Wittgenstein: the Agrarian Philosopher

Perhaps the title is something of a stretch, but Wittgenstein does make numerous comments that fit within an agrarian outlook. Along with his distrust of science, his attitude towards culture, aesthetics, tradition, religion and life share much in common with Virgil, the Old South, the Inklings, the Vanderbilt agrarians, and to a certain extent, Jefferson. Below is a sampling of his agrarianism.

Culture and Art

I once said, perhaps rightly: The earlier culture will become a heap of rubble and finally a heap of ashes, but spirits will hover over the ashes.

Perhaps one day this civilization will produce a culture.
When that happens there will be a real history of the discoveries of the 18th, 19th and 20th Centuries, which will be deeply interesting.

One age misunderstands another; and a petty age misunderstands all the others in its own nasty way. [W was, of course, speaking of our own age.]

My own thinking about art and values is far more disillusioned than would have possible for someone 100 years ago. That doesn’t mean, though, that it’s more correct on that account. It only means that I have examples of degeneration in the forefront of my mind which were not in the forefront of men’s minds then.

The works of great masters are suns which rise and set around us. The time will come for every great work that is now in the descendent to rise again.


I think the way people are educated nowadays tends to diminish their capacity for suffering. At present a school is reckoned good ‘if the children have a good time’. And that used not to be the criterion. Parents moreover want their children to grow up like themselves (only more so), but nevertheless subject them to an education quite different from their own. Endurance of suffering isn’t rated highly because there is supposed not to be any suffering: really it’s out of date.

I believe that bad housekeeping within the state fosters bad housekeeping in families. A workman who is constantly ready to go on strike will not bring up his children to respect order either.

Nations and Tradition

Tradition is not something a man can learn; not a thread he can pick up when he feels like it; any more than a man can choose his own ancestors.
Someone lacking a tradition who would like to have one is like a man unhappily in love.

In western civilization the Jew is always measured on scales which do not fit him. Many people can see clearly enough that the Greek thinkers were neither philosophers in the western sense nor scientists in the western sense, that the participants in the Olympian Games were not sportsmen and do not fit in to any western occupation. But it is the same with the Jews. And by taking the words of our language as the only possible standards we constantly fail to do them justice. So at one time they are overestimated, at another underestimated.

“Look on this tumor as a perfectly normal part of your body!” Can one do that, to order? Do I have the power to decide at will to have, or not to have, an ideal conception of my body?
Within the history of the peoples of Europe the history of the Jews is not treated as circumstantially as their intervention in European affairs would actually merit, because within this history they are experienced as a sort of disease, and anomaly, and no one wants to put a disease on the same level as normal life [and no one wants to speak of a disease as if it had the same rights as healthy bodily processes (even painful ones)].
We may say: people can only regard this tumor as a natural part of the body if their whole feeling for the body changes (if the whole national feeling for the body changes). Otherwise the best they can do is put up with it.
You can expect an individual to man to display this sort of tolerance, or else to disregard such things; but you cannot expect this of a nation, because it is precisely not disregarding such things that makes it a nation. I.e. there is a contradiction in expecting someone both to retain his former aesthetic feeling for the body and also to make the tumor welcome.
Power and possession aren’t the same thing. Even though possessions also bring us power. If Jews are said not to have any sense of property, that may be compatible with their liking to be rich since for them money is a particular sort of power, not property. (For instance I should not like my people to become poor, since I wish them to have a certain amount of power. Naturally I wish them to use this power properly too.)


Within Christianity it’s as though God says to men: Don’t act a tragedy, that’s to say, don’t enact heaven and hell on earth. Heaven and hell are my affair.

A confession has to be a part of your new life.

I look at the photograph of Corsican brigands and reflect: these faces are too hard and mine too soft for Christianity to be able to make a mark on them. The brigands’ faces are terrible to look at and yet they are certainly no farther than I am from a good life; it is just that they and I find our salvation on different sides of such a life.

People are religious to the extent that they believe themselves to be not so much imperfect, as ill.
Any man who is half-way decent will think himself extremely imperfect, but a religious man thinks himself wretched.

We could . . . say: Hate between men comes from our cutting ourselves off from each other. Because we don’t want anyone else to look inside us, since it’s not a pretty sight in there.
Of course, you must continue to feel ashamed of what’s inside you, but not ashamed of yourself before your fellow-men.

Religion is, as it were, the calm bottom of the sea at its deepest point, which remains calm however high the waves on the surface may be.

Religious faith and superstition are quite different. One of them results from fear and is a sort of false science. The other is trusting.


I sit astride life like a bad rider on a horse. I only owe it to the horse’s good nature that I am not thrown off at this very moment.

“Wisdom is grey.” Life on the other hand and religion are full of color.


Aim at being loved without being admired.

What’s ragged should be left ragged.

Laß uns menschlich sein.

4 thoughts on “Wittgenstein: the Agrarian Philosopher

  1. Perhaps it’s evident to you, but I fail to see how the majority of the quotes you provide support your thesis of Wittgenstein as agrarian. I agree with you that Wittgenstein was rather agrarian (he loved to garden. After his Tractatus he left the academy to, among other things, garden). It’s hard to characterize Wittgenstein with the statement that he distrusted science. While this is largely true of the later Wittgenstein it is not so with the early Wittgenstein who’s Tractatus is so thoroughly modern and promotes a scientific approach to language in the vein of Frege.

    I assume you mean to refer mostly to the later Wittgenstein when you speak of his agrarianism.

  2. To the uninitiated, which of Wittgenstein’s works would you recommend to read first? Are there any that exhibit his agrarian tendencies more than others?

  3. Joshua –

    Start with Culture and Value. It is a chronological collection of his thoughts on diverse subjects. Then read Ray Monk’s excellent biography, LW: The Duty of Genius. These two works will put the hook in you. After that read the Tractatus along with a commentary. When finished with this, write back and I will give you more suggestions.

  4. Perhaps my favorite quote from the collection above is:

    “We could . . . say: Hate between men comes from our cutting ourselves off from each other. Because we don’t want anyone else to look inside us, since it’s not a pretty sight in there.
    Of course, you must continue to feel ashamed of what’s inside you, but not ashamed of yourself before your fellow-men.”

    W gives us insight into what Christian thinkers have called, in typically soft and lifeless language, “transparency.” Before God we are naked an ashamed. We need a covering. But with our fellow men, we should not be ashamed of our nakedness. Not because we are pure, of course, but because we must resist hypocrisy with every fiber of our being.

    This is, I believe, what W was getting at in the last quotation, Laß uns menschlich sein. One of the highest compliments W would give was to say, “you are real human being.” A real human being is one who recognizes the struggle of life and has the courage to face it. While at the same time recognizes that without grace the struggle will be futile . (“I sit astride life like a bad rider on a horse. I only owe it to the horse’s good nature that I am not thrown off at this very moment.”)

    This is worlds apart from the modern maxim, “keep it real.” “Keeping it real” means accepting all one’s meanness and wickedness without any sense of shame or guilt. Becoming human means struggling against one’s meanness and wickedness and yet not pretending to be anything other than he is.

    Many of us succeed at “keeping it real,” and fail at being human. This is why W says “a confession has to be a part of your new life.” With a confession before our fellow men we are able to “aim at being loved without being admired.”

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