Shepherds as a moral reserve bank

June 15 2011

In a Third World War fought with atomic or bacteriological weapons, it seemed, indeed, improbable that the Angel of Death would overlook even those nooks and corners of Man’s terrestrial habitat which, till recently, had been either so uninviting or so inaccessible, or both, as to give their poor, weak, backward inhabitants a virtual immunity against the unwelcome attentions of “civilized” militarists. In a talk given at Princeton [footnote: See Toynbee, A. J.: Civilization on Trial (London 1948, Oxford University Press), pp. 150-63.] just three weeks before the enunciation of the Truman Doctrine of American support for Greece and Turkey against Russian pressure, [footnote: The Truman Doctrine was made public on the 12th March, 1947; the writer’s talk, here mentioned, was delivered on the 20th February, 1947.] the writer had given play, half seriously and not wholly in joke, to the fancy that, if a Westernizing World were to allow itself to fall into a Third World War, the sequel might be a rendering, in real life, of one of Plato’s myths in which the Athenian philosopher imagines the mountain-shepherds periodically issuing from their fastnesses in order to build up a new civilization on the vacated site of an old one that has perished in the latest of a number of periodic cataclysms. [Footnote: See Plato: Timaeus, 21 E-23 C […].] In the imagery of a Collective Subconscious Psyche in the Age of the Civilizations, “shepherds” had come to symbolize the unspent and unspoiled primitive human potentialities for creation that God had still held in reserve after He had led a sophisticated majority of Mankind into the temptations that had worsted Cain the husbandman [footnote: Gen. iv. 3.] and Cain’s son Enoch the city-builder, [footnote: Gen. iv. 17.] and their heir Tubal-Cain the smith. [Footnote: Gen. iv. 22.] Whenever Man in Process of Civilization had come to grief in essaying this most recent, and perhaps most hazardous, of all human enterprises up to date, he had always, so far, counted on being able to draw upon the reserve power latent in still primitive brethren of his whom he had driven out of those choicer portions of the Earth that he had appropriated as his own domain, “to wander about in sheepskins and goatskins in deserts and in mountains”; [footnote: Heb. xi. 37-38.] and, in the past, these comparatively innocent survivors of the children of Abel had heaped coals of fire [no footnote, but Romans 12:20] on the heads of the children of Cain by coming to their murderers’ rescue when the Cainites’ sins had found them out. A shepherd from Ascra, on the foothills of Mount Helicon, [Hesiod] had spoken the prologue to the tragedy of Hellenic history, and shepherds from the Negeb, on the fringes of the Arabian Desert, had stood by the cradle of Christianity in Bethlehem. In his Platonizing jeu d’esprit the present writer had suggested in A.D. 1947 that, if the Western Civilization in which he and his audience were implicated were to inflict some major catastrophe on the Oikoumenê, the task of launching, all over again, a cultural enterprise that had been on foot for the last five or six thousand years might perhaps fall to Tibetans hitherto safely ensconced behind the ramparts of their plateau or to Esquimaux hitherto snugly nestling against an innocently inclement ice-cap that was a less vicious neighbour than any homo homini lupus. Within the three and a half years that had elapsed between the delivery of that address and the writing of the present lines in the still peaceful precincts of the same university town, these tentative fancies had been overtaken and ridden down by the march of historical events. At the moment of writing in December 1950, an invading Chinese Communist expeditionary force was reported to be en route for Lhasa [hardly the first invasion of Tibet, but one takes the point], while Esquimaux who had formerly been happy in having no foe or friend except Physical Nature found themselves in the fairway of a transpolar bombing-route between the basins of the Volga and the Mississippi, and of a ventre-à-terre invasion-route, across the ice-floes of the Behring Straits, from the once sequestered habitat of the primitive denizens of the north-eastern tip of Russia-in-Asia into an Alaska that was divided from the main body of the Continental United States by nothing but a Canadian “Polish  Corridor”.

Thus a now ubiquitous Western Society held the fate of all Mankind in its hands at a moment when the West’s own fate lay on the finger-tip of one man in Moscow and one man in Washington who, by pressing a button, could detonate an atom-bomb.

Perhaps “the reserve power latent in [the city-dweller’s] still primitive brethren” was felt to be present in fishermen, too. Several of Christ’s apostles were fishermen. None was a shepherd. I had a friend who lived in Ghana in the ’70s and thought that the fishermen there were the exact types of the apostles.

In what way was a discovery of a moral reserve power different from nonsense about the virtues of simple folk? The ancient world was as prone to that as the modern has been.

It was a matter of recognising purity of heart and receptivity, but they are ambivalent qualities. Those who thought that the world’s previously-sleeping rural masses would be a cleansing force when old régimes were swept away in the early twentieth century were mistaken.

People still travel to find “unspent and unspoiled primitive human potentialities”, but as they arrive at their destinations the people they came to see start to move into towns. In 2008, Cains outnumbered Abels in the world for the first time. Suddenly we need to find the reserve power in townspeople.

In 2011, progressive reformers in the Middle East are hoping to find reserve power in a historically-new post-ideological, post-innocent urban maturity that hasn’t been forged through decades of painful democratic growth.

Monks were the reserve power in the Dark Ages.

Bronzino, Adoration of the Shepherds (1535-40), Museum of Fine Arts, Budapest (the shepherd’s back still has some medieval knobbliness, like the front of his Andrea Doria as Neptune)

A Study of History, Vol IX, OUP, 1954

2 Responses to “Shepherds as a moral reserve bank”

  1. davidderrick Says:

    “In 2008, Cains outnumbered Abels in the world for the first time.”

    > Cain as city-dweller; Abel as non-city-dweller rather than as pastoralist.

    Is it true to say that none of the major twentieth-century dictators was from a big city? Most of them hated their rural or small-town childhoods.

  2. davidderrick Says:

    “A historically-new post-ideological, post-innocent urban maturity that hasn’t been forged through decades of painful democratic growth.” In other words, the putative maturity of the Facebook generation.

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