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.