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City of the Good : Nature , Religion and the Ancient Search for What is Right

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How we came to seek absolute good in religion and nature—and why that quest often leads us astray

People have long looked to nature and the divine as paths to the good. In this panoramic meditation on the harmonious life, Michael Mayerfeld Bell traces how these two paths came to be seen as separate from human ways, and how many of today’s conflicts can be traced back thousands of years to this ancient divide.

Taking readers on a spellbinding journey through history and across the globe, Bell begins with the pagan view, which sees nature and the divine as entangled with the human—and not necessarily good. But the emergence of urban societies gave rise to new moral concerns about the political character of human life. Wealth and inequality grew, and urban people sought to justify their passions. In the face of such concerns, nature and the divine came to be partitioned from the human, and therefore seen to be good—but they also became absolute and divisive.

Bell charts the unfolding of this new moral imagination in the rise of Buddhism, Christianity, Daoism, Hinduism, Jainism, and many other traditions that emerged with bourgeois life. He follows developments in moral thought, from the religions of the ancient Sumerians, Greeks, and Hebrews to the science and environmentalism of today, along the way visiting with contemporary indigenous people in South Africa, Costa Rica, and the United States. City of the Good urges us to embrace the plurality of our traditions—from the pagan to the bourgeois—and to guard against absolutism and remain open to difference and its endless creativity.

Author: Mayerfeld Bell Michael
Publisher: PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS
Pages: 360
ISBN: 9780691165097
Cover: Hardback
Edition Number: 1
Release Year: 2018

Preface: On Losing Your Children in the Vatican ix

Acknowledgments xiii

1 The Conundrum of the Absolute 1

The Pagan 17

2 Nature Before Nature 19

3 The Natural Conscience 47

4 Pagan Monotheism and the Two Evils 77

The Bourgeois 107

5 Why Jesus Never Talked about Farming 109

6 Great Departures 148

7 Electrum Faiths 180

The Good 217

8 Nonpolitical Politics 219

9 Awesome Coolness 237

10 The Jewel of Truth 259

Notes 279

References 311

Index 325

Michael Mayerfeld Bell is Vilas Distinguished Achievement Professor of Community and Environmental Sociology at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, where he is also a faculty associate in religious studies, environmental studies, and agroecology. His many books include the award-winning Childerley: Nature and Morality in a Country Village and, Farming for Us All: Practical Agriculture and the Cultivation of Sustainability.

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