top of page
  • Writer's pictureMichael Martin

Sophianic Economies

I was really looking forward to the new Dune movie. Not that I’m this giant Frank Herbert fan. I’ve only read the original book—the first time thirty years ago—but the trailer looked good. But apparently Covid can do what no sandworm could and defeated the launch of the film which has now been postponed from November 2020 to October 2021. So, since I couldn’t see the film, I read the book (I didn’t have a copy of it, but my son gave me one for Christmas).

One section of the book really struck me this time. In about the middle of the book, shorn by his enemies of his stillsuit (the contraption that allows his to recycle his own body’s water and sustain him in the harsh desert environment of the planet Arrakis) and becoming delirious from heat exhaustion and dehydration, the Freman planetologist, Liet Kynes, starts to hallucinate (or does he?). “The real wealth of a planet is in its landscape,” his meandering consciousness utters, “how we take part in that basic source of civilization—agriculture” [1]. Then, in his delirium, he hears the voice of his deceased father, also a planetologist:

The more life there is within a system, the more riches there are for life…. Life improves the capacity of the environment to sustain life…. Life makes needed nutrients more readily available. It binds more energy into the system through the tremendous chemical interplay from organism to organism.” [2]

These notions did not jump out at me at that first reading all those years ago, but they certainly did this time. What Herbert ventriloquizes through Kynes is essentially a dictum of biodynamic agriculture (and all sound agriculture). Rather than the anxious, greedy, and decidedly neurotic attempts by governments and corporations to encourage monoculture and grand scale farming, biodynamics and COMMON SENSE encourage diversity—of plants, animals, woodlands, waterways, pasture, insect life—as a key to life. It is a closed system (ideally, nothing is brought in off of the farm to augment this fertility), but it is a very different kind of closed system from those of monoculture or factory farming—which are systems closed to life. Call them Zombie Farming.

It just so happens that while I’ve been reading Dune, I’ve also been reading the radical agrarian pamphleteer and Member of Parliament William Cobbett’s Cottage Economy (1822). Cobbett, God bless him!, was so radical he had to flee the country a few times, and he wanted to turn back the enclosure laws that so decimated English farmers and turned them into mere wage-earners. He gives very practical advice on farming for self-sufficiency and he rails against the Christian (I assume Catholic) embrace of poverty as a tool the wealthy and powerful use to keep the lower classes quiet and under their control. He was particularly disgusted with what it had done to the Irish peasantry (he was one of the few British MPs of his time, along with William Wilberforce, to support Catholic emancipation).

Cobbett endorses a way of living both sensible and healthy:

From a very small piece of ground a large part of the food of a considerable family may be raised, the very act of raising it will be the best possible foundation of education of the children of the labourer; that it will teach them a great number of useful things, add greatly to their value when they go forth from their father’s home, make them start in life with all possible advantages, and give them the best chance of leading happy lives. And is it not much more rational for parents to be employed in teaching their children how to cultivate a garden, to feed and rear animals, to make bread, beer, bacon, butter and cheese, and to be able to do these things for themselves, or for others, than to leave them to prowl about the lanes and commons, or to mope at the heels of some crafty, sleekheaded pretended saint, who while he extracts the last penny from their pockets, bid them be contented with their misery, and promises them, in exchange for their pence, everlasting glory in the world to come? It is upon the hungry and the wretched that the fanatic works.” [3]

Fanatics, of course, continue to work upon the hungry and wretched as well as upon, as recent events have emphasized, the fearful.

Ever the idealist, Cobbett also thought things would improve. They have not. As John Lennon sings in “Working Class Hero,”:

They keep you doped with religion and sex and TV And you think you’re so clever and classless and free But you’re still fucking peasants as far as I can see

In the early twentieth century, a number of rural reformers, distributists, and communitarians tried to revive a sensible approach to economy, anticipating and trying to avoid the overwhelming deluge that would become the military-industrial-governmental-pharmaceutical complex. Besides Chesterton and Belloc, H.J Massingham and George William Russell (also known as the poet, A.E.) pushed for a more human economy. For Massingham, the failure of the human economy was directly attributable to the failure of Christendom to be Christian, and he hoped for a return to a time when “religion, learning, the arts and crafts, agriculture and the contemplation of wild nature as the manifestation of God, were integrated as aspects of one whole.” [4] If that sounds like Sophiology, gentle reader, you are not mistaken.

George Russell, for his part, though his proposal for rural regeneration is very practical, nevertheless waxes very poetic in his description of his vision:

God’s world—all the light, the glory, the beauty which the earth puts forth to her children—the dawn over the hills, the green grass, the odour and incense of flowers, the smell of the turned-up sod, trees, hills, the multitudinous magnificence of nature—are all being deserted by humanity because humanity cannot exist on the earth and cultivate it, and maintain thereon an equal life. If they remain they are poor, they are ignorant, they are beset by hostile forces, they are enslaved, and they give up their inheritance as heirs of the ages and the spoils which man has ransacked from time.” [5]

Notice how the sophianic reality of the world becomes disfigured by our disengagement from the Real as Russell describes it here.

Of course, the ruralists, communitarians, and distributists also failed. But the war isn’t over yet.

Now, as we see, the richest men on earth are swallowing up farmland at a disturbing rate, the newest form of enclosure, now in a corporate guise and under government sanction. They might have all the power and wealth, but they don’t have either truth or reality. At the same time, the proponents of The Great Reset are pushing for hyperurbanization and a technocratic dystopia (not their word, but actually the deal).

A sophianic economy (by whatever name one calls it) offers the only path by which sanity may be reached. It could also salvage the wreckage that is Christianity. This will probably entail some sort of upheaval (or, better, ignoring of) the dominant power structures in both of those domains.

Just don’t let the technocrats win.

Michael’s latest books are an edition of The Chymical Wedding of Christian Rosenkreutz and Transfiguration: Notes toward a Radical Catholic Reimagination of Everything. He can be reached at See also The Center for Sophiological Studies' available courses. Also check out the latest volume of Jesus the Imagination: The Garden.

1. Frank Herbert, Dune (Penguin, 2018), 345.

2. Ibid., 346.

3. William Cobbett, Cottage Economy, to which is added, The Poor Man’s Friend (New York, 1833), 11.

4. H.J. Massignham, The Tree of Life (London, 1943), 47.

5. George William Russell (A. E.), Co-operation and Nationality (Dublin, 1912), 22.

199 views3 comments

Recent Posts

See All


Mar 16, 2021

I love Cobbett. John Bull incarnate, epitome of the jovial, common-sensical and vital spirit of Merry England. Massingham I will have ot check out. I am not sure about whether Lennon has a great grasp on the situation. As I see it, "peasants" is just about exactly what we ought to be - people in deep contact with the land, tied to it not with mere legal claim but by an affinity that comes from knowledge. Self-subsistence that is so abundant it pours over into charity for the neighbor. Ivan Illich wrote about a "war on subsistence." Subsistence is under greater attack than ever, especially in India, Africa, and America. Subsistence needs to fight back, as the example of Indian farmers…


Mar 04, 2021

I've seen you reference Massingham before, and "Tree of Life" sounds interesting. Wish some enterprising publisher would get it back in print; least expensive used copy on Amazon is about $68! 😪

Michael Martin
Michael Martin
Mar 04, 2021
Replying to

I’m working on my publisher to do so—if they don’t, I might do it myself!

bottom of page