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On Gardens and Politics

January 31, 2012

Every so often we will re-publish work which has been printed in limited-edition contexts in projects related to Farm Together Now or by one of the contributors. Today we start by sharing an essay from “Beneath the Pavement: A Garden” which is a project by Amy Franceschini and Myriel Milicevic that was commissioned by Radar at Loughborough University. According to the organizers “Beneath the Pavement considers biological forms in relation to political and social systems”. The project included a garden, some walking tours, performances and a publication from which we will be reprinting this essay, On Gardens and Politics by Brian Duff and Maria Rosales. You can view the entire project here, download the book here, and you can purchase the printed version of this document from Half Letter Press.


On Gardens and Politics

By Brian Duff & Maria Rosales (pdf of the text can be downloaded here)


In the history of political thought, metaphors that associate politics with the activity of gardening have been among the most influential and compellingly articulated. They are also among the most destructive ever devised. In this essay we seek to rehabilitate the metaphor of gardening for politics. While many of the projects documented in this book consider the way that gardens might illustrate political systems, we consider the way the experience of gardening might inform our thinking about the activity of politics – in terms of citizenship in addition to political systems broadly conceived. In particular, we suggest that the activity of gardening is a useful way to conceive of a politics in which citizens can develop profound and deeply rooted commitments to experiments regarding the best way to live in a community with others. These experiments, like gardening, will require hard work, creative thinking, problem solving, and sustained commitment. But most importantly, gardening reminds us that sometimes experiments fail. No matter how carefully we plan and how lovingly we cultivate, disasters occur, and the unpredictable happens – hail falls from the sky, blight appears out of nowhere, and insects quietly devour. We must abandon some plants, pull up roots, and try it a different way next year. These are lessons that we can usefully apply to politics, which works best when citizens feel and act upon deep commitments to a notion of the good, but in which citizens are not fundamentalists regarding their commitments. Instead, they are open to reconsidering them, criticizing them, debating them, and abandoning them for a better approach.


Cultivation and politics in the ancient world


In the Greek polis, the ancient community most influential to subsequent political ideas, the tilling of soil and cultivation of plants played a crucial role in the political imagination. Politics was defined as an activity specifically opposed to the drudgery and perceived predictability of working with the soil. Politics shunned matters of sustenance and necessity, and instead concerned itself with considerations of the great and the glorious. A concern with nature and working the land was associated with slaves and women, whose lives centered upon this sort of work. In Athens, for example, citizens literally entered the space of politics by leaving their small farms and going into the walled center of the city to participate in the responsibilities of politics.


A politics that shunned predictability and necessity in the name of the risky and the glorious resulted in many triumphs. Evidence of Athenian glory remains today, in the Parthenon and other monuments to Athenian glory built in this era, or the profound tragic dramas written by Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides. But this sort of politics also resulted in profound disasters, which helped to trigger a reconsideration of both the garden and the values of cultivation in politics. In particular, a ruinous war with Sparta and her allies triggered a retreat behind city walls where intense crowding contributed to a devastating plague. Pursuing the fight in an effort to reclaim the glory of Athens, the Athenians also became complicit in betrayals and genocide. The pursuit of glory for glory’s sake led Athens to lose her way.


It was in this environment that Plato introduced a new conception of politics that would rehabilitate the concept of careful cultivation associated with gardens. Teaching and theorizing in a garden located outside the city center, Plato’s reorganization of politics centered upon careful cultivation carried out by a wise ruler in possession of a master plan. Plato’s political community, described in his Republic, was modeled on his image of an ideal social organization. These ideal “Forms” are accessible only to the wisest – a ruler (or rulers) who organizes society like a gardener does her plot.

Rather than tinker with laws, Plato argued the rulers should cultivate the people through a carefully planned educational system, so that they would grow up to know what they should do without needing specific legislation to guide them. They were to be shaped when they were young, like fruit trees espaliered in a courtyard.


Plato goes so far as to suggest the ideal political community must start like any garden, with a tilling of the soil to begin anew. He would banish all adults so that the ruler might start afresh and place every member of society in their proper place like plants in their rows – deciding who will live where, do what sort of work, and even who will reproduce with whom. In Plato, the messiness and unpredictability of Athenian politics is replaced by the virtues of a garden – the calm and reassuring beauty of everything in its proper place, citizens given just what they need to grow in the way appropriate to them, and contributing precisely what is most appropriate to their capacity. Politics becomes cultivation. While Plato believed that his ideal city, like everything on earth, would eventually decay and die, he primarily presented his goal as establishing and enforcing stability. He spends a lot of time, for example, discussing various forms of censorship, trying to keep harmful emotions and ways of thinking out of the Republic – the way a gardener might keep rabbits and gophers out of the vegetables.


