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Wednesday, February 12, 2003

You need not call it poverty

Last night, not content with the flats already seeded, I stepped out to the greenhouse and planted two hanging baskets with cilantro, and a gallon pot with chives. I have been running low on potting soil, so built up the bottom layer in these containers with sphagnum moss, then a few inches of soil, then broadcast the seeds, then shook all down, then covered seed with a thin layer of peat, then watered gently. I hung the baskets on twentypenny nails long ago driven into the rafters nearest the greenhouse window, sorted pots for a while, then swept the herringbone-patterned floor. I also brought in last year's planter of lavendar and trimmed its dead growth; perhaps there's still something doing in the roots.

The night is restless; there's a storm front in the area, boiling in beneath the jet stream from somewhere near Hawai'i. Waves are undoubtedly smashing a little higher than usual at the cape, and in the mountains new snow is covering the tracks of the more venturesome animals. I find myself visualizing this, then catch my imagery sliding to a closeup of blood on the snow: a vole taken up by an owl, perhaps. If I hoped to find peace in the night, well, perhaps I brought my own unrest with me. There are sharp doings in the world; so many of us wishing ill upon so many others.

I have just finished proofing Montaigne's essay on "Coaches," in which he strays magnificently into a long and detailed critical analysis of the Spanish conquests of Mexico and Peru, implying throughout that the Europeans had, by means of technological advances only, conquered a culture equal to or better than their own in almost every other way. He recounts the torture and death of the Inca king:

The king, half rosted, was carried away: Not so much for pitty (for what ruth could ever enter so barbarous mindes, who upon the furnished information of some odde piece or vessell of golde they intended to get, would broyle a man before their eyes, and not a man onely, but a king, so great in fortune and so renowned in desert?), but for as much as his unmatched constancy did more and more make their inhumane cruelty ashamed, they afterwards hanged him, because he had couragiously attempted by armes to deliver himselfe out of so long captivity and miserable subjection; where he ended his wretched life, worthy an high minded and never danted Prince. At another time, in one same fire, they caused to be burned all alive foure hundred common men and threescore principall Lords of a Province, whom by the fortune of warre they had taken prisoners. These narrations we have out of their owne bookes, for they do not onely avouch, but vauntingly publish them. May it bee they doe it for a testimony of their justice or zeale toward their religion? Verily they are wayes over-different and enemies to so sacred an ende.
I suspect that we, as a culture, have not much improved upon this model.

I remember that during Desert Storm I overheard two friends of mine discussing their dismay at realizing how little "progress" had been made in building a civil and humane society. They described to each other the behavior of so many of their fellow citizens that had derided and even attacked dissidents in the nearby city.

Their surprise surprised me.

Perhaps, I thought, we ought not to expect too much from a civilization dependent upon massive consumption of oil, electricity, metals, plastics, fats; upon television and its steady bombardment of a largely captive population with promises of instant gratification of cynically inculcated wishes.

My two friends, and Beloved and I also, had spent many years in a small valley in the mountains, among neighbors who had built homes of rough lumber and cedar shakes, with recycled windows through which to view the rain falling among alders and cedars, and watch the deer grazing unharassed in the homeyard. We had had many, many days in which to make our kind of social progress by baby steps, pulling on rubber boots, walking up the gravel road to visit one another over steaming cups of home-grown herbal tea.

The outside world, rich or poor, in pursuit of its varied manipulative or manipulated agendas, had not had the opportunity to discover that life.

There is a Paul Reps poem that goes something like: "drinking a bowl of green tea/I stop the war." I remember thinking, when I was a Vietnam War protester, that this was a naive approach. But who did I convince, with all my activism at that time, to think differently than they already thought? An action taken that is in itself peaceful, on the other hand, is never wasted.

So perhaps Reps' view is the long view after all?

At times like these I am reminded that Plato wrote the definitive critique of material modernity and its consequences, over 2300 years ago. In the second book of the Republic, Socrates upon having been asked to define justice, does so by describing his ideal of a just state, with its underpinnings of a just culture.

