The Truth about the Harvest

The Truth about the Harvest
An address delivered by Professor John Toye (Chair of the MCO Chapel Society) to the Manchester College Oxford Chapel Society on 10th October 2010

“Sow truth, if thou the true would reap; who sows the false shall reap the vain.” These words from the hymn are, in the first instance, a call to Unitarians to exercise their reason in matters of faith and morality. So they are a challenge to anyone, like me, who is about to deliver a sermon – a challenge not to be content with mouthing reassuring platitudes, but to examine them thoroughly, going as far as reasoning can take us.

At the same time, they also assert the idea of a just reward, or a sort of existential balance that will ensure that “as one sows, so shall one reap”. For truth you will get truth, for falsehood you will get falsehood. There is, it seems, an underlying equivalence of exchange in nature. Now that is one big reassuring idea, is it not? It says that, as we determine our principles of conduct, we should rely on being treated as we treat others. If we are generous, others will return our generosity. If we behave meanly to them, we will suffer meanness in return. Such a belief would certainly motivate us to behave well, but the crucial question is: “is it really true?” We need to know because, if we did not believe it to be true, might it not influence our motivation to behave well?

Yet, in the cold light of reason, it does not seem to be true. Anyone like me, who has an allotment, must know that it is not literally true. I do not change what I sow each year, but what I reap in the autumn is rarely the same from year to year. This year the strawberries and broad beans, which had been abundant last year, produced a rather miserable crop. The pumpkins and vegetable marrows, which had been rather meagre last year, did wonderfully well this year. Of course, the variation arises from other factors that determine growth apart from the seeds that I sow. This year’s harvest was affected by the long dry spell in July, the driest in Oxford since 1929, followed by unusually heavy rainfall in August and September. My effort, which is much the same from year to years, brings differing rewards depending on these other factors. In 2007, for example, there was zero reward to my sowing, as the allotment was completely flooded in mid-July.

All very interesting, you may say, but you do not have to take the notion of equivalence so literally. Paul’s letter to the Corinthians makes it perfectly clear that he is speaking metaphorically. He is writing about sowing virtue and reaping virtue; about sowing vice and reaping vice. He is not discussing the Corinthians’ gardening habits. Moreover, he is not talking about year-to-year variations. It is over an entire life span that the existential balance of sowing and reaping virtue can be relied on to assert itself.

But can it? Even here, there are difficulties, surely. I think that I would be understood if I said that there are some people who get a raw deal from life. One of them was John Clare, the farm labourer, naturalist and poet, whose description of the sights and sounds of the harvest was our first reading this morning. In the early 1820s, Clare achieved literary fame in London with the publication of “Poems descriptive of Rural Life”, but “The Shepherd’s Calendar” of 1827, from which our first reading was taken, met with a poor public reception. The London fashion for pastoral poetry had faded by then. Personal failure, the inability to provide for his growing family and guilt in the face of what he believed was a stern and unforgiving God led to his mental breakdown and subsequent psychotic episodes. In 1841, he was certified by two doctors and taken to the County Lunatic Asylum in Northampton, where he remained for the rest of his life.

He did not stop writing poetry, by now turned to mystical themes. One poem from this period was simply titled “I Am”. Here is the final verse, which expresses his desolation and distress during his years in the County Asylum:

I long for scenes where man has never trod
A place where woman never smiled or wept
There to abide with my Creator, God
And sleep as I in childhood sweetly slept,
Untroubling and untroubled where I lie,
The grass below – above the vaulted sky.

The thought of people getting a raw deal from life quickly brings to mind other, even more striking examples. Vincent van Gogh painted a series of brilliant pictures of the wheat harvest around Arles, and in some of his wheat fields studies he included figures of the Sower and Reaper. Eventually, he began to identify them as the beginning and end of life itself. In a letter to his brother Theo, he asked:

What else can one do, thinking of all the things whose reason one does not understand, but gaze upon the wheat fields? Their story is ours, for we who live on bread, are we not ourselves wheat to a considerable extent? Ought we not to submit to growing, powerless to move, like a plant, relative to what our imagination sometimes desires, and to be reaped when we are ripe?

