Hesiod “Works and Days”
Perhaps inappropriately, Mister Kain’s recent post about populist conservatism comes to mind because I’m reading Hesiod, who I’ve heard called a “conservative” more than a few times now. It’s a cringe-inducing term and terribly anachronistic; not only is Hesiod not a conservative politically, but he doesn’t really hope to “conserve” much of his society. He distrusts the polis. And yet there might be some similarities of thought between Hesiod’s worldview and a sort of organic conservatism, typical of small agrarian communities of the sort that are often spoken for by populists; but a worldview that has never translated very well into political movements.
Instead, I’d describe Hesiod as an old curmudgeon. He’s cynical, provincial, garrulous, grouchy, none too fond of women or lazy people, and actually not too fond of most people. It’s hard to read him without hearing the voice of Archie Bunker or your miserable grandfather. But, like your miserable grandfather, he also has some good advice, once you get past a bit of ugliness.
His main bit of advice is the grandfatherly “Buck up kiddo! Life is hard!” Life has to be hard. The gods keep the secrets of an easy life away from men. Prometheus, who taught man techne, was able to snatch the gift of fire for man, pilfering it from the gods; but this angered Zeus, who vowed to curse men. He sent the evil seductress Pandora to give them “all the gifts” (Pandora: “all the gifts” in Greek) like disease, pains, and evils. Hesiod, in general, believes that all women are wily, wiggling traps that lead men laughing to destruction. The gods keep men helpless, but women don’t help either. (It likely would have been hard to set Hesiod up on a date!) Men now live lives of toil, simply to avoid starvation.
Remember that these are the Dark Ages for the Hellenes. It’s impossible to be entirely sure, but most likely Hesiod is composing oral poetry in the 700s BC not long after Homer. There are signs of a coming Hellenic revival: a population boom in the century, new designs on pottery, the adoption and radical transformation of the Phoenician writing system, expansion of political power, and colonization in the Western Mediterranean. Nevertheless, life for most Greeks is still very difficult and very poor.
According to Hesiod, there was a golden age for men; in fact, there was a “golden race” that lived in ease and comfort when the old gods lived under Cronos; they now live underground. The next generation created by the gods was a “silver race”, who lived easy lives but behaved foolishly and Zeus hid them in the underworld. The “bronze race” came next, but they were even worse: boorish, warring, vulgar and brutish; so Death claimed them. But Zeus made a fourth race, the demigods; these are the warriors who took Troy, the generation remembered by Homer. Unfortunately, they were followed by the far inferior fifth race; the “race of iron”, people who are impious, selfish, crude, and stupid: in other words, the race we belong to!
And so Hesiod is an early chronicler of cultural decline. He hopes that Zeus will eventually get sick of us and snuff us out. People often allege that narratives of cultural decline are ubiquitous: no matter how strongly we might suspect that our culture is declining, Plato thought the same thing, and therefore ‘twas ever thus. This is actually not true- Plato had good reason to think Athens was in crisis, because it was. Moreover, we can find plenty of examples of thinkers throughout history who have looked to past generations and seen themselves as progressing, in fact seeing all of history as a teleology of progress reaching every upward. The problem with narratives of decline or progress is that they’re both numb to countervailing forces and imply that tomorrow will move further towards a visible telos. Today is no guarantee of tomorrow. Hesiod cannot imagine the coming Hellenic bloom.
But, maybe Hesiod thinks like a farmer. Farming is hard and time-consuming work and I think doing the work instills the sense that idle time causes harm. If you don’t work, you won’t eat. It is also very easy to show the results of your labor, as opposed to say, someone who works twelve hours a day on a scholarly manuscript. And it’s work that depends on a great deal of regularity; you have to be able to expect that the next season will be as it was last year. This gives a strong sense of continuity, as well as a sense that change can be destructive and large changes probably will be destructive.
Hesiod is cynical, but he does have a vision of social stability based on upright and hard-working individuals. The man who lives idly is offensive to the gods and other men. Work and giving create bonds between him and his neighbors; otherwise society comes un-girt. It is reminiscent of the Annalects, but Confucius does not say much about the Divine. Nevertheless, the Confucian “small man” is not a lot different from Hesiod’s bad man, and neither of their pictures differ greatly from what we might think of when describing the sort of person we wouldn’t want to live with in a small community: petty, liars, lazy, perjurers, anyone who hurts an orphan or a suppliant (quite a theme for the Greeks!), and most importantly, the man with excessive pride. A man with a swelled head can easily upset the Social and the Sacred Order. In Hesiod, we can hear the venerable resentment of the small farmer towards the “city slicker” for being puffed up but lacking “common sense”.
For Hesiod, the Sacred Order acts in a sort of reciprocal relationship with the Social Order. We make the sacrifices and live in an upright way, and they deliver the crops and spare our lives. The Works and Days is a bit of a ransom note telling men what must be done in order to gain victuals from the earth; but also how to live well with men and gods. His advice: avoid pride, rule our communities with justice, shun violence, plan for the future, be courteous to our neighbors, don’t trust a woman, don’t swindle anyone, store up supplies for the winter, and, above all, work hard and diligently. Anything else brings suffering.
Is this conservative? Underlying Hesiod’s sense of humility is the belief that human life and society is precarious; I think this sense of precariousness, of limits that it would do us well not to cross, is characteristically conservative. Also, Hesiod has not only a sense of cultural decline, but of loss as well; and I think conservatives all share a sense of loss, regardless of their hopes for the future. But it has to be noted that Hesiod does not trust the polis, which he thinks will allow for corruption and self-aggrandizement and which he does not see as legitimate work. He has no hope for politics.
So much has changed; I probably couldn’t till a field without putting an eye out! Nevertheless, we still have to work. It seems that no matter how many technological or social improvements we make, we end up working harder than ever. Maybe the gods really are keeping us in the dark.
1. I’m off for the weekend, so I will respond to comments in a few days. Please leave them though!
2. Next, I’d like to get to the Bhagavad Gita.