Philosopher Farmers (July 4th)

Plato described the ideal of Philosopher Kings. In The Republic he observed that for the ideal state to come to fruition “philosophers become kings…or those now called kings …genuinely and adequately philosophize.”(1) He understood that force alone would never produce an equitable and stable society. To obtain his desired Utopia, Plato knew that the “Guardians” must know. That is, they must be philosophers and understand how things really are and not simply what they are perceived to be. He knew that wisdom and truth had to be the basis of a good society. Some two and a half millenia later a band of farmers, merchants, and pioneers would take up Plato’s call. Though they were men of the soil used to hard work, they were educated well. They read Plato and Aristotle. They consumed the works of the ancients such as Cicero, Tacitus (in Latin), Virgil, and, in Greek, Thucydides. Absorbing science from Newton these rugged men were conversant in the political theory of Locke, Montesquieu, and Rousseau. Lesser known volumes such as “Algernon Sidney’s Discourses Concerning Government, Henry Neville’s Plato Redivivus, Nathaniel Bacon’s Historical and Political Discourses, Marchament Hedham’s Excellencie of a Free State” filled their shelves (2) . Familiar with international law they also started philosophical societies such as Junto (Benjamin Franklin) and The Literary Republic. Here they discussed logic, law, theology, and various aspects of philosophy. It has been estimated that the literacy rate of men in some of the American colonies was 95% – much higher than in England at the time and by some accounts higher than in the United States today (3). These philosopher farmers went well beyond Plato’s Republic in their understanding of the real world. While appreciating the contributions of Plato they combined with philosophical acumen an accute understanding of human nature and theology. From the first days of the founding colonies in the new world much of the drive toward literacy had been dependent on the desire of the people to read the Bible and allow the “common man” to search the Scriptures for themselves. Not only were they political theorists and able in the concepts of jurisprudence, they were also – and likely primarily – concerned with theology. They had a theistic framework and specifically Christian view of the world that gave them insight into the great heights and dismal failures of humankind. Thus, they rejected Plato’s utopian kingdom knowing that with sinful people it could never be such. Upon their historic opportunity to form their own government, they added protections provided by separation of powers and set in place the contingencies in case of failure of the philosopher king (Section 4 of the Constitution). These men were philosophers, yet they were bound to the soil and full of common sense. Most importantly, they were imbued with a deep dependence on God and the importance of a comprehensive view of the culture and life framed by correct theological understanding. While very far from perfect (they knew better than many their own susceptibility to fault) they have much to teach us – as Americans and as Christians. As we celebrate our freedoms on the Fourth of July, we must remember and celebrate that which produced the fruit. We tend to celebrate the results of an independent nation, but let us rather understand and celebrate that frame of mind that led to those freedoms. A frame of mind that knew to be a Christian meant to be a person versed in and able to commend or condemn the ideas that surrounded them. A frame of mind that pursued the ancient, the good, the true, and the beautiful, while also knowing how to fully engage the present. A frame of mind that knew that true freedom came not from license but in finding and acting according to our purpose. A frame of mind that believed straining the eyes over a book and a lamp was well worth the effort. A frame of mind that knew it is not external governments that make men free, but the internal goverment of moral law and new birth in Christ. On this July Fourth dedicate yourself to be a philosopher farmer. Or you might be philosopher banker, or a philosopher salesmen, or philosopher carpenter, or philosopher pastor. Be a philosopher. Incline your ear to wisdom, and apply your heart to understanding. (Pr. 2:2)

Share this post: