Wednesday Quotes
The Mother of All Arts
June 18, 2014


“Whoever it was who said that agriculture is the mother and nurse of all other arts was right, because when agriculture is faring well, all the other arts are strengthened too; but wherever the land is forced into barrenness, all the other arts, whether based on land or sea, are more or less smothered.”
Xenophon, The Estate Manager V

I do not think I can adequately understand or defend the assertion. Xenophon himself does not purport to tell us why it is so. It seems to be an insight that has been passed down for generations. Yet his own experience, and perhaps his knowledge of history, lead him to assent to its truth.

Agriculture. The mother of all arts. That is quite an assertion.

But it simply sounds right. It makes sense. The art of cultivating the earth—and surely it is an art—is at one and the same time both accessible to all and beyond the complete mastery of any. And it seems that our own experience of the last hundred or so years, lends further credence to the assertion that wherever the land is forced into barrenness, all other arts…are more or less smothered.

But there is a reawakening in interest in agriculture as an art, an art that can be practiced by some, even many, and be appreciated by all. A simple attention to what we eat, and where and how it is produced, can foster this reawakening. And this reawakening can spread to other real arts, as to children of their mother.

Xenophon (430-354 B.C.) was a soldier, historian, and philosopher of Athens. Like Plato he wrote dialogues featuring Socrates as a great teacher. Among,  these dialogues is Oeconomicus, translated as The Estate Manager, in which we get an insight into the structure and principles of the ancient household.

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  1. Roger Moldenhauer

    I am interested in the illustration of the 19th century farmer used with this article. When was that image created and by whom? And where is it available?

    1. It is a painting by William Sidney Mount, a 19th century American painter. I am not sure where it is available.

  2. Certainly, the tilling of the ground, and its giving forth fruit is a mystical occurrence which man can seek to understand scientifically, but meditation on which bears much metaphysical fruit. John Senior and Wendell Berry certainly draw the connection between one’s intimacy with creation and one’s intimacy with the Creator. I too cannot rationally defend or totally understand Xenophon’s assertion, but I can tell you from experience how much more I enjoy gardening than creating spreadsheets.

    Quick editing note – there is an extra comma after “Among” in the Xenophon bio.