Vincent himself did not ever come to ripeness, though. In the disturbances of his mind, the figure of the Reaper became the Grim Reaper. Vincent was admitted to the asylum of St Paul at Saint-Remy in 1889. His paintings of wheat fields became darker and wilder with black crows filling the sky. He died of self-inflicted gunshot wounds the following year at the age of 37, without ever having sold a single one of his more than one thousand paintings.

“Sow bountifully and you will reap bountifully”. That did not happen to John Clare or Vincent van Gogh, although the world received a wonderful harvest from the labours of Clare, England’s greatest nature poet, and from Van Gogh, one of the world’s greatest painters of nature. So it seems then that we must not expect to find the existential balance operating in every individual life. If it is to be found anywhere, it must be sought beyond the fate of the individual man or woman, in the larger scheme of community and society.

Indeed, the life of Jesus himself, if considered only as the life of an individual man, would have to be judged a failure. No one could say that he reaped as he had sown. His ministry of God as Love was cut short by betrayal, crucifixion and death. He died even younger than Van Gogh. The significance of his life and death became apparent only in the wider context of Jewish and world history.

If this is so, we have to ask ourselves another question. If individuals do not necessarily reap in their lifetime what they have sown, is it not miraculous that society nevertheless holds together? Is it not miraculous that, even although we know that some people reap huge rewards having sown nothing but the seeds of disaster, our community does not collapse and anarchy does not reign? People do not abandon the morality of co-operation, although they could get a better deal by cheating their neighbour.

So why is that? How is it that people will continue to act co-operatively, when it is possible for some people to reap where they have not sown?

For all the talk of the “surveillance society”, I do not think that the reason is that they are compelled to co-operate by the state. Our police and law courts simply do have the resources to achieve the monitoring and sanctions that would be required to prevent all forms of uncooperative behaviour. The government itself, in its latest talk about reforming the police and the courts, says that it is looking for ways of raising their effectiveness and reducing their cost. This seems to indicate that they do not think that they are in a position to enforce good behaviour across the entire population.
If co-operation results neither from individual self-interest nor from state compulsion, where does it come from? It seems that there must be some stable middle position in between universal co-operation and complete anarchy, in which a sufficient proportion of people are willing to over-ride self-interest and act for the general good. Some among us are willing, not only to co-operate with others in their daily dealings, but also to give up their time to be magistrates, special constables, prison visitors, counsellors and mentors to try to reinforce the bonds of social co-operation in these and other ways. These are the people whom social scientists call “strong co-operators”.

It interests me, as an economist, that no self-interested rational individual would choose to be a “strong co-operator”. To choose to co-operate when some others will not already reduces the welfare of the individual. To volunteer as a guardian of social co-operation reduces the individual’s welfare still further. Such behaviour is a willing sacrifice made now in the expectation of some future benefit, knowing that the benefit may or may not be reaped by the individual who makes the sacrifice. Even if one could be certain that society in the aggregate would benefit from this kind of sacrifice, one could never be sure of gaining that benefit oneself.

What is it that sustains this kind of sacrifice? Some explain it in terms of evolution. They say that those who have learned, from repeated experience, the value of this kind sacrifice have achieved more robust societies and have been better able to survive. It seems to me that any such evolutionary mechanism needs to be strengthened, in two ways. Its first source of extra strength is a universal human morality. Its second source of extra strength is a strong awareness of the presence of a Divinity in the world, a Divinity whose power is the power of love.

For me, the true meaning of the harvest is not the idea that as one sows, thus shall one reap. That smacks too much of the old dispensation – “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth”. Rather, to me, the harvest is the supreme image of social co-operation, and an illustration of why it works. The harvest is inclusive. Everyone in the village is involved. “Deserted is each cottage hearth”, says John Clare, and the harvest is brought in by “a motley crew of young and old”. Each one has a place in the division of labour, the reapers, the gleaners, the boys driving the farm waggons and the women who bring food and drink to the fields.

In the middle of the village stands the church, where the preaching of faith, hope and charity should be helping all to rise above self-interest and work for the common good, even though we personally may not be lucky enough to reap as we have sown.