Friday, 23 September 2011

Works, Days

I have sometimes thought 'Ethos' would be a better title for this famous Hesiodic poem; since, aetiological myth aside, it is crammed through with advice (of an often frankly hectoring sort) to the narrator's brother as to how to live his life: to work, not to make war; to earn his bread not steal it and so on
He who adds to what he has, will keep off bright-eyed hunger; for it you add only a little to a little and do this often, soon that little will become great. What a man has by him at home does not trouble him: it is better to have your stuff at home, for whatever is abroad may mean loss. It is a good thing to draw on what you have; but it grieves your heart to need something and not to have it, and I bid you mark this. Take your fill when the cask is first opened and when it is nearly spent, but midways be sparing: it is poor saving when you come to the lees. Let the wage promised to a friend be fixed; even with your brother smile -- and get a witness; for trust and mistrust, alike ruin men. [ll. 360-72]
. And so on. The contradictions are rather beguiling; so the poem opens with reverent address to the female Muses, and the bounty of 'Demeter's grain' is repeatedly praised, but by ll. 373-375 Perses is being nagged 'do not let a flaunting woman coax and cozen and deceive you: she is after your barn. The man who trusts womankind trust deceivers.' Or more broadly, the poem as a whole is 'about' the need to work hard, to compete (healthily) against other workers and make your way in the world; but also about the way the good and happy life is actually the gift of the gods, and the result not of a work ethic but a life of piety. Except, perhaps, this last one only seems like a paradox: the Protestant maxim 'God helps those who help themselves' approximates to this, in paradoxical value if not in specific semantics.

1-201: the relation of humanity to the gods, including the myth of the 'five ages'
202-764: detailed instructions: when to do what (planting, marrying, sailing etc), when (ie 'never') to do bad things, and the like,
765-828: day calendar of events.

The manifest didactic themes -- the relationship between justice and farming -- are therefore shadowed by a latent theme: the relationships between the divine, whose idiom for Hesiod is precisely 'justice', and man, who business is work. It's the intimate blend of the mythic and the practical, divine narratives and 'what is good about mallow and asphodel.'

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