Nature and Art in the Village

by John Francis Nieto

The following paper was read at the conference “The Idea of a Village,” May 2016. A video of the lecture can be found here.

We of the twenty-first century look for the village in legend and folk tale, to some extent in history and there, much more as we look back, less and less as we come forward.  This is no accident, for reasons I will go on to point out.  This fact and a few others make much of what I am about to say seem ‘abstract’ and ‘ideal’.  Yet what I say here about the village is utterly ‘practical’ and ‘realistic’.  Man cannot—I propose—have healthy familial life and just political order unless these take root and find support in village life.

At the same time, what I am about to say is not ‘immediately’ practical.  To live a true village life at this time is virtually impossible, is in most places illegal, and has been made ludicrously burdensome by the modern cult of convenience.   Some few remote, impoverished places may still hide villages.  Those wealthy enough can play ‘village’.  And heroic souls can strive to reestablish village life, but not, at present, without an unnatural and unhealthy dependence upon and interference from the modern, global ‘city-state’.

My insistence upon speaking about the village ‘in its purity’ does not arise from a refusal to face reality, from an unwillingness to appreciate what is good in things that are imperfect, or from a desire to depreciate the work of those who strive to live village life as well as they can, while I stand by only talking about village life.  Rather, I want to encourage those interested in village life in two ways.

I want them to see how critical the village is to the whole human race.  I also want to help them avoid the temptation to believe that the compromises necessary to any village in our day constitute improvements on the village.  I would suggest that one cannot improve on the village.  The village is one thing man has got right, or rather, had got right—albeit in many different ways.

For many reasons, we cannot hunt, sew, sing, farm, cook, dance, or wash clothes as could those who have lived in villages until very recently.  We have exchanged such abilities for many advantages, especially long lives and material possessions.  I propose here that the loss is much greater than the gain—in some sense it is infinite.  I propose that we have lost the interaction with nature that allows us to cultivate our own, human, nature in a manner conducive to happiness—by which I mean true, human thriving and fulfillment—not merely living, but living well, the good life.

The basic claim of these remarks is that, while the village is not sufficient for human happiness, the village is necessary for such happiness.  To defend the claim, I will do three things.  First, I will briefly discuss the dependence of human social and political order upon nature.  Second, I will compare the roles proper to the village and the city in achieving happiness.  Third, I will argue that only in the village is man able to experience the natural world and within it, his own nature, in a manner that will fit him to found healthy cities and to live happily within them.

Now, when I was ten years old, my cousin Charlotte lived with us for several months.  As she stood over the floor heater early winter mornings, she would often describe life growing up on an Indian reservation as well as her vagabond life as a hippie.  I can still hear her hearty laughter as the warm air puffed up her flannel nightgown.  Then one morning my mother asked her, ‘What do you hippies have against society?  What’s your criticism?’

I looked up at Charlotte’s face.  It had become serious and thoughtful.  ‘We think society has got too far away from nature,’ she said.  ‘Society is too artificial.’

I cannot now recall whether their conversation continued; my thoughts had started on their own course.  I felt sure immediately of two things.  Society had separated itself too far from nature, though I felt less sure in what way it had done so and why.  More fundamentally, I ‘knew’, without yet seeing why, that a society could only remain healthy so long as it remained united to nature in the right way.  The clearest image I had was of a hippie commune I had seen on television, where the members lived by raising goats and making cheese.

Now I have thought continually about these questions ever since.  I struggled to express this in an essay written a few years later.  ‘Man has become estranged,’ I began to write, and then I stopped.  Should I say, ‘from nature’ or ‘from his nature’?  I thought about this some time.  I went back and forth.  I finally wrote succinctly, ‘Man has become estranged from nature.’  And I understood then and still understand the reality described by these words to mean this, that man, by surrounding himself with human contrivances and thus insulating himself from the natural world has lost his understanding of that natural world to which he himself belongs.  Precisely because man is a natural being and not artificial and man-made, he has at the same time lost his understanding of himself.

I have tried, therefore, most of my life to uncover that natural world that still lies hidden and masked all about us and thereby to find human nature and to understand how to fulfill its various powers, especially by those habits we have traditionally called art.  In using this word I do not have the fine arts principally in mind.  Yet I do not exclude them. First and foremost, I mean the habits of mind and body that make a man able to cultivate the material world.  The habits that make him a farmer, a hunter, a seamstress or tailor, a cobbler, a house-builder, a doctor—that is, a medicine man.  In the village where these arts begin to thrive, the fine arts also begin, in the embellishment of pots and jars, in the design of chairs and tables, in the cut of briar pipes, in placement of windows and doors and the thatching of a roof, in the songs and dances on summer evenings.

