It’s Aristotle made agrarian. A renewed focus on nature or essence, and its attendant end, or telos, has resulted from reactions to technology, industrialization, and consumerism. As a full-time designer at Beck & Stone and part-time farmer on the outskirts of Memphis, I spend a lot of time in my head. Nothing has done more to concretize the classical understanding of nature than the physical activity of raising animals on our land, and the time spent thinking about the creatures in our charge.
While writing this, I’m looking out over our herds and flocks from my upstairs office. As their owner, it is my job to create the conditions that give rise to their flourishing. The chicken paddock has to be big enough for them to have plenty of foraging space, but not so big that they’re open to predators. We keep two goats with our chickens to both ward off predators and keep the highly social goats happy. Our sheep need hay in the winter, but not so much to give them bloat. Each species has a nature: it’s my job to discover and encourage them towards their natural end, balancing the right amount of freedom and restraint proper to their species.
We recently added to our flock five hens and a rooster from our friend down the street. Seeing as she runs a wonderful child therapy farm, these chickens were handled every day, very tame, and lived by themselves in a 7’x7’ roofed pen, only eating store-bought feed. Our chickens, on the other hand, spend all day on pasture, forage for their food, and are only put in a coop at night. However, despite having been raised their entire lives in a cage, never learning to forage, and handled by children every day until they became docile, the new chickens’ natures came roaring back when not artificially suppressed. Within two days, they began foraging, the rooster started protecting his hens, and all six began sorting themselves into our flock’s hierarchy, none of which had ever been required of them. I look out at them now and they’re flourishing—and happy.
All of this reminds me that I, too, have a given nature—one which I cannot extinguish or endlessly suppress. My given nature implies that I have a balance to achieve in regards to my own flourishing and that of my family, especially my three sons.
In Psychology and Religion, Carl Jung called atheism an “urban neurosis,” one which only seriously arises when one is drastically divorced from the natural world. The same can be said for understanding human nature. Only when we erect a wall (physical or virtual) between ourselves and the natural world can we seriously entertain the idea that there is nothing given about us, nothing imposed upon us from inside or above. And only in that state can we formulate and manufacture our own supposed ends without physical or metaphysical restraints.
But true freedom in the classical sense only arises when we discover and understand what we are and live accordingly. “It is the glory of God to conceal a thing: but the honor of kings is to search out a matter.” (Proverbs 25:2)
When we search human nature, we discover that searching and understanding—seeking and finding—are part of our essence. That's why caring for goats and chickens is a way of doing philosophy. We and the animals can discover our natures together: both types of creatures in a created world.
Mike Jackson is Design Lead at Beck & Stone where he his identity design work can be seen across clients’ brands. He and his wife have made their home on a farm in his native Tennessee with their three children.