Learning to grow after leaving the garden
THE language of agriculture was once in constant use: one had a cultivated accent, cultivated potentially useful acquaintances, husbanded one’s resources. A cultivated person was a model of human accomplishment. The verbal habit lasted surprisingly long into the urbanisation of the West. Inhabitants of the modern world used it; only in the postmodern world are the terms superannuated. The idea of a cultivated person today seems quaint at best.
This, Robert Pogue Harrison might argue, is because we have thrown ourselves into a libidodriven and consumption- oriented existence of ceaseless but largely meaningless activity. In cracking open the rotting mess of traditional power structures and morality, modernist artists, philosophers and other social critics failed to provide a plan for cleaning it up and restoring order. They shook the foundations of the Western world and, as its walls crashed down, all they could say was ‘‘ See?’’.
Against the resulting emotional and ethical vacuum, Harrison projects the image of the garden: a source of beauty and calm, of physical and spiritual nourishment, which provides the gardener a purposeful rhythm to his life. The garden is a ubiquitous symbol. In Persian and Arab cultures, it is the earthly embodiment of the lasting peace to be found, after death, in paradise.
And yet, there has always been an edge. In The Epic of Gilgamesh , the garden is gorgeous but sterile, fashioned of fabulous jewels. In The Odyssey , beautiful gardens such as Circe’s were also artificial, a soothingly soporific contrast with dangerous and dirty reality and something for heroes to beware. For people of the Book, that ambivalence starts from the start: in the Garden of Eden.
The Greek philosopher Epicurus established his school on a garden property outside Athens. He turned his back on the turbulent politics of the Greek city states in the 4th century BC. War was a constant backbeat to domestic power politics and Epicurus thought that if the city no longer concerned itself with the happiness of its citizens, then citizens should stop devoting their finest energies to the state and work on their private happiness. His garden was a daily reminder of the need for constant vigilance in the cultivation of the self and a living memento mori: as the seasons came and went, flowers bloomed and faded, fruits rotted even while ensuring genetic survival, so humans came and went from the world.
The Epicureans cultivated themselves so that they could be good friends to others. They practised moderation in their appetites, honesty in speech, consideration, justice, courage and prudence. They advocated gratitude for the past, patience in the present and hope for the future. They believed the mind and body were a collection of atoms that dissipated after death, so hung out for no reward in an afterlife. They were, it must be said, the most attractive of the