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The often quoted ‘economic interpretation of history’ is no mere formula adopted by a modern school of economics; it can be traced throughout the hole life an labour of man. the school of Marx is too easily satisfied with its industrial reading of this method, but the earlier schools of Le Play, still so little known in English or German, have long been working more widely and deeply on same lines.
Why the current neglect of their method of teaching both by the world of scholars and of religion? Because here is science shaking the very foundations of conventional beliefs. Here is proved that the venerable old stones that both are elderly scholars and our religious teachers have thought were poetry are, in reality solid, matter-of-fact prose.
But what of history and its perpetual tale of wars? The most of
history seems to be a tale of war, yet war is not in fact that
permanent state and outcome of
human nature which foolish
people so often call it. We know that serious wars are comparatively
recent in human history; we know too that the period of wars was
preceded by a long age —a comparatively Golden Age— in which
men are quietly cultivating the plants and domesticating their
animals, and thus being cultivated by their plants and domesticate by
Here then is the explanation of the late arrival of
history, for quiet, decent, constructive agricultural
civilisation is non-historic. Historians have always been too much
like the press of the present day which records, in the main, only
unusual or tragic incidents. Is not one person who throws his chair out
of the window of more interest to the whole press than all the millions
who use their chairs in the ordinary way?
Let us take a very obvious, agricultural interpretation. Let think of
our forefathers in the old days of colonisation in America or in
Europe. Each drives his own plough across his own field, without any
co-operation. Each can whistle the old tune «I care for
nobody, not I; and nobody cares for me.» Each, in short
mind his own business and lets others alone. This is
civilisation of corn-growing. The land is ploughed and sown and the
crop is cut by the man himself. Women and children are but accessory
helpers at harvest. Here then, in the cereal cultivation of the
West, from the old Rome to modern America, we have most basal of all
factors within our modern Western concept of individuality and
But if we are Easterners, and if we are cultivating rice, the position is quite different. At the start, we can have no cultivation at all until we have formed one big water committee for the district; for we have to control the water supply of the valley and adjust its flow so each cultivator may get enough to cover his rice-fields. Here community action becomes the first necessity. Further, while corn had needed a strong man to drive and plough, everyone can put the tiny plant of rice into the ground and press it with his foot; not only the woman but the little children and the grandparents can play their part. The men here have no superiority over them.
Here then, in contrast to the corn-based individualism of the West, we have the rice-based communal family and institutions from the East. A curious verification of this contrast came after rice was introduced into Lombardy in Italy, along the valley of the river Po. After half a generation or so, the peasants petitioned for certain change in the Italian laws of inheritance and rights of property. The representatives of the rest of Italian public naturally did not see much sense in this, but one representative who had been in China looked over the petition and exclaimed, «Why, these people are petitioning for Chinese institutions!» Of course they were, since they were cultivating rice.
The valley section is the basis of survey. In such ways we may work out very many specific and definite civilisation values. We can discover that the kind of place and the kind of work done in it deeply determine the ways and the institutions of its people. This is the real stuff of the economic interpretation of history, though as yet practically ignored by both orthodox and socialist economists. Every science thinks that the classical and religious worlds were conservative and old-fashioned but is itself, in practice, no more open to ideas outside its particular fold.
Let us look for a moment at the rhythms of the land masses of the earth and watch the movement of each; from snow to sea, from highland to lowland. Broadly speaking the world is built in this way, whether we take tiny Scotland, or a section across Wales and England, or across Ireland or Norway and Sweden, or even across mountainous Europe and the Siberian Plane, or North America and Canada with the Rockies, or South America with the Andes.
A study of a land mass in this way makes many things vivid to us; such
as the range of its climate; its corresponding vegetation and its
accompanying animal life. In this study we can recognise not only
snows on the mountains, but also their neolithic nature and their
structure as well. Below them we come to the forest, then the pastoral
slopes, the minor hills and plains with their uniting rivers, and so
on down to the sea. All things are here. This is not mere political
image of a coloured space on a flat map but a geographer's region and
an antrhopologist's region and also the region of the evolutionary
economist. In time we shall see too that it is equally the region of
the conventional economist, and the
politician. But let us
take all in natural order.
We start at the head of our valley section. With its natural forests, the coniferous above the deciduous. Here the first natural activity can but be that of the hunter, until the woodman comes in too and then the miner. Next to the forest lands comes the pasturage with its flocks and its shepherds. Next, but still on the higher and the poorer soils, comes the struggling peasants (the crofter as we call him in Scotland) with some share of hill pasture, but mainly dependent upon his hard and strenuous tillage of the poorer grains, oats and rye and, in modern times, potatoes, but not wheat. Wheat can only flourish on the deeper richer land further down the valley, were we find the normally rich peasant, eating white bread, not rye-bread nor oat-cake.