My search for human nature and its natural abilities led me first, through socialism and communism, to anarchism, which I professed from the age of eighteen to twenty-two.  In some sense, during my years as an anarchist, I sought nothing more than the restoration of village life.  But more penetration into my answers about human nature led me to abandon anarchism and the left.  I had come to see, beneath the opposition of left and right, a deeper alliance.  I will say almost nothing here about the reality and importance of their opposition.  When it comes to questions of world-wide social order, to the choice between a world filled with villages and cities or a global order, granting a centralized, mechanized life to all its inhabitants, I have come to see the agreement between right and left as something more fundamental and more dangerous than their opposition.  This agreement, to my mind, concerns precisely the understanding of man and nature that I have held since my tenth year.

Right and left agree that man cannot find his proper nature until he dominates nature in such a way as to free himself from the natural world.  Sustainable domination would be preferable to an unsustainable domination.  Still man must not only rise above it; he must rise out of it.  Apparently, he must not only control and recreate the body nature has furnished him with, by making its properties and operations suitable to his desires.  He must even escape the earth itself, must find some other planet fit for the ‘creation’ and cultivation of a new ‘natural’ world agreeing with the dictates of the sciences of chemistry, biology, and sociology.

This view, I propose, is the enemy of anyone who wishes to live in a village.  The reason is quite profound.  The principle I grasped at ten years old, first articulated distinctly by the Greek philosopher Aristotle and taken up by Catholic social teaching, belongs to the perennial wisdom that belongs commonly to the human race: man is naturally social and political.  The most fundamental impulses of human nature call forth various ‘societies’: first the family, then the village, and finally the polis or city, at least, in the true sense of that word.

Now, while still anarchist, I began to form an understanding of the village, of its distinction from and relations with the city.  This understanding led me to suspect that the left, including anarchism, has neither the interest in protecting or establishing village life nor the ability to do so.  My experience growing up in a highly developed capitalist commercial society had already led me to see the focus on consumption so necessary to this economy as hostile to the village and its proper relation to the city.  Incidentally, I have since heard it claimed that before the rise of Dutch and English capitalism, households produced 95% of what they consumed.  Today it would be heroic to produce merely 5% of what one consumes.

So, first, I will look at the difference between village and city and the relations that follow this difference.  Aristotle begins his book on political life by arguing that there are distinct orders of human society.  These do not differ merely in size but rather in the order or rule proper to each society.

The distinction in order and rule follows from something more fundamental, the purpose or end that defines each of the societies.  The family exists insofar as man naturally pursues what he need for daily life: food, clothes, shelter, and thereby the nourishment and education of children.

In the village man aims at something above the daily needs.  Here families support one another by providing, one for another, some aspect of their daily needs.  This allows another order of fulfillment, one more proper to the village.  Families can share, compare and refine experience.  Insofar as they obtain relief in the pursuit of daily needs, they can enjoy common recreation in music, poetry, and dance.

Yet there is something lacking.  In the village, through its small size and its proximity to the extended family, justice cannot exist in its purest form, as something abstracted from the prudence of particular men and women.   Nor can the village defend itself sufficiently.  Villages come together into cities to obtain such justice in their exchanges and their common actions and common defense from enemies.  Villages surrounding such cities also seek justice and safety from those cities.  Cities therefore exist for the sake of peace in a very fundamental sense of the word.

Here in the city, however, man not only finds justice and safety but the full flourishing of his nature.  Precisely insofar as peace frees him from constant attention to survival, man can pursue the good life.  He comes together in families and villages to live; he comes together in cities to live well.

One might conclude from this understanding that the village is necessarily a passing phase in the development of social order.  The village is a stepping stone, it may seem, to the city and passes out of existence once cities come about.  I suspect this has led in one way or another to the view common in our time.  Socialism and capitalism agree deeply that this is so.  We now see economies founded on socialist principles employing capitalist principles and vice-versa, in a common effort to establish one political and social order throughout the modern state.

