Saturday, May 26, 2007

From the bookshelf: Hesiod and early Greek agrarian thought

Works and Days
By Hesiod

There are many places where one could start in examining the literature devoted to agriculture and the agricultural life, but one of the most natural is Hesiod’s Works and Days.

Dating back to the age of Homer in the 8th c. B.C., Works and Days has a surprising familiarity, in no small part because it is written from the point of view of a small landowner who lives and works the ground, raises his livestock, watches the weather and seasons, and pays close attention to the importance of piety – neither offending the gods nor omitting reverence toward them.

The familiarity begins immediately with an upfront portrayal not of idyllic fauns and satyrs prancing in forest glades – but with strife. One kind of strife is the cruel one – war. The other is one is a positive force, albeit one that requires no less effort and attention

Set in the roots of earth, an aid to men.
She urges even lazy men to work:
A man grows eager, seeing another rich
From ploughing, planting, ordering his house;
So neighbour vies with neighbour in the rush
For wealth: this Strife is good for mortal men –

…Do not let Wicked Strife persuade you, skipping work,
To gape at politicians and give ear
To all the quarrels of the market place.
He has no time for courts and public life
Who has not stored up one full year’s supply
Of corn, Demeter’s gift, got from the earth.
When you have grain piled high, you may dispute
And fight about the goods of other men.
But you will never get this chance again…

And with that note of warning from Hesiod to pay attention to business, Montana Headlines really should sign off, since there is still work to be done outside around here while it is still light. But first, a couple of comments:

One of the most intriguing modern scholars of the agrarian life of the classical world is Victor David Hanson, a professor of classics at a California university. Conservatives may be more familiar with his essays on military issues for National Review and other publications -- his dual interests of agriculture and war are rooted in Hanson's scholarship, in which he traces the roots of the independent Greek city-state not to the slaveholding and philosophizing aristocracy, but rather to the independent farmer/warrior hoplite.

America, too, was founded by men who revered hard work, who viewed the ownership of land as central to the success of the Republic, and who put down the plow and left their land to take up arms when necessary for the defense of their homeland. Until well into the 20th century, this remained a familiar pattern.

At some point, Montana Headlines will review some of Hanson's books in greater depth, but Hanson has this to say about the rise of Greek agrarianism in his classic work The Other Greeks: The Family Farm and the Agrarian Roots of Western Civilization, saying that there was in the 8th c. B.C. --

...a transformation of the mind, a radical change of attitude... This alteration in the Greek mentality involved a new ideology of work derived from land ownership, not tenancy.

More specifically, it entailed an idea that manual labor, time spent on the soil, was both intrinsically ennobling, moral if you will, and a wise economic investment that would lead (not necessarily in one's own lifetime) to greater agricultural production and hence more wealth for coming generations.

Moral and ennobling -- yet Hesiod has a certain cold and unflinching realism about the rigors of rural life and the realities of human nature that complicate an already difficult task. Like any farmer or rancher today who makes a living from the land, Hesiod doesn't romanticize the life.

A modern-day farmer or rancher will rarely speak in words about the moral and ennobling aspects of what he does, but he will tell you about it through action -- tenaciously holding on to land and a way of life regardless of prospects for financial success. And his actions will usually show that he, like Hesiod, takes the long view, thinking about how to make it possible for at least one child to continue with that way of life. Hesiod likewise makes it clear that the ancient Greek farmer, at least in the Homeric era with its rise of small landholders, wasn't just doing it for the money.

There was also a fall of the Greek small farmer -- and that is part of Hanson's story as well, a story that will resonate with anyone with ties to American rural life. But that is for another day.


Ed Kemmick said...

I read a couple of Hanson's books about early Greece and found them fascinating, but in his book about the Theban general old-what's-his name and Gens. Sherman and Patton, he started sounding a bit too bellicose for his own good. After 9/11, he grew positively exultant at the prospect of war (a familiar affliction of those too old to fight) and became a kind of parody of Nietzsche, glorifying war for war's sake, as the builder of real men. He just gives me the creeps anymore.

Montana Headlines said...

His old stuff is best, to be sure. At some point, I'm going to discuss "The Other Greeks" some more, also "Fields Without Dreams."

Haven't read anything he wrote about Sherman -- if he finds him to be anything other than a sociopath with a license to kill, then his conclusions are wrong.

His bellicosity about the Iraq war has been annoying and frankly surprised me -- I tend not to read much of that stuff of his. Although I did read an essay of his recently that placed things more into the context of a clash of civilizations.

Which is more or less what we are in, and had anyone in power had the sense to recognize that fact, they would have done everything possible to avoid war in the Middle East. Hanson of all people should have been able to recognize that.

Having read "Fields Without Dreams," a part of me can't help but wonder if Hanson recognized that he could make money being an academic who was a war apologist -- using the cash to save the family farm.

Ed Kemmick said...

I think you hit the nail on the head with your last comment. When he sticks with ancient Greece he is powerfully good, but as a cheerleader he is rather embarrassing. He reminds me of Hitchens, who saw in the Iraq war his "Orwell moment," his chance to stun his fellow leftists with an apostasy. Hanson didn't turn his back on anyone, but the war gave him a chance to be a Homer, to preach not just on the glories of war, but on the glories of a particular war.

But again, his production is amazing and he's a great historian. Just when one thought there was nothing new to say about ancient Greek warfare, he had nothing but new things to say.