Classics Alive

… σοὶ δ’ ἔργα φίλ’ ἔστω μέτρια κοσμεῖν,
ὥς κέ τοι ὡραίου βιότου πλήθωσι καλιαί.

… and you take good care to have everything in order
so your barns will be full of the season’s crop.

Hesiod Works and Days 306-307

Now and then you come across something in a very public venue that makes you realize that what we think of as ‘the classics’ – that is, the classics of ancient Rome and even older Greece – are not really ‘dead’.

Thus, in The New York Times of Sunday 13 November 2011 there is a brief comment on page 13 (“A Tough Life for Beginners”) about the difficulties young farmer are having these days, and a follow-up article appears on page 24 (“Young Farmers Find Huge Obstacles To Getting Started”).  Although I do feel their pain – along with that of of, it seems, almost all young people these days starting out careers of whatever sort – what captivated my selfish attention was the lead-in (on page 13):

‘”Let it please thee to keep in order a moderate-sized farm,” Hesiod wrote to this fellow Greeks 28 centuries ago, “that so thy garners may be full of fruits in their season.”  Easy for him to say.  Nowadays …”

Though unattributed beyond author in the Times citation, that passage — the epigraph to this blog entry — is lines 306-7 from Hesiod’sWorks and Days.  I append there my own translation: I’m not sure who did the one cited, but I’ll venture it was someone in the late nineteenth or early twentieth century. It’s certainly not a ‘wrong’ translation, but it sort of walks on stilts.

If you’ve never studied ancient Greek or taken some Gen-Ed course in ancient literature, chances are you’ve never even heard of Hesiod.  Too bad.  He is a wonderful poet, right at the beginnings of the Western Literature, and one well worth getting to know.  To be sure, he harbored a deep pessimism over just about everything, probably because he’d been screwed over by his brother in the matter of a paternal inheritance , and he saw himself as helplessly at the mercy of “bribe-gobbling” (δωροφάγοι dōrophagoi) judges who “pass judgments that pervert justice” (221 σκολιῇς δὲ δίκῃς κρίνωσι θέμιστας ) – guess that sounds not entirely unmodern on both counts!

I applaud the writer of the Times piece for her (Isolde Raftery) classy reference, but I don’t think she actually read much of the poem or much about Hesiod.


Well, it’s that throw-away “Easy for him to say”.  The point is that few things are as painful to read as the relentless accounting Hesiod gives of all the legal problems his farming operations have unearthed for him … but they are as nothing when compared to the lousy neighbors he has and the cruel intractability of the stubborn earth itself.  No, whatever else farming may have been for Hesiod, there was nothing easy about it at all!  Even a hasty and desultory reading of the poem would make that achingly clear.

I imagine farming has, like nature itself, its seasons: now flood, now drought.  Indeed, we have seen this right here in Iowa, and recently, too.  And I hope that today’s young farmers, though no doubt sharing and probably understanding some of Hesiod’s difficulties of three millennia ago, make as good a go of it as (or better than) their parents and grandparents.

Thus we can all enjoy their labor and eat.

This entry was posted in ANCIENT & MODERN. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Classics Alive

  1. heather says:

    Great that she quoted Hesiod, but a shame that she didn’t read further.

  2. Pingback: Scylla or Charybdis: our metastasizing debt | laohutiger

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