Homemakers, radical and not

I spent some of the afternoon looking over linked articles from a First Things blog on “radical homemakers” or the lack thereof. I’m not certain it was worth so much attention, but feel inclined to comment anyway. In summary: writer/small scale farmer Shannon Hayes has written a book recently extolling the virtues and rewards of leaving the standard job market for “radical home-making,” which mostly consists of doing what small scale farmers have always done — raising useful animals and plants, and making use of what one raises in a productive fashion — and feeling very cutting-edge, couragous, and perhaps a little smug in so doing. Madeline Holler wrote a response for Salon.com explaining that, if one isn’t already wealthy, that kind of work can be difficult, tedious, and require a defense among one’s peers. David Mills over at First Things links to both, and suggests that the “crunchy cons,” of which he may be one, tend to have sympathies with the former point of view, but aren’t willing to quit their jobs and head off into the country because, well, it is hard work, and it’s cool to be able to buy things like trampolines for one’s children.

That’s all very well — they each have a decent point to make. Ms. Holler’s article reminded me of a question a tutor brought up in precept last semester: how do we balance or reconcile our preferred method of education, which is more or less on an upper-class British or European model — with the reality that it’s not possible that our entire nation have aristocratic, or even upper middle class, roles in society? How to we successfully adapt an aristocratic educational model to a democracy? At St John’s it’s more obviously in question because the model is more unabashedly aristocratic in origin. We have to read, for instance, Aristotle write about how philosophy is only possible to those with the leisure to sit around and think for a goodly portion of each day, and that there are other people (in his case slaves) who can’t, and probably shouldn’t anyway. Then we get jobs teaching or selling books or raising oysters while writing plays, reading books, making art, and so on. Mostly we don’t make a whole lot of money at any of those things, and are either alright with that or learn how to do something else where people do make money. The hope is that we’re better and more thoughtful, interesting, human beings while we’re doing whatever (at times menial) thing we end up doing. Preferably of the sort who can compensate for not being able to afford expensive things by philosophizing about how one oughtn’t have too many expensive things anyway, for the sake of character.

Humans being what we are that might not be a sufficient defense against temptation toward avarice, envy, and sloth, but at least it might clue people in to the possibility that those vices might be worth overcoming. From Ms. Holler’s article I get the unfortunate impression that she hadn’t really considered the weight of such things, nor that canning, homemade bread, and useful animals can be a good deal of work, and that living frugally can be something of an ascetic enterprise. Instead she learned this through necessity, and still seems rather irritated about it. This brought to my attention two points. One of them was educational — is it or is it not a failure of education that gives people like Ms. Holler the impression that educated, intelligent people who have neither a title nor indentured servants are exempt from doing physical work in order to have nice things, including homemade bread and fresh basil? The other was about trying to make normal human work trendy. Orthodoxy is in favor of work; gardening, carving, building stuff, cooking, wine making. and so on for oneself are all endorsed as good. A moderate level of asceticism is also endorsed. It’s not good because such things are edgy, radical, trendy, going to save the planet, and so on, but simply because they’re part of being a normal, humble human person; sometimes sitting over screens and books all day is not good, and we’d better be tending to other things (like plants and animals) than exclusively to ourselves (like by working out on equipment for our own health. Cities make this more difficult, so… we’ll do as we can, imperfectly as always.

As is often the case, I think it may be more helpful to think about virtues and vices than about radicality, The Environment as a grand abstraction, “look at how noble I’m being by cooking for myself,” and so on. We’re inclined to sloth, and would often rather buy food than make it; perhaps it’s alright if that isn’t always an option. We’re inclined toward vanity and would rather shop at a nice brand store than at a thrift shop; poor, poor vanity, I feel so sad for you. We’re inclined toward envy and would like that nice house up in the hills because, having seen it, our house doesn’t seem so satisfactory anymore. We’re inclined toward avarice, and the prominence of stores and advertisements supports us in that. We’re inclined toward pride and would like to look impressive and principled and special for us to raise things, grow things, make stuff, and refrain from buying stuff, just as nearly everyone at all times has been obliged to do; but if pride subdues vanity and sloth, is that really a gain?

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