From cultivation to the political machine


Plato’s vision of politics had a profound legacy. Nietzsche entitled a chapter on Plato’s influence on the two thousand years that followed “The History of an Error.”  To Nietzsche the essence of the error was Plato’s hostility to what is messy and unpredictable in human existence – Plato’s desire to escape from life’s ambiguities and inconsistencies into the clarity of ideals. This impulse was intensified in the Christian centuries in the form of a denigration of our sinful earthly existence in favor of the perfections of the heavens and the afterlife. Political power rightly belonged to God’s representatives here on earth. Proper citizenship, to the extent it existed, consisted of meek obedience. For the Christians the first paradise was a garden free of toil, and the difficulties of earthly existence, including the work of cultivating the earth, were simply to be endured.


But the rise in secular politics, both in terms of modern political thought and in terms of modern political systems, did not mark the end of the Platonic metaphor. Some secular moral and political philosophies recreated the Platonic ideal in contemporary terms – for example in moral philosophies like Immanuel Kant’s, which suggested the possibility of human reason guiding citizens toward perfect virtue. G.W.F. Hegel imagined we could approach an ideal in which human freedom is fulfilled through membership in a well-ordered state. In another direction, rather than seeking to escape our distaste for the messiness, difficulty, and unpredictability of life, we sought to conquer it through knowledge, technology and expertise. Thus this period saw the rise of the bureaucratic state, in which experts and functionaries conceive of politics in terms of the management of the population and the economy. In this era politics is often conceived in terms of “policies” that encourage the safety, health, productivity, and wealth of the populace. Scientists, social scientists, policy experts and technocrats seek to manage the nation in a way that is analogous to Plato’s vision of the ruler with unique access to knowledge of the good.


One reason it might be useful to reclaim gardening as a metaphor for politics is that in reconfiguring Platonic ideas in empirical terms, these politicians and political thinkers pushed beyond the metaphor of politics as gardening or cultivation, and began to think more in terms of mechanics and machines.


The idea that the government should be an efficient machine was widespread by the 19th century.


In the U.S., Andrew Jackson spoke of his “hope of reducing the General Government to that simple machine which the Constitution created…”. The “political machines” exemplified by Boss Tweed and Tammany Hall dominated the American politics of the late 19th century. Max Weber worried about the compromises a politician necessarily makes to get such a machine to work for the purposes in which he or she believed. This was especially the case in the service of an ideal. “He who wants to establish absolute justice on earth by force,” Weber wrote, “requires a following, a human ‘machine’” ((Weber, Max. From Max Weber: Essays in Sociology, ed. Hans H. Gerth and C. Wright Mills. New York: Columbia Press, 1980).  More generally, Weber believed a culture dominated by rational instrumental calculation – though that culture imagined itself the culmination of history – had produced a modern citizen who was best described as a “nullity”.   He condemned the “iron cage” of modernity, in which society could settle into “mechanical petrification” as the “living machine” of bureaucracy dictated more and more of our lives.


These twin strands, utopian ideals about justice and order on earth, and confidence in the application of modern expertise to achieve it, were reconfigured in the totalitarian regimes of the 20th century, and many of the authoritarian regimes of today. Political theorists like Hannah Arendt, Michel Foucault, and Giorgio Agamben have all explored the ways in which patterns of thinking regarding politics as the quasi-scientific management of populations makes it, as Agamben puts it, “possible both to protect life and to authorize a holocaust” (Agamben, Giorgio.Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1998.)



Cultivating the middle ground of politics


It is in such a political environment, where the metaphor of politics as cultivation has been superseded by politics imagined as something more mechanical, that the activity of gardening might be reclaimed for political thinking in a more useful way. Gardening offers ways to conceive of a middle ground that might be usefully cultivated between several sets of extremes in thinking about politics.


Most broadly speaking, the activity of gardening might help us think about how to strike a balance between idealism in the Platonic tradition and those who would reject idealism extravagantly. The metaphor of gardening can help us to think about how citizens might make genuinely felt assertions about better and best ways to live as democratic citizens – and act upon them with diligence, deliberation and creativity – but also how we might be open to the contingency our assertions necessarily entail, and to the possibility that our projects might fail and have to be abandoned.


