Plato and Lucretius on Environmental Degradation
1) What can you infer from these texts about the nature of Greek and Roman agriculture- what crops were cultivated, how did they work the soil, etc.?
2) Based on this text, what long-term effecst did Greek and Roman agriculture have upon the soil?
3) How do you reconcile Lucretius’
gloomy statements about the present state of Roman agriculture with the fact
Plato, Critias [extract]
was a famous Greek philosopher who lived between approximately 427-347 BC and
who was a student of Socrates, who is regarded by some as the father of
philosophy. Like Socrates, Plato was a social critic who contrasted the lax
morals of the present day and was nostalgic about a remembered, golden past.
This excerpt talks about the environmental changes he has seen in his native
Now the country was inhabited in those
days by various classes of citizens;— there were
artisans, and there were husbandmen, and there was also a warrior class
originally set apart by divine men. The latter dwelt by themselves, and had all
things suitable for nurture and education; neither had any of them anything of
their own, but they regarded all that they had as common property; nor did they
claim to receive of the other citizens anything more than their necessary food…
The land was the best in the world, and was therefore able in those days to
support a vast army, raised from the surrounding people. Even the remnant of
Lucretius, On the Nature of Things [extract]
Lucretius was a Roman poet and philosopher who lived
from 99 BC to 55 BC, when
Mother Nature first gave us demonstrations of the way sowing might operate; the acorns fell under the oaks, bushes (or birds) dropped berries whose seeds in time became small shoots, a swarm new risen, and men learned the stranger craft of grafting, or of planting slips in the earth, tried cultivation of their little plots, found methods of improving wilder growth by patience and by gentleness, the way trainers succeed in taming other stock [domesticated animals]. They made the woods climb higher up the mountains, yielding the lowlands to be tilled and tended— With meadow, pool, and stream, with oats and wheat on the low plains—and higher on the hills vineyards to make men glad, and olive trees whose gray-green color marked the boundary up hill, down dale, so you could see all things. Charming, and all things different, all adorned— Sweet orchards, lovely hedgerows.
It is food that every creature needs, the food that mends, supports, renews, replenishes. But now nature can give no more, and income must be lest than outgo. So many things wither, die, made mean by loss, by blows, within, without, assailed, besieged, betrayed, till at long last food fails, and the great walls are battered in. In just this way the ramparts [walls] of the world, for all their might, will some day face assault, be stormed, collapse in ruin and in dust. It is happening already; our poor earth, worn out, exhausted, brings to birth no more great eons, titans, huge majestic beasts; only our own disgusting little days, Midges and gnats… the same earth who nourishes them now once brought forth… vineyards and shining harvests, pastures, arbors [orchards?] and all this now our very utmost toil we hardly care for, we wear down our strength, whether in oxen or in men, we dull the edges of our plowshares, and in return our fields turn mean and stingy, underfed. And so today the farmer shakes his head, more and more often sighing that his work, the labor of his hands, has come to naught [nothing]. When he compares the present to the past, the past was better, infinitely so…. All things, little by little, waste away as times erosion crumbles them to doom.