Saturday, June 2, 2007

From the Bookshelf: Foreign trade and the local economy in Hesiod's Works and Days

Works and Days
By Hesiod

Works and Days is an intensely local work. As Victor David Hanson pointed out in The Other Greeks, a work touched on in the last Montana Headlines post on Hesiod, the 8th c. B.C. saw the rising of a type of an agricultural model which if not completely new, was at least unusual.

Agriculture, in Hanson's portrayal, had tended to be either the work of peasants engaged in subsistence farming or of what we would now call agribusiness -- large-scale estates run by wealthy absentee landowners. The world that Hesiod portrays (and that his contemporary, Homer, touched on in his approving mention of the nobleman Laertes working the soil on his hands and knees) is rather one of "middling" farmers who own their own land and work it with a hope of creating a modicum of wealth.

Wealth does not, of course, come from merely working to raise enough food to eat -- that is subsistence farming. The farmers of this era were engaged in producing excess to sell to the growing towns and cities. Those towns and cities created a demand for a reliable and increasing source of food, and the efficiencies created by what was simple free enterprise -- men of some talent and ambition choosing to toil tirelessly with their own hands -- provided that reliable source.

Hanson contends that this class of middle-class farmers, engaged overwhelmingly in meeting the direct needs of their city-state, were the source of much of Greece's rising wealth and power.

So it should come as no surprise that Hesiod's exhortations cast a wary eye on excessive attention to foreign trade, whether as a source of supply or of creating wealth:

The earth supports them lavishly; and on the hills
The oak bears acorns for them at the top
And honey-bees below; their woolly sheep
Bear heavy fleeces, and the their wives bear sons
Just like their fathers. Since they always thrive,
They have no need to go on ships, because
The plenty-bringing land gives them her fruit.


Add to your stores, and Famine, burning-eyed,
Will stay away. Even if your supply
Is small, and if you add a little bit,
And do it often, soon it will be big.
Less worry comes from having wealth at home;
Business abroad is always insecure.

Hesiod certainly sees a place for such trade -- and the Greeks were never afraid of being men in ships, plying the seas. But again, there is a time and place for it in Hesiod:

...keep in mind that all works have
Their proper seasons: sailing, most of all.

If you should turn your foolish mind to trade,
Longing to flee from debts and painful want,,
I'll teach the measures of the sounding sea...

And although Hesiod, ever the entrepreneur, advises that one should "admire small ships, but put your cargo in a big one, for a larger cargo brings a larger profit, if the storms hold off," he also makes clear that wisdom dictates that wise trade should involve the true excesses of a land's production:

I ask, consider what I say: Do not
Put all your fortune into hollow ships,
Leave most of it behind, and load on board
A smaller share, for it is terrible
To meet catastrophe among the waves
At sea, and terrible to load too great
A weight upon your wagon, and to break
An axle, and have all your cargo lost.
Preserve a sense of right proportion, for
Fitness is all-important, in all things.

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