Sunday, February 4, 2001

Thete of Being

Every so often, we'll be trundling down the street, whistling a happy tune, and someone will stop us to ask, "Perfess'r Harris — you know so damn much — why is it that poor people are so screwed?" And we'll stop, scratch our rapidly balding head, and reply, "Well, to answer that we'll have to go all the way back to Homer."

Americas dirty little secret is that most poor people, including those who don't have a place to live, work for a living. They just don't make enough money to stop being poor. Full time work at the federal minimum wage of $5.15 an hour simply does not go very far. Here in the Great State of Washington, a workers paradise if ever there was, the minimum wage is set at a whopping $6.72. At that rate, the lucky worker takes home just over a thousand bucks a month to wisely invest in whatever manner he or she likes.

Should a full-time worker need food stamps, a public subsidy, to feed their family? Our Congress, which voted down the last minimum wage increase proposal, would evidently reply, "yes."

In Homer's time, poor people were just as screwed. The Greek word was thete, which meant to be a serf or a menial or to work for hire. In ancient Greece, to be a lowly wage earner was in some cases worse than being a slave. At least a slave belonged to a community and could not be killed outright. The wage earner had no such protection. There was no Department of Labor and Industries.

The word "thete" occurs just three times in all of Homer. Let's review, shall we?

In the Iliad, Apollo and Poseidon reminisce over the days of their youth, when they were exiled from Olympus by Zeus to go work for King Laomedon. Poseidon built the walls of Troy and Apollo herded his cattle. At the end of the year, when it came time to be paid, the King refused and threatened to cut off their ears or sell them into slavery if they pressed the issue. Years later, they remained bitter. Were Laomedon now living in Wyoming, where the state minimum wage for agricultural workers is just $1.60 an hour, he could easily afford to pay them both and avoid any lingering grudges. But he probably wouldn't. Kings are like that.

The promise of low-wage work is used in the Odyssey by Eurymachos, one of the ill-mannered suitors who plague poor Penelope, to taunt a jobless beggar. When a disguised Odysseus replies by challenging Eurymachos to an old-fashioned grain-reaping contest, the suitor hurls a stool at his head. Later, during the climactic killing spree of Book Twenty-two, we are thrilled when Eurymachos is one of the first to die.

Our own favorite occurrence of the word is when Odysseus meets Achilles in the underworld. Our wily hero remarks that Achilles, being the above average sort that he is, must be running the place by now. "Don't get me started," Achilles more or less replies.

Then, by the Fagles translation, poor Achilles says "By God, I'd rather slave on earth for another man, some dirt poor tenant farmer who scrapes to keep alive, than rule down here over all the breathless dead." The absolute worst fate Achilles can think of, outside of being dead, is to be a wage slave in somewhere like Wyoming.

So there we have it. Poor people are screwed because they don't make the rules by which they are forced to live. This is why so many of us, like Achilles, would do almost anything to avoid this fate. Unfortunately, not all of us have the option.

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