But this view misunderstands social order.  The village looks to the city for safety, justice and other excellences of human nature.  But the city also looks ‘back’ to the village for a prior fulfillment of human nature.  And this fulfillment is necessary to the health of city life.  In a similar way, both the city and the village depend upon families for something that neither can provide or cultivate.

The city looks to the village above all for cultivation of an understanding of nature and of man as a natural being.  In the village man recognizes himself a being that rises above the nature of his body, through reason’s cultivation of the natural world, yet as one that remains a natural being in his body and its interactions with other beings of the natural world.  In the city man can realize the highest aspirations of his spiritual nature, which most of all contributes to well-being.  But in cities he can also misunderstand what constitutes living well.  In the village man cannot delude himself with false conceptions of his relation to the natural world.  There he necessarily concerns himself with living as it concerns the human body.

The ancient philosophers, so far as I can see, pay little attention to the dependence of the city on the village.  They cannot imagine a world in which the village is a whim and a luxury.  Industrialization and technology, especially as applied to agriculture, and the tremendous abundance that follow these developments make the elimination of the village possible.  In my understanding, its elimination is necessary to the view of man that arises from and corresponds to these developments, a false understanding of man freed from his dependence on nature.  Man needs the village in order to maintain a proper understanding of human nature.  Only while man sees himself as a natural being in a natural world, can he properly conceive human happiness as the fulfillment of that nature.

Now, what makes the village capable of providing such an understanding of man?  Answering this questions demands elaboration of something I have already proposed, that the village is much closer to nature and to the family as the family arises from man as a natural being, as a certain kind of animal.  At the same time, as in the family, life in the village provides man with a clear view of himself as an animal of a certain kind.

All animals necessarily feed upon plants and other animals.  The higher animals take some kind of shelter and protect themselves from ‘the elements’ and from natural enemies.  Further, the higher animals all reproduce through the cooperation of male and female.  In doing so, they complete and fulfill themselves insofar as each is male or female.  Each species of animal has natural impulses by which its nature incites the members of that species to feed and reproduce and to protect itself and its offspring.  The nature of each species conditions the manner in which that species pursues the goods involved in the survival of the individual and the species.

All animals—apparently even animals as simple as the amoeba and bacteria—use knowledge to pursue these goods.  The most simple ‘smell’ out their food and the toxins they must avoid and move toward or away, albeit erratically.  Other animals use hearing and sight, together with smell, in various strengths and proportions, arising from and adapted to the overall structure of their bodies and the movement proper to those bodies.

Above these senses, one finds in some animals distinct operations of imagination and memory that allow them to pursue these goods in a manner that begins to rise above the limitations of place and time.  While bacteria move in the general direction of their food, the ant and the bee find fixed routes to theirs and they can communicate knowledge of this route to fellow ants and bees.  Many other animals can form a ‘map’ of their territories used in hunting and reproducing.  In raising offspring they often exercise the powers that form such ‘maps’ in the offspring.  Likewise, as one ‘ascends’ through the higher animals, one finds that memory makes possible the storage of food, learning from experience, and even the rudimentary use of instruments.  Hence, Aristotle speaks of each animal as having a kind of ‘prudence’ proper to it, especially among the higher animals.  In the highest animals, adults even ‘cultivate’ this prudence in their offspring.

In the midst of the natural world, man quickly recognizes himself as distinct from other animals in the very fulfillment of his animal nature.  Like all other animals, he pursues food and shelter for his survival as an individual and he produces offspring for the survival of the species.  He uses his senses, his imagination, and his memory in performing these operations.  Yet in doing so he transcends the limitations of place and time in a unique way.

Man pursues these goods through the use of reason.  Reason involves an awareness of man himself and other natural beings he lives among not only as he finds each determinately in some place and time.  Reason also considers each of these beings according to its nature.  He asks what each is and strives to obtain the goods that he needs through his understanding of its being or essence and its nature.

Insofar as man’s understanding of some essence and nature appears as the cause of the goods he pursues, that nature explains how to attain it.  It appears as the reason in our reasoning about how to attain these goods.  In this way our knowledge of what constitutes health allows us to attain health.  Some understanding of what constitutes health is the reason we do the things we do in our pursuit of health.  This knowledge will be more or less exact and complete, more or less appropriate to a man’s particular needs.  Yet always reason displays itself as a universal knowledge of many particular things.

