He was a poor farmer and lost all his paternal property when his brother bribed the judges to favor him over his older brother. The farmer continued his decent life, working hard every day. At some point he decided to encourage his young brother to change his ways and he wrote everything down in a book called “Works and Days”.
That man is Hesiod, the poet who, according to a story, considered ancient even for the people who lived in the classical era, competed against Homer in a poetry competition in the city of Chalkida and won. Pausanias describes the tripod which the poet won in this battle and it still was standing in his time (2nd century BCE) in the sacred grove of the Muses on Mount Helicon, where Hesiod wrote his work.
This contest might be a true fact, but it’s most unlikely that Homer took part as the two poets probably lived in different times. Only Herodotus believes that Hesiod was a contemporary of Homer (around 850 BCE). All other ancient writers agree that Hesiod was a posterior of Homer and researches nowadays conclude that Hesiod lived in the late 8th or early 7th century BCE.
Hesiod was a farmer and lived in Askra, a rural area near Thespiae, Boeotia. His father was a merchant from Kymi, an Aeolian colony on the coast of Asia Minor, and settled in Boeotia trying to find his luck. When he passed away, Hesiod was involved in legal battles against his brother Perses, who, having bribed the judges ended up getting most of his father’s wealth. But, he lost most of it and came back to claim whatever was left for Hesiod, using the same dishonest methods.
Unlike the father of the biblical parable who happily welcomes back his wayward son, Hesiod is not willing to offer his property to his superficial and dishonest brother. Instead, he tries to admonish him and urges him to prosper through hard and honest work.
Having this intention in mind, he wrote the didactic epic “Works and Days”, which along with “Theogony” and “Shield of Hercules” are his three works we have in whole today (although it is questioned whether the third one is his indeed). Here, we’ll take a look at the first one.
Even though it has been 27 centuries since, the matters that trouble us today are almost the same. And this might be the reason why many of the ancient poet’s advises have survived in Greek sayings until today.
About the value of work, Hesiod writes to his brother:
“… but I will give you nothing more nor give you more loans. Work, foolish Perses, the work which the gods ordained for men, lest you and your wife and children will be forced to seek your livelihood among your neighbors, who do not care”
“… the man who postpones work is always at hand-grips with damage”
“Hunger is always the companion of the lazy”
“Work is no disgrace; it is idleness which is a dishonor”
Today’s Greek proverbs:
The idle man, even hungry, gains no sympathy.
Labor stands at the door and pushes away the poverty.
Work while you are young, so that you have enough when you get old.
Noble rivalry and social peace
Another lesson Perses needs to learn is the value of good communion with the neighbors and the value of noble rivalry. First of all he has to learn to distinguish between the two forms of Eris, the goddess of discord.
The first form is envy, and it never turns out well. It makes you leisured, grumpy, destructive and “…you sit around the market looking for quarrel. Little interest has in wrangles he who has not enough to make it through the year, even that which the earth bears, Demeter’s grain. When you have got enough of all this, go and raise disputes to get another’s goods”.
But the second form of Eris is creative and originates in the admiration of the achievements of others. “… she wakes up even the useless to toil. For a man grows eager to work when seeing the rich neighbor hasten to plough and plant and getting his home in order. And he gets jealous of his neighbor when seeing him hurry after wealth. This Eris is good for men. Potter is angry with potter and craftsman with craftsman”.
This healthy competition and the lack of envy favor smooth relations with the neighbors, ensuring peaceful coexistence. Because if something unexpected happens to your home, “…neighbors