Thursday, January 21, 2010

Hesiod: Works and Days

Welcome back, canon fans! Today's installment of "Blogging the Canon" comes to you from the eighth century BCE, Boeotia, on the Gulf of Corinth, and will help you to become a successful farmer.

Hesiod is an old curmudgeon. He’s cynical, provincial, 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. Of course, much like your miserable grandfather, he also has some good advice, once you get past the ugly qualities.

His main bit of advice is the grandfatherly “Buck up, kiddo! Life is hard! That’s all there is to it!” Life has to be hard. The gods keep the secrets of easy life away from men. Prometheus 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 seductress/bitch 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 seductive, wily, wiggling traps that lead men laughing to destruction. The gods keep men helpless, but women don’t help either. One imagines it would have been hard to set Hesiod up on a date: "Jenny, this is Hesiod. If he seems shy, it's just because he thinks you're a treacherous slut. Hesiod, this is Jenny..."

There was, however, 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. 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, whose heroics are still celebrated in the works of Homer, Hesiod’s contemporary; these are the warriors who took Troy. 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. His one hope is 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, Socrates thought the same thing, and so ‘twas ever thus. This is actually not true- Socrates had good reason to think Athens was in decline, because it was. Moreover, we can find just as many examples of thinkers throughout history who have looked to past generations and seen themselves as progressing, in fact all of history as a teleology of progress reaching every upward. The reality, of course, is that cultures decline and progress all the time and in ever-repeating cycles. Today is no guarantee of tomorrow.

So, for those of us in the race of iron, what hope is there? Hesiod has all sorts of 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. Hesiod knows farming and much of “Works and Days” tells us when to plant and harvest, how to plow, what sort of slaves and tools we need, and what to wear during each season. Clearly, this is an agricultural society whose crops come with difficulty. Hesiod probably lived in Boetia, on the Greek mainland. If we hope to set sail, he tells us to wait until fifty days after the solstice, in late August.

In general, however, we should just remember that Zeus is always watching us and act accordingly. Zeus achieves, in Hesiod, a status almost akin to that of the Hebrew God. But not quite. Like Yahweh, Zeus hates most being challenged by humans, like an angry father with wayward children; when he lashes out the results are worse.

So much has changed in our world; I would have no idea how to tend to a field and am generally not even sure where the food I purchase came from. I couldn’t till a field without putting an eye out. Nevertheless, we still have to work. In the present economy, we consider ourselves lucky to work, although as a dissertation-writer, I’m currently working for free. Should we work so hard? 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.

(Tune in next time for: The Epic of Gilgamesh, "Same canonical time, same canonical station!")

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Came upon this while googling something else. Found it refreshing and interesting; glad I encountered it. Thank you for writing it.