we can recognize the profound importance of our actions in this time, recognizing beauty and order as a sign of the Divine, and the ordering of Creation for the Glory of God.


Special thanks to Dr. Christopher Thompson at the Chapelstone Foundation for initiating many of the ideas and themes in this essay, my wife Margaret for valuable comments in its development, and to Dr. Gary Atkinson at the University of St. Thomas for an always enjoyable discussion about classical ethics.


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