Sunday, August 27, 2000

Hesiod's God of the Little Guy

From time to time, each of us needs to stand back, look ourselves in the eye, and ask, “What has the Protestant work ethic done for us lately.”

We at Classics Corner hid out at a mountain resort last week to do just this. For fun, we brought along Hesiod, a seventh or eighth century BC farmer-poet from the backwaters of Greece. As it turns out, Hesiod is one of history’s first workaholics, but even he says to rest in August, when work is done, the sun is hot, and “women’s lust knows no bounds.”

“Then,” he says, “ah then, I wish you a shady ledge and your choice wine.” He also recommends thick goat’s milk, freshly baked bread, the meat of a free-range heifer, and sparkling wine mixed with three parts water. Having none of these essentials on hand, we substituted scotch and tried to avoid fried foods.

While we did not find Hesiod’s remarks upon the habits of women to be particularly accurate, we were still obsessively drawn to Works and Days, his 829 line poem on how to work hard, marry well, lead an honest life, have good crops, and avoid drowning at sea or blaspheming the gods.

Hesiod’s poem is addressed to his lazy brother Perses, who bribed the local “gift-devouring kings” to lawyer the poet out of his inheritance. Perses is exhorted to end his scheming, get off his butt, and “Work!”

Ever since Prometheus egged the gods into hiding the “means of livelihood” in the earth, most of us poor humans have had to scratch out our precarious existence with constant toil. This, says Hesiod, is the way of the world. Life is struggle, he says. Get used to it.

From the perspective of our lakeside adirondack chair, we found all of this quite bracing indeed.

But we were drawn most to Hesiod’s obsession with justice. Having recently survived the prayer-soaked public coronations of Bush and Gore, we found the poet’s idea of a people’s god immensely appealing.

Belief in justice, says Hesiod, transcends the individual to concern the entire community. In an immoral world where might makes right, “grief and pain will find us defenseless,” and “evil doers and scoundrels will be honored.”

Hesiod believes there are spirits who function as the ethics police, invisibly roaming the earth and seeing that justice is served. When corruption is allowed to spread, he says, the entire community is punished, so everyone has an immediate interest in behaving morally.

Even Hesiod, however, has his moments of bitterness and doubt. “As matters stand,” he says, “may neither I nor my son be just men in this world, because it is a bad thing to be just if wrongdoers win the court decisions.”

In Hesiod’s world, god looks out for the little guy, and his faith in this keeps him an honest man. Hesiod’s practical mind would see a god of the rich, powerful, and corrupt as worse than no god at all. His is a useful belief, and 2,800 years later, with god half-dead, it still rings true.

Sunday, August 6, 2000

Herodotus Weighs In On Rent Deposits

Ever since the property markers showed up in our front yard, we at Classics Corner have wanted to lynch our asshole landlord.

The trouble started last fall, when the crackhouse across the alley got torn down. Being the hopelessly confused liberals we are, we felt bad about celebrating. Crackhead squatters need housing too, but that doesn’t make them good neighbors.

But things went from bad to worse. A 3-story, 6-unit box grew in its place and herds of SUVs began grazing in the driveway. Soon after, big ugly condos sprouted like dandelions, and you couldn’t swing a dead cat north of 85th and Aurora without hitting a damn yuppie.

That’s when we found the property markers in the front yard.

Our landlord, let’s call him “Harry,” said we “probably” didn’t need to worry “at the moment,” but our lease “might” not be renewed in four months. We at Classics Corner were good as gone.

Incredibly, “Harry” looked to us for sympathy. Being a landlord, he said, had “taken him places” he never thought he’d go. The logic of capitalism overpowered his will. He became as a leaf, floating lazily downstream. He looked forlorn, like the weight of the world rested on his shoulders. The natural process of our displacement occurred just slightly outside his comfort zone.

But he soon recovered sufficiently to screw us on the security deposit, which brings us finally to Herodotus.

It seems there was a certain Spartan named Glaucus, who was known far and wide as a just man. A stranger from Miletus traveled to him and said, “I want to profit from your justice.”

The Milesian proposed that Glaucus accept half his fortune for safe-keeping. His own land in Ionia was subject to all sorts of disruptive activity, but Sparta, known for its stability, and Glaucus, known for his justice, offered the perfect solution. Glaucus could do him a great service by holding half his fortune until he again came to call. Glaucus agreed.

When the Milesian’s sons came back later on with receipts for the fortune, Glaucus lost his memory. He probably said something lawyerly; something like, “I have no recollection of that transaction at this time.”

He bid the sons to return in four months, when his memory might be restored. They unhappily left. Meanwhile Glaucus’ conscience reasserted itself, and he was off to the oracle at Delphi to ask whether cheating was fair.

The oracle inscrutably predicted all sorts of dire consequences to Glaucus’ ill-gotten gain. Glaucus asked forgiveness, but the oracle replied that “to tempt the God and commit the sin are the same thing.”

In other words, “Harry” earns major bad karma for even thinking about screwing us, with or without follow through!

Glaucus sends after the sons and gives back the money, but the damage is done. No trace of Glaucus’ family is left on the earth.

“So good a thing it is,” says Herodotus, “not even to form a thought about a deposit, save only the giving of it back when people ask for it.”

Sounds like good advice.