Political theory is just now emerging from a period in which many thinkers, often labeled “post-modernists,” contributed to the effort to show that apparent truths, ideals and notions are in fact fragile, contestable, constructed and contingent. It has been a worthwhile project, and one that has only sometimes earned the cartoonish characterization that post-modernists merely think “everything is relative” and that any idea, interpretation, or truth claim is as good as another. But certainly post-modern political thinking has put most of its energy and enthusiasm into the project of “deconstructing” established ideas rather than asserting new conceptions of how to live or organize a society. Foucault, for example, simply refused to speculate on the matter. But recent trends in political theory have sought to move beyond, as Stephen White describes it, “postmodern critiques of liberal political institutions whose attacks are long on hyperbole and corrosive language, but short on affirmative conceptualizations and orientation to concrete practices and institutions” (White, stephen K. Sustaining Affirmation: The Strengths of Weak Ontology in Political Theory. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2000). White would like to encourage more of these affirmative conceptualizations. And while we agree with him, below we suggest reasons why, metaphorically speaking, we are better off tearing up the concrete and digging into the soil below.


One way to think about how gardening informs political activity is in terms of a spirit of dedicated experimentalism. A common way for gardeners to discuss their projects is to say about one plant or another: “we are going to try brussel sprouts this year.”  It’s a way of thinking that emphasizes both effort and unpredictability.


Each cycle brings about newexperiments, informed by previous knowledge, but nonetheless uncertain.


Those experiments will require hard work and getting our hands dirty. We will have to respond to unexpected obstacles. While we might plan carefully and apply our reason, there is no sense that our plans can be exhaustive, nor that reason can anticipate or solve every complication. In gardening, as in politics, our experiments and projects are unpredictable, and we undertake them anyway. It is what makes gardening so absorbing.


And what gives gardening these qualities is that we are always confronted with the unpredictabilities of organic life, rather than the cleaner realm of pure ideas or clear calculations. As the theorist E.M Cioran argued in his Short History of Decay, seeking to banish Platonic reason from political thinking: “Everything that breathes feeds on the unverifiable; … Give life a specific goal and it immediately loses its attraction” (Cioran, e.M. A Short History of Decay. New York: Viking Press, 1975). While in gardening one has a goal or set of goals, we know that because we are dealing with the living our goal cannot be too specific and our methods cannot be fully known ahead of time.


But it is certainly one of the advantages of gardening as a political metaphor that gardens involve deliberate work, hard choices, and taking charge of a plot and asserting our will upon it. Too many political thinkers on the left seem eager to imagine a politics in which all obstacles (both ideological and practical) have disappeared and politics takes on a quality of ecstatic spontaneity. For example Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, in their influential book Empire, argue that were humanity to no longer be “deluded in the pursuit of the ethical ideal” – ideals like those articulated by Plato and Kant – then “the multitude” might “organize itself spontaneously and [express] its creativity autonomously” (Hardt, Michael and Negri, Antonio. Empire.Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2000). While gardening certainly provides an opportunity for creativity and self-expression, it also requires deliberate work and planning – necessary elements of politics.


The garden and methodical thinking


Before Hardt and Negri, the political theorist Hannah Arendt defended a notion of politics that she specifically contrasted to work. For Arendt, politics should be about humans interacting with each other and revealing themselves to each other. It must avoid fixed goals and instrumental thinking, which hinders the unpredictability and creativity, the “spontaneity and purposelessness” (Arendt, hannah. The Human Condition.  Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1958) that she believes is unique to the political realm. For Arendt, work implies mechanical thinking – which can transform politics into a process marked by, (as Mary Dietz summarizes), the “distortion of all things into means for the pursuit of allegedly higher ends, violent appeals to new orders and final solutions, and utter contempt for human personhood and individuality …” (Dietz, Mary G. ‘The Slow Boring of Hard Boards’: Methodical Thinking and the Work of Politics.The American Political Science Review, Vol. 88, No. 4 – Dec., 1994) But Dietz suggests that politics and work might be conceived in terms of methodical thinking rather than mechanical thinking. Dietz borrows this term from the theorist Simone Weil. Weil, like Arendt, is concerned with the mechanistic and automated quality of so much of modern work and life. But rather than leap across to automation’s opposite – a sort of spontaneous creativity – Weil imagines a sort of work that might be both creative and deliberate; truly human and yet productive. Dietz seizes upon one example offered by Weil:


A team of workers on a production-line under the eye of a foreman is a sorry spectacle, whereas it is a fine sight to see a handful of workmen in the building trade, checked by some difficulty, ponder the problem each for himself, make various suggestions for dealing with it, and then apply unanimously the method conceived by one of them, who may or may not have any official authority over the remainder. At such moments the image of a free community appears almost in its purity. (1994, 878, quoting Weil’s Liberty and Oppression)


Weil’s vision is an appealing one, though Dietz rightly scolds Weil for her impulse to think in terms of purity. Dietz suggests we might use this notion of methodical thinking to conceive of a methodical politics “where political phenomena present to citizens… challenges to be identified, demands to be met, and a context of circumstances to be engaged (without blueprints). Neither the assurance of finality nor the security of certainty attends this worldly activity” (Dietz, Mary G. ‘The Slow Boring of Hard Boards’: Methodical Thinking and the Work of Politics.The American Political Science Review, Vol. 88, No. 4 – Dec., 1994).


But workmen in the building trade do have blueprints in most cases. Their goal is often quite specific, and their solutions highly technical, even when they are creative and clever. The gardener’s deliberate work to cultivate living things in a particular way comes closer to the more unpredictable and constantly shifting work of politics. It does more justice as well to the tragedies that politics so often entail  While there is always a way to get a building up, sometimes our garden experiments go horribly wrong. Sometimes the work we put into them goes too far – we kill what we hoped to protect, in cultivating one plant we allow it to choke others out of existence, or a battle with pests becomes a scene of slaughter.


It was because of the possibility of such tragedies authored by leaders and perpetrated by functionaries that Arendt sought to contrast political activities from the relentless demands and bottomless justifications of life’s necessities, dictated by the “circular movement of biological life” (Arendt, hannah. The Human Condition.  Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1958). But politics, especially in our era, will inevitably engage the biological: health and sustenance, the quality of people’s daily lives. Politics will make impositions on how people live, it will affect populations, it will do violence to some lives and provide assistance to others. We should not indulge in fantasies that politics can escape such engagements with the biological, even as we remain vigilant in our critical attention to the potential of abuses and pitfalls. The metaphor of gardening helps remind us that even as we carry out plans and cultivate a certain organization of the biological, we must attend to and respect the willfulness and autonomy of the life we encounter and with which we work. And these encounters will necessarily change our plans and elicit creative responses. Gardens do help produce our sustenance, but they are rarely only that: we value their beauty, and the time we spend at work in them. Unlike industrial farming, gardening does not invoke images of the use of technology, pesticides, and genetic monstrosities to accomplish our goals.


To offer a more explicitly political example, Franklin Delano Roosevelt responding to the Great Depression by calling for a period of “bold, persistent experimentation”. Such experiments, in the form of massive social policies, can profoundly impact countless lives in unexpected ways. This does not mean they should not be attempted. But it does mean we should be attentive to these unintended consequences, elastic in our approach, thoughtful about the lives affected, and should never lose ourselves in our drive to achieve a particular goal and never resent the messy unpredictability of our political efforts. In a political environment where no political intervention is immune to comparisons to communism and National Socialism, the garden can be reclaimed as a more complex and nuanced metaphor.


Politics between the city and the wilderness


So gardening as political metaphor might be reinterpreted to complicate the Platonic notion of escaping the messiness of politics for the stability of rule and cultivation and to complicate this concept’s modern manifestations in the bureaucratic state. If Plato’s turn to order and ideals is one way to escape politics, the escape into the wilds of nature is another. Hardt and Negri, advocates of spontaneity and autonomy, clearly long for the wild when they suggest that political analysis “has to descend into the jungle of productive and conflictual determinations that the collective biopolitical body offers us … . The analysis must be proposed not through ideal forms but within the dense complex of experience” (Hardt, Michael and Negri, Antonio. Empire.Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2000). Such longing for the wild was most movingly articulated by the first of the great theorists of modern democracy, Jean-Jacques Rousseau. But Rousseau’s own attraction to uncivilized nature can help illuminate what is useful about the metaphor of the garden as a middle ground between the wild and the mechanistic excesses of modern life and politics.


