Socrates, Artistotle, and Horace can all be attributed with various praises of the art of husbandry and of the shepherd and cultivator. From Virgil's writings about the peaceful life of the Arcadians, a primitive people of the Greek Peloponnesus, the name Arcadia came to signify an idealized pastoral society. The power of this symbol comes from the contrast of the simple, harmonious, rural life with the corrupt, discorded life of the city. It resurfaces throughout Western literature; Chaucer, Shakespeare, Dryden, Swift, Pope, Wordsworth are among the many artists who used the tillage of the garden as a theme.
It is clearly and eloquently exhibited in Thomas Jefferson's
Query XIX from Notes on the State of Virginia. He writes, "Those who labor in the earth are the chosen people of God, if ever he had a chosen people, whose breasts he has made his peculiar deposit for substantial and genuine virtue." Jefferson's words give structure to a notion which had gradually developed throughout the ages and which would influence American culture and politics even to the present day.
In his introduction to Agrarianism in American Literature, M. Thomas Inge defines "agrarianism" by the following basic tenets:
- Cultivation of the soil "has within it a positive spiritual good" and from it the cultivator acquires the virtues of "honor, manliness, self-reliance, courage, moral integrity, and hospitality." These result from a direct contact with nature, and through nature a closer relationship to God. The agrarian is blessed in that he follows the example of God in creating order out of chaos.
- Farming is the sole occupation which offers total independence and self-sufficiency.
- The farmer has a solid, stable position in the world order. He "has a sense of identity, a sense of historical and religious tradition, a feeling of belonging to a concrete family, place, and region, which are psychologically and culturally beneficial." The harmony of his life checks the encroachments of a fragmented, alienated modern society.
- Urban life, capitalism, and technology destroy independence and dignity while fostering vice and weakness.
- The agricultural community, with its fellowship of labor and cooperation is the model society.