So far for the temperate lands, but as our valley section serves also for the warmer climes, our rich peasant adds the vine and the olive. Wheat, wine, oil; here we have agriculture at its best, and, with it, the highest civilisation accordingly. Still, during the course of history, the Mediterranean region has been sadly ruined, so that prosperity is now with the farmer to the northward on his wheat land though alas here too its stability is threatened.
Hunter and shepherd, poor peasant and rich. These are the familiar social types that are so manifestly successive, both as we descend in altitude and as we trace the course of social history, that it has long been the bookish habit to speak of them not only as representing the main stages in civilisation but as though each had in turn succeeded the other for good and old. Indeed as all these are but phases leading to the present predominant of the industrial and urban order, it is often assumed that all this four types are now insignificant, indeed practically negligible. But of course these we have always with us. As each of our urban studies progresses we shall find them all there, not only with their produce in the city markets, or the present day showrooms, but in their parallel urban occupations.
In the valley sections all nature occupations have their place.
We may conveniently start with the miner, essential from the first development of civilisation. First as a miner of flints (at Brandon in Suffolk its chipped flint trade has been continuous with the prehistoric past). The surviving technical vocabulary of this craft seems to antedate all known language origins.
Comparatively lately, as the vast periods of archaeology now showed, came the age of cooper and thence of bronze, with wars becoming more predominant. Then came the comparatively recent introduction of iron and thus soon the terrible sword of steel, with whose doings history becomes full.
Flints, bronze iron and steel: here are the marks of the historic ages —the chronology of the miner.
The woodman, however, may also claim to be the essential leader of civilisation for, after his gathering of brushwood and branches for the fire, his stone or bronze axe hewed out the clearings and then, at length, with steel he cut out the modern highways of the western world.
The woodman also has been the house-builder, boat-builder, furniture maker and, with his palisades, the fortifier as well. Further, it is to him that he owe the use of mechanical power, the lever, wedge, wheel and axe, the pulley and the inclined plane. He is thus the primal engineer. In this connection it is worth remembering that the father and educator of James Watt, on the steam engine, was one of the last of the old woodworkers, equally ready to undertake the building of a house or of a ship: surely a perfect linking of the old industrial order with the new.
Next comes the hunter, tracking and killing his game. Here plainly we have not merely a rude supervisor of primitive society, but a type which is of permanent and increasing significance and history. Though in the old established hunting societies, from the artic Eskimos to the Australian aborigines, we find him deeply civilised and thus essentially peaceful, we of the West have learned to think of him as readily becoming a hunter of fellow men, and thence increasingly the maker and the leader of war. It has not been for nothing that hunters became nobles, and that kings, nobles and rulers have remained hunters even to our own day. Nor is it chance that sport and games, mostly of their making, play a chief role in the education of the youth of all other origins and occupations, training them for war services.
Now the shepherd; what of him? he is a widely contrasted type that has been trained by the gentle tending of life instead of the stern arts of taking it. Notably contrasted too is his long life, producing accordingly, patriarchal supremacy and, with it, the patriarchal temperament. This is in utter contrast to the short-lived hunter, whose best years pass with early manhood.
Here then is the contrast of patience and impatience, diplomacy with war. Thus, though the hunter ever becomes the war lord and claims all temporal power, to the patriarchal shepherd belongs the often far higher spiritual power. Witness his historic names: Holy Father, Pastor Pastorum, and the like for other faiths. Modern image of the Good Sepherd is plainly derived from Apollo, the sepherd, even to the lamb and kid upon his shoulder; and there are statues and pictures of Buddha, older still yet essentially the same.
Returning to the practical life of the shepherd people, we must not forget Father Jacob sending out his sons to Egypt to buy corn. For pastors become caravaners, and thus the makers of land-commerce and its market junctions; also the maintainers of communication, often as spreaders of peace, order and well-being and the route often wellnigh creates the social type, as Demolins as so strongly claimed.
The pastoral life too, free from the excessive, is favourable to reflection and poesy, while its long lived elders have a wealth of memory and tradition to communicate. Woman too has no longer the drudgery of the hunting life, but the gentler arts connected with milk and wool. Thus she becomes the cloistered lady of the tent, with her cushions and carpets, embroideries and jewels.
In such ways then we see origins of our modern occupations: interpretations applicable on a large scale throughout the history of East and West alike. What essentially for instance is Islam but the discipline of the caravan strengthened and moralized for the journey across the desert, with the good time at the journey's end fully idealized for its encouragement?
Another spiritualised caravaner is Paul of Tarsus, significantly a tentmaker. Through Tarsus must pass all caravans between Europe and Asia. Tarsus had had its mystic priest-king, like the high priest in Jerusalem, yet it was also a Greek university city and had next come under the rule of Rome. Here as nowhere else Paul could combine into one training those fold elements —traveller's spirit, Jewish idealism and learning, Greek philosophy and subtlety and Roman citizenship— which prepared him first for high influence among the Pharisees and then for his virtual primacy in extending through the Roman Empire the germinating Christian faith, in the individually developed form that he gave it.
It is time to pass on to next type in our valley section, the poor peasant. This is not the farm labourer or the ploughman, but the smallholder of the uplands. He occupies land better fitted for thorns and thistles than for oats and corn. Here labour, strenuous beyond all other, is needed; and wellnigh continuous throughout the seasons. Here economies are of the very essence of survival, storing for the winter and for seed and using both with frugal care.
There is an oft quoted verse in the Psalms, «They that sow in tears shall reap in joy. He that goeth forth and weepeth, bearing precious seed, shall doubtless come again with rejoicing, bringing his sheaves with him.» Everyone understands quite literally this rejoicing at harvest. But one may ask learned Jew or Christian, alike in vain, to explain why the sower should be described as weeping, or else get only metaphysical guess-explanations.
Whereas, here is the vividly pathetic reality of the early history of the poor peasant. Early forms of culture could seldom produce enough food for the year. So the institution of the season of Lent arose in the spring, as a time of blending the economic hardship with social discipline. See then this verse in its homely details: that of the poor peasant who must take the precious few grains that remain from the harvest store away from his childrens who are crying for food and from their starving mother. He strides out past them to the field with stern-set face. Yet when he has left them to cast the little store over the field, he too breaks down and weeps.
Simple and vivid interpretations such as this appear over the whole range of occupations from mountain to sea and come together to develop a re-understanding of history from the evolutionary standpoint.
The poor peasant and his thrifty wife are compelled to more economy, foresight and saving than the inhabitants of the gentler climate and better soil further down the valley. Hence the foundation of Banks and Insurance Companies has been initiated by this social type. Their surplus population also in constantly pressing down the valley and into the wider world, and, through its training —at once strenuous, frugal and provident— it succeeds exceptionally. Hence the frequent rise of men from this formation —Swiss, Scots or New England for familiar choice.
The interlocking frontier of pasture and oatfield, which unites as well as separates the shepherd and the crofter, is also of high cultural impulse; witness the wealth of regional song and story, of music and dance, and indeed their turn for serious thought as well.
Pass on now to the richer peasant, upon the deep and fertile ploughlands of the plain that once was a prairie: the farmer with his tall heavy-headed wheat that gives him his good white bread to eat and an ample surplus to sell. Here, with the ample crops, are better cattle and stronger horses, with all the time a normal surplus for better dwellings with pleasing gardens. In these lands a much better population can be supported, so that instead of the isolated cottages we now find goodly villages and wealthy market towns —often, in the old days, walled around and with substantial gates.
The old story of Cain and Abel is plainly the pastoral version of immemorial and world-wide tension between peasant and sepherd. Despite all the spirituality of the pastoral culture, its caravans have not always paid fully in wool for what they have taken in grain, and the farmer has had to build and wall his cities for peace and safety. Where, except in peaceful England and in her daughter great America, has the farmer been able to live upon his land in the detached way, which to both of these has become a matter of course? The long distances, which we see daily tramped from the enclosed village to open fields from France across to India —and which so greatly impoverish all concerned— express the general history of the old agricultural life, too often beset with dangers from without.
Again see how the profession of the Law has arisen fundamentally from the needs of farmer peoples, since, of all occupations, it is the farmer that most needs binding bargains and definite records, for land tenure, crop sales, etc. These mature as contracts, enforceable by the elders in court assembled.
Further, it is the farmer's occupation that yields the main beverages, wine the south, beer the north; and thus we find the wine-shop and the alehouse which, as caste and wealth develop, readily become exclusive, and thus become the club. Talk of affairs in congenial company loosens the tongue and gives it a freer range. In such symposia, the concrete farmer viewpoint and the more abstract legal one interact; discussions reach political levels, and ere long parliamentary oratory foams from the mug and sparkles from the glass. It is more than a popular jest that a social constitutional evolution has developed alongside the art of brewing.
We need not here enter into the elaboration of agriculture into gardening and intensive cultures, as in the old tradition of China, but can pass now to the last of our main occupation series, that on the sea.
Anthropologists tell us that woman initiated movement on water in streams and rivers, but, when it comes to sea-faring, the man must take her place in the boat, and she must take his on land; accordingly acquiring a strengthened individuality and self-reliance, as old tales and current observation will alike confirm. For it is no mere coincidence that the initiative of modern feminist movements has essentially been along the maritime fringes of the northern seas, and has from thence spread slowly inland.
The fisherman is tempted to venture out from salmon fiord or river to seek for herring and cod, and thus grows more adventurous. In a larger boat, the crew must become more authoritatively organised to be efficient in such a hard environment which requires prompt decisions and obedience, and gives no time for discussion. Moreover the fisher on the sea can reproduce the caravan on land and become merchant-venturer, passenger carrier, emigrant and mail-boat. And since, like the hunter, his calling is of the taking of life, not the tending of it, and since endless opportunities of quarrel arise between sea-farer and landsmen, and between fisher and fisher, he must soon travel armed. The gradual admixture of seafaring with buccaneering and piracy and their more gradual disentanglement into navies, both mercantile and combative, has often been repeated in history.
What, finally, is the value of this kind of survey of occupations?
First as a general and introductory outline towards fuller anthropological and historic studies, region by region and age by age, up to our own land and day. But next as the very essence of the social survey that is needed for every region and every city if we are to understand it at all; much more if we seek to work our way towards regional betterment and development, towards town improvement and city design.
From these few and seemingly simple occupations, all others have developed. To trace these developments is thus to unravel the explanation of the individuality, the uniqueness, of each of the towns and cities of men; and yet also to understand their manifold similarities, region by region.
As our surveys advance we become at home in our region, throughout its time and its space up to the present day. From thence, the past and the present cannot but open out into the possible. For our survey of things as they are —that is as they have become— must ever suggest ideas as to their further becoming —their further possibilities. In this way our surveys are seen to have a practical interest beyond their purely scientific interest. In a word, the survey prepares for and points towards the Plan.
All through the preceding discussion, we have seen that our survey method yields different viewpoints and perspectives from the customary ones. But, as yet, local, civic and political action has been too little concerned with surveys of this comprehensive kind. Even the regional geographers and the town planners have not fully grasped the importance of this work: on the one hand for the education of each and every community, on the other for its better material and economic organisation, and social and cultural organisation as well. Just as, on the scientific side, our surveys are bringing all our specialised studies together, so, on the practical side, they suggest possibilities of social service through civic and individual co-operation. They involve at once the conservation and the development of all the best that we can find in our regions and our cities, together with a more and more efficient diagnosis and treatment of their respective evils.
In short, we have here before us at once a scientific and a practical movement. By this means our dispersive and unrelated specialism can be co-ordinated towards a synthetic vision and a unified evolutionary understanding, region by region. Similarly our multifarious division of labour can thus be harmonised and orchestrated towards the common weal. By such surveys both the naturalistic and the humanistic origins of each region are searched out, with accordingly a better interpretation of each in the present. Thus we are able to perceive a number of possibilities, among which we have to search out the best. The movement thus extends to the largest possible scope and aims —synthetic, synergic and sympathetic.
Such surveys must always be dispassionately scientific. Our endeavour
is first and foremost to
see the thing as it is, and next
to co-ordinate it with other things, until we reach a mental picture
of each of our regions and communities in all the elaborations of
their place, work and people, throughout the past and in their
present, in all of which good and evil are strangely intermingled. Our
science thus cannot but point to action, our diagnosis to
treatment. With a fuller knowledge than before, social action will
tend to be more sure and more skilful.
As a result of this clearer vision, we may hope and strive anew to overcome and dissipate evils, sometimes even to transmute them into ideals —as from war, with its vultures and eagles, to reconstruction with its phoenix; and from fear, hate and cynical despair to social ideals. Our life, both social and individual, may thus become further civilised and developed as we utilise all that is best in our own past history, and apply it towards yet higher phases of social activity.
From an understanding of our regions and our cities, we cannot but come to vitalising and evolving them in place, work and people; and with in every case their own people creating the best from their own place. Thus Holland has made the Dutch, yet the Dutch have made Holland; and this in alternation and harmony throughout the generations.
In short, our geographic and historic surveys are increasingly yielding us a philosophy, an ethics and a policy of social life, in which all that is best in the various divergent schools of thought and action may increasingly work together.
: Transcription of one of the lectures given by the author at the New School of Social Research, as published in:
Geddes, Patrick (1959) Cities in evolution New and Revised Edition. London: Barnes and Nobles.
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