Many of Rousseau’s contemporaries and modern predecessors had embraced the notion of applying reason not to the heavens or Platonic ideals, but to nature itself. In the 16th century (as Hardt and Negri note) Sir Francis Bacon called for bringing a “better use and a more perfect technique of the mind and the intellect” to “the most distant realities and the occult secrets of nature” and Sir Thomas More made “the ‘immense and inexplicable power’ of natural life and labor as foundation for political arrangement” (2000, 72-73).12 In the 17th century John Locke suggested that the use of our labor and the application of our reason to cultivate a particular plot of land was the origin of the right to private property and the foundation of political communities. Writing in the 18th century, Rousseau did not buy it. He wrote,


The first man who, having enclosed a plot of land, took it into his head to say This is mine and found people simple enough to believe him, was the true founder of civil society. What crimes, wars, murders, what miseries and horrors would the human race have been spared, had someone pulled up the stakes or filled in the ditch and cried out to his fellow men, “Do not listen to this impostor; you are lost if you forget that the fruits of the earth belong to all and the earth to no one!” (Rousseau, Jean Jacques. The Basic Political Writings. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 1987)


Rousseau described in his Discourse on the Origins of Inequality what he preferred: the existence of a prehistoric “noble savage” who was no farmer, but rather lived independently, wandered the forest, and found in the wilds of nature all he or she needed to survive. But such a life, while noble and independent, would Rousseau admitted have been unbearably lonely. Elsewhere he admitted that,


Although in civil society man surrenders some of the advantages that belong to the state of nature, he gains in return far greater ones; his faculties are so exercised and developed, his mind is so enlarged, his sentiments so ennobled and his whole spirit so elevated that, if the abuse of his new condition did not in many cases lower him to something worse than what he had left, he should consistently bless the happy hour that lifted him for ever from the state of nature and from the stupid, limited animal made a creature of intelligence and a man. (Rousseau, Jean Jacques.  The Social Contract. New York: Penguin Books, 1968.)


The question was how to avoid the abuses of civil society, which Rousseau saw as principally an obsession with status and opinion.


Such, in fact, is the true cause of all these differences; the savage lives in himself; the man accustomed to the ways of society is always outside himself and knows how to live only in the opinion of others. (Rousseau, Jean Jacques. The Basic Political Writings. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 1987)


This distaste with society and its obsession with status drove Rousseau to become a bit of a noble savage himself in his old age, wandering alone in the countryside and pursuing his favorite habit of botany. Even then Rousseau indulged his distaste for the deliberate cultivation of plants, in terms that bring to mind the perils of Platonism, Kantianism, and contemporary technocratic politics. As he explained in his Reveries of a Solitary Walker, “confining our attention to…the botanical garden, rather than observing plants in their natural setting, we concern ourselves solely with systems and methods … .” (Rousseau, Jean Jacques.  Reveries of the Solitary Walker.  New York: Penguin Books, 1979.)


But Rousseau also betrayed an unmistakable yearning for the garden as a middle place between the lonely wilds of nature and the busy, shallow sociability of city life. He described himself in his old age as a dying garden, with “a mind still adorned by a few flowers, even if they were already blighted by sadness and withered by worry” (Rousseau, Jean Jacques.  Reveries of the Solitary Walker.  New York: Penguin Books, 1979.)  He missed the days when he had attempted more than mere observation, when he had sought to be political. Describing his attempts to avoid any human encounters on his way “to go botanizing,” Rousseau recalled the pleasure he used to take in human interactions, and lamented that “so unfortunate a destiny as mine leaves little hope of performing any genuine good deed that is both well-chosen and useful.”  Rousseau turned to the wild because he “knew that the only good which is henceforth in my power is to abstain from acting, lest unwittingly and unintentionally I should act badly” (Rousseau, Jean Jacques.  Reveries of the Solitary Walker.  New York: Penguin Books, 1979.)

The study of wild plants became Rousseau’s to escape the risks and unpredictability of acting with others – it was his form of a resignation from politics.


On the final page of that final book, however, Rousseau recalled a happier period where “in the space of four or five years I enjoyed a century of life and a pure and complete happiness, whose delightful memory can outweigh all that is appalling in my present fate.” In those happy years a young Rousseau, living with his protector Madame de Warens, did not merely observe nature but rather worked upon it in her gardens. There “all my hours were filled with loving cares and country pursuits.  I wanted nothing except that such a sweet state should never cease. My only cause of sorrow was the fear that it might not last long, and this fear … was not unjustified” (Rousseau, Jean Jacques.  Reveries of the Solitary Walker.  New York: Penguin Books, 1979.)


This is always the risk of experimenting with gardens, with politics and with ways of living: the results are uncertain and things may not work. Even when they do work they may not last.


