Works and Days
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.