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Linné on line arrow The History of Ideas arrow The notion of utility arrow In the service of agriculture

In the service of agriculture

The Sweden of the Age of Liberty was an agrarian country. Agriculture constituted the completely dominant economic pursuit, which helps explain that Swedish ‘mercantilism’ put forward not only the importance of manufacturing but also agriculture. See further Mercantilism.

Sketches by Gustaf Silfverstråhle from the late 18th century depicting oxen at work in fields. They provide a good illustration of how agriculture was pursued in Linnaeus’ day.

An extremely clear connection can be seen between agriculture and the utilitarian thinking of the 18th century. Since agriculture was of crucial importance to the welfare of the country, natural scientists left no stone unturned in their search for new methods to increase its yields. Agriculture could be likened to applied natural science.

This spirit informed the work of the Royal Academy of Sciences, but also other associations like the Patriotic Society (founded in 1766). See further The notion of utility.

In France around 1760 a school of thought emerged that is usually called ‘physiocratic,’ and whose foremost proponent was named Francois Quesnay. The physiocrats thought that agriculture was the only industry that produced a net surplus. Furthermore, they viewed nature as a law-bound system with which humans should not meddle unless it was absolutely necessary. The state should not hamper agriculture and trade by creating restrictions, which were central to the thinking of mercantilism. Physiocratic economic theory had very little impact on Sweden, however, even though several physiocratic thoughts—an emphasis on education and an interest in China, for instance—were very popular here.

Though economic factors were crucial for the interest in agriculture, there were other factors as well. For example, Rousseau’s view that humans should go back to the happy state of nature was a thought that became popular in Sweden as well, starting in the 1760s. Moreover, in the spirit of Geaticism one could maintain that the Swedes of primeval times, the Geats, pursued a well-developed form of agriculture. In this way, ancient Geatish farming became a model to emulate; the Geats had proven what potential agrarian Sweden had.

Lars Herlitz, Fysiokratismen i svensk tappning 1767–1770 (1974)