But these risks did not dissuade Rousseau from imagining worthwhile ways of living. They almost always occupied a middle ground between the wilds of untouched nature, and the busy uncertainty of modern society. He did so in the Discourse on the Origins of Inequality, where he told the story of the development of civil society, from the simple self-sufficiency of the noble savage to the wretched state of modern society in which  everyone is a slave to the opinion of everyone else. There Rousseau described the age where the savage had settled down into simple family life:  “This period of the development of the human faculties, maintaining a middle position between the indolence of our primitive state and the petulant activity of our egocentrism, must have been the happiest and most durable epoch” (Rousseau, Jean Jacques. The Basic Political Writings. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 1987). But this era of small families cultivating small plots planted the seeds of its own destruction, as people began to observe each other’s successes and failures, and jealousy was born.


Rousseau’s other great works depict similar interludes of rustic virtue, no less inspiring because they were so ephemeral. In his letter condemning the theater he described the simple lives of Swiss peasant families, each cultivating their own plot of land. In Rousseau’s Emile the title character explores the civic politics of his day, but decides to live in the countryside and till the soil. In his Julie, the Wolmar family cultivate a perfect rural community. Each of these rustic utopias is eventually undone. The Swiss get a theater and lose their simpler virtues, Emile moves to the city and watches his family be destroyed, Julie is undone by love and dies too young. But it was the beauty of Rousseau’s visions of an ideal, not his bitterness at their passing, that inspired Europeans to seek to transform their lives and their politics, and made Rousseau a saint both to revolutionaries and to quieter citizens.


Gardening as a fruitful metaphor


Two centuries on, John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty offered a philosophical account of the liberal democracy those revolutionaries and citizens went on to create. There he praised experimentation and argued against viewing politics as mechanical. Humans, he said, cannot develop their capacities if they must act in rote, mechanical ways. Even worse, when humans stick to the same ideas and ways of doing things, “there is only too great a tendency in the best beliefs and practices to degenerate into the mechanical; and unless there were a succession of persons whose ever-recurring originality prevents the grounds of those beliefs and practices from becoming merely traditional, such dead matter would not resist the smallest shock from anything really alive, and there would be no reason why civilization should not die out …” (Mill, John Stuart.On Liberty. London: Watts, 1929). Humans do best, he argued, when they can make original plans and try to carry them out. No polis is perfect and precise, like a wellfunctioning machine, and if it were it would be too fragile, so humans gain when they make plans to try to improve the world while recognizing the inevitability of change. This is not because Mill believes that people will always make excellent plans and carry them out well. In fact, he thinks most plans will fail: “There are but few persons, in comparison with the whole of mankind, whose experiments, if adopted by others, would be likely to be any improvement on established practice” (Mill, John Stuart.On Liberty. London: Watts, 1929). Even if most of the plans fail, the spirit of experimentation originality itself is valuable.


It was important to Mill that these experiments not be shallow attempts, but something deeply rooted and diligently pursued. This is where he uses the metaphor of growing and cultivating—the metaphor of the garden. He compares people to trees, and says that each person needs the proper soil and the “air of freedom” so that each has the space “to grow and develop itself on all sides … .”  He carries on the metaphor, saying that many believe humans need to be carefully constrained, “just as many have thought that trees are a much finer thing when clipped into pollards, or cut out into figures of animals, than as nature made them” (Mill, John Stuart.On Liberty. London: Watts, 1929). Politics should not be a topiary or a row of lollipop trees, but something that more closely resembles a cottage garden. In a cottage garden, there is a great diversity of plants connected by boundaries such as paths and fences. The plants grow into new spaces and often self-sow, so the garden changes not only from season to season but also from year to year.


Mill wanted these experiments to be so deeply rooted that he thought the most important of all political freedoms was the right to develop new approaches to the education of children. It is a useful reminder that political experiments, if they are to be fruitful, cannot be shallow efforts and should not be subject to fad – but rather must be carefully developed and pursued, and that their largest effects are likely to be on others rather than ourselves. It is this combination of deliberate, careful, and dedicated cultivation coexisting with the possibility of failure and a willingness to adjust or start anew that makes gardening a useful way to think about politics. One of the boys educated by Plato in his garden was a young Aristotle, who grew up to teach in a garden of his own. There he rejected aspects of his teacher’s idealism, and spoke of a golden mean to be discovered between extremes in all aspects of life. The garden as political metaphor might help us find a useful middle ground, and to cultivate it fruitfully.

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