For example, man has some conception of health, through which he pursues the things conducive to health.  This understanding of health does not differ in differing places and times, except insofar as those places and times have some character that influences health.  What is healthy in winter may not be healthy in summer; what is healthy in the north may not be healthy in the south.  Yet health is in some way the same in summer and winter, in the north and the south.

This example concerns health as found in man and thus it suggests another.  Man has a conception of health as a general property of all animal bodies.  Just as he can make this conception proper to his own body, he can conceive of the health of the horse, the health of the dog, the health of the cow, and so on.  We not only conceive of health generally; we also conceive of health as it belongs to each species of animal we encounter.

Each of these examples reveals two sides of reasoning: its abstractness and universality and the singular, material natural beings known in an abstract and universal manner.  While reason never exhibits one of these sides without the other, in his reasoning a man is usually concerned with one more than the other.  The philosopher and the scientist reason principally to know something universally, in all times and places.  The farmer, the carpenter, the musician, that is, the maker and artist reasons to know some singular that he senses in the here and now.  I will call these abstract and concrete uses or concerns of reason.

Now the more abstract concerns of reason—for at many levels one can distinguish the abstract and the concrete—‘belong’ in a certain sense to the city.  There philosophy and science, the arts in their most refined and sophisticated state, especially as something taught in schools and especially the fine arts, all have an opportunity to flourish in the city.  Again, the leisure available in the city makes it possible for philosophers to consider the existence and nature of God and other immaterial and spiritual beings.  The religious worship that rightly follows the knowledge of such beings belongs in a particular manner to the city.  For this reason, the Catholic Church bears the name, ‘City of God’.

Still, the more concrete concerns of reason, especially those involved in the very use of the arts of farming, hunting, fishing, pottery, and so on, belong properly to the village.  There the purposes of life can be pursued in a manner determined to the character and needs of particular men and women, particular families, and particular places with the climates and seasons proper to them.  To some extent, the village even has some determination of what we call race.  The Inuit or Eskimo peoples live a life that reaches toward the village.  This life may not bring forth every possibility of man’s various powers.  But it reflects one way in which man’s reason and his other powers can cooperate in the fulfillment of human life.  This—in its own integrity—manifests man’s nature in a way no other life, as lived by no other people, can.

Yet more important for human life ‘as a whole’, the concrete, determined use of reason that is typical of the village, the use that is perfected in experience and art, remains so close to nature that man cannot forget that he is one of many animals, among many living beings, in a natural world that exhibits order.  One critical order is that between man’s own powers of knowing, sensing, and moving and the powers in animals and other natural substances.

Many aspects of these beings, such as their atomic constitution, the powers of their souls, the nature of DNA, and so on, become clear to us through the use of reason proper to cities.  But some are known best in the village.  There are things about the horse known best to the man who rides one.  Much about the pig can be seen in the pork we buy in plastic wrapper or pre-cooked.  The knowledge of these things belongs most of all to men in villages.

In cities, men easily lose the sense of themselves as natural beings.  There great errors about reality arise: that things do not really exist outside me, that nothing can really be known, that all truth is relative, even the ‘noble’ error that only God exists.  Among the most important errors bred in cities in our time is the belief that non-living beings, mere matter, are the most real and fundamental of beings.  On this view, life and spirit are hardly more real than an hallucination, if they exist at all.

Farmers may not delve into the speculations about God’s nature, but they rarely fail to see that behind nature lies some divine being or divine beings working in and though nature to provide for all things, especially the living.  They rarely fail to see that the most real being, the first being that causes all others, must be alive.

We see all around us the consequences of these views about reality and human nature.  I will just point out two: our detachment from the earth expressed in fantasies about restarting the human race on another planet and confusion about the distinction between male and female.  Both express a deep psychological inability to feel at home in this world.  Such feelings must thrive in a human race divorced from nature.

Only villages can prevent man’s embracing such errors.  The modern philosopher Hegel imagined that various peoples and cultures scattered throughout the world exhibited the stages of political development.  He thought further that this exhibition served reason’s grasp of the nature of that development.  By looking at those still living in more ‘primitive’ stages we who live at the highest can see the ‘movement’ that constitutes political ‘progress’.

Far more important I would say is the existence of villages around our cities.  Only there can man observe himself as interacting with nature.  There he survives through nature’s powers working within himself and in other natural beings and by exercising his own powers.  There he learns to feed himself, to clothe himself, and to amuse himself.  There he discovers the ability to do these things within himself.  He is capable of living together with others in the natural world.  He can be happy on earth.  Earth is his home.

Once the city has wholly dominated human life it become possible to have many goods but they almost always come from somewhere else.  Our clothes come from China; our music and our dances come from Los Angeles or New York.  We do not sing.  We download songs.  A generation has grown up that conceives of music as essentially something bought and sold.  We live in a world in which folk music is an historical being, a world in which folk music is the product of a music industry.

I could speak at length about the nature of such errors and the order among them.  Rather, let me conclude with an attention to one kind of error that manifests itself everywhere in our society.  I will also point out the particular opposition of this kind of error to Christianity.  The various errors I have in mind all involve fertility.  Some of these arespeculative but perhaps they are more frightening insofar as they are practical,

In some sense, T. S. Eliot announced this in one of the most important poems of the twentieth century, The Wasteland.  Saint John Paul had this in mind when he spoke of the culture of death.  Almost every aspect of contemporary society manifests some contempt for fertility.  Yet fertility is the work identified by Aristotle and even by Saint Paul as most proper to nature.  Likewise, fertility is the work of nature which peoples have from time immemorial associated above all with God and the gods.

We see contempt of fertility and thus for nature in many ways.  Most obvious contraception attempts to prevent fertility in much of, if not most, sexual intercourse between men and women.   Almost as a rule, women artificially make themselves infertile.  While fathers stand by apathetic, women regularly chose to abort children.  Paradoxically, they do so in the name of feminism, though fertility in some sense defines the feminine.  Again, there are plans underway, the plans of cities, to control all seed, to own seed, to make seed no longer the work of nature but something essentially bought and sold.  These have produced crops that bear no seed—should they accidentally do so, the corporation owns that seed and not the man who planted those crops.  There are those who propose to ‘own’ DNA, which seems to be nature’s principal instrument of fertility.  The same people hope to manage and control all livestock in the world—for purposes of health—though I have little doubt they will look closely at the reproductive powers of such livestock.  I will speak metaphorically and point out the World Wide Web as an impediment to man’s observation of nature and interaction with it.  The internet has become an intellectual contraceptive.  Man now dreams of a world in which the powers of life we find in nature belong to him—one more illusory fulfillment of the serpent’s promise to Eve: You shall be as gods.

Perhaps some of you have recognized already what the Catholic must see as the most sinister aspect of this contempt for fertility.  Our religion, with all its promises and hopes, relies upon the fertility of nature in its defining mystery, the incarnation of Jesus in the womb of the Virgin Mary.  There we believe God worked in a manner that surpasses his usual operation in human conception both by instigating conception with his own active power without the instrument of male seed and by his Son taking on the human nature, the body and soul, formed in that act of fertility.  Anti-fertility is a manifestation of the ancient enmity between the serpent and the Woman, between his seed and her seed.

In conclusion, let me point out one last aspect of the contempt of fertility in our culture.  If the understanding of social and political order I have been developing since I was ten is right, the family is a kind of seed to the village and the village is a kind of seed to the city.  The family and the village each express human nature in a manner disposed to a further, more complete and complementary expression of human nature.

This understanding appears in Euripides’ tragedy, The Trojan Women.  There Andromache speaks to Hecuba, the mother of her fallen husband, Hector.  She says, ‘Hear me while I reason through this matter fairly.’  She then proposes how much better things are for the dead and for those never born.  She expresses the view all too common today under names such as ‘nihilism’, ‘pessimistic philosophy’, and, quite expressively, ‘anti-natalism’—a movement opposed to birth itself.

But then Hecuba, the former queen of Troy, dreams that her grandson Astuanax, the son of Hector and Andromache, might one day rebuild the city.  She also reasons through the matter: ‘This boy / my own son’s child, might grow to manhood and bring back, / he alone could do it—something of our city’s strength. / On some far day the children of your children might / come home, and build.  There still may be another Troy.’  In a fine film based on the play, Hecuba adds, ‘One thought leads to another.’

So the village leads to the city as two expressions of human reason working out human life here in the natural world.  This is the reason villages no longer exist.  Villages are the seeds of cities.  The ‘global village’, what Saint Augustine called the city of man, has no room for other, healthy cities, competing alongside it.  If there were villages again, true city life, true political order, would once again arise.  When there are villages, true cities will rise again.  And we can trust that the God in whom the Father eternally generates his Son will bring forth from the earth these means of human happiness and fulfillment once again.