Let us then consider, first of all, what will be their way of life, now that we have thus established them. Will they not produce corn, and wine, and clothes, and shoes, and build houses for themselves? And when they are housed, they will work, in summer, commonly, stripped and barefoot, but in winter substantially clothed and shod. They will feed on barley-meal and flour of wheat, baking and kneading them, making noble cakes and loaves; these they will serve up on a mat of reeds or on clean leaves, themselves reclining the while upon beds strewn with yew or myrtle. And they and their children will feast, drinking of the wine which they have made, wearing garlands on their heads, and hymning the praises of the gods, in happy converse with one another. And they will take care that their families do not exceed their means ... (Jowett, tr.)

Glaucon, who has elicited this description, however, seeks a description more like Athens.

Yes, Socrates, he said, and if you were providing for a city of pigs, how else would you feed the beasts?
But what would you have, Glaucon? I replied.
Why, he said, you should give them the ordinary conveniences of life. People who are to be comfortable are accustomed to lie on sofas, and dine off tables, and they should have sauces and sweets in the modern style.

Socrates responds by shifting from a description of agrarian simplicity to one of what is in effect a consumer society:

Yes, I said, now I understand: the question which you would have me consider is, not only how a State, but how a luxurious State is created; and possibly there is no harm in this, for in such a State we shall be more likely to see how justice and injustice originate. In my opinion the true and healthy constitution of the State is the one which I have described. But if you wish also to see a State at fever heat, I have no objection. For I suspect that many will not be satisfied with the simpler way. They will be for adding sofas, and tables, and other furniture; also dainties, and perfumes, and incense, and courtesans, and cakes, all these not of one sort only, but in every variety; we must go beyond the necessaries of which I was at first speaking, such as houses, and clothes, and shoes: the arts of the painter and the embroiderer will have to be set in motion, and gold and ivory and all sorts of materials must be procured.
True, he said.
Then we must enlarge our borders; for the original healthy State is no longer sufficient. Now will the city have to fill and swell with a multitude of callings which are not required by any natural want; such as the whole tribe of hunters and actors, of whom one large class have to do with forms and colours; another will be the votaries of music --poets and their attendant train of rhapsodists, players, dancers, contractors; also makers of divers kinds of articles, including women's dresses. And we shall want more servants. Will not tutors be also in request, and nurses wet and dry, tirewomen and barbers, as well as confectioners and cooks; and swineherds, too, who were not needed and therefore had no place in the former edition of our State, but are needed now? They must not be forgotten: and there will be animals of many other kinds, if people eat them. [Emphasis added.]
And now not only our health but that of neighboring peoples has been compromised:

And living in this way we shall have much greater need of physicians than before?
Much greater.
And the country which was enough to support the original inhabitants will be too small now, and not enough?
Quite true.
Then a slice of our neighbours' land will be wanted by us for pasture and tillage, and they will want a slice of ours, if, like ourselves, they exceed the limit of necessity, and give themselves up to the unlimited accumulation of wealth?
That, Socrates, will be inevitable.
And so we shall go to war, Glaucon. Shall we not? [Emphasis added.]

War is, says, Plato, the inevitable consequence of consumerism. If this analysis is correct, and we do not wish war, what ought we to do? Would it not be to plan a shift in society away from consumerism?

One of two things has to happen to Western civilization soon, or it will be superseded.

The first choice would be to harden ourselves to defend "our way of life," which hardening is, in itself, especially as it involves giving up constitutional freedoms, a contradiction of that very way of life. Yet this has been a very popular choice of late, to judge by talk radio at least.

The second, and to me the more rational approach, is to adopt, to the extent possible, the simplicity practiced by Zen monks and by the society proposed by Socrates as most just because least acquisitive.

Socrates specifically states that the families in such a society must live within their means, and here I elided, but will now add back the end of the sentence: " ...having an eye to poverty or war."

In other words, if you are consciously doing simplicity you need not call it poverty.


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