The Case of Victor Davis Hanson: Farmer, Scholar, Warmonger.


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All preindustrial societies are agricultural, but only a few have been agrarian; of these latter, classical Greece was the first and most important. Agrarian societies are informed by a certain ideal, according to which landed estates should be generally small and inalienable. A plot of land should be large enough to provide a family with a decent sufficiency, but not luxury. It should belong to a family rather than any individual; the head of the family holds it in trust for the benefit of his children and his children’s children. It is his, in other words, but not his alone. He has no moral right to do with it simply as he pleases.

Agrarianism is an egalitarian ideal, in a sense. A common Greek proverb was ouk agathoi hoi plousiotatoi: “the very rich are not good.” And, as Hanson easily demonstrates, there was an anti-aristocratic tendency to much Greek literature: especially apparent in Hesiod, Euripides and Aristophanes. But this must not be confused with the envy-driven modern ideology of socialism. In the agrarian polis there was no objection to the accumulation of wealth as such; only to wealth being used to buy out family farms and consolidate large estates. Such latifundia, as the Romans called them, inevitably come to be controlled by absentee landlords in their own interests, leading to dependency for those who actually worked the land: free citizen-farmers are replaced by a peasantry. This is inimical not only to efficient land use but to political freedom. The elder Pliny echoed this old agrarian sentiment when he wrote, in an age of Trimalchios and vomitoria, “anyone for whom seven acres are not enough is a dangerous citizen.”

Solon boasted that the legitimate interests of the wealthy aristocrats were respected in his legal code: a concord of the orders, not class struggle, was the classical ideal. Wealthy men were encouraged to use their wealth for the public benefit, for example, by sponsoring religious festivals and dramatic performances. Aristotle believed a polis had the duty to “teach those that are the respectable by nature that they are not to desire excessive riches,” not because he resented aristocrats having more wealth than he did, but from a belief in noblesse oblige and a realization that the piling up of riches is not the proper end of human existence. And many aristocrats sincerely accepted the agrarian ideal. Plato—no democrat—suggested in his Laws that no farm should be more than five times as large as the smallest holdings.

(The Occidental Quarterly, Vol. III, No. 4, Winter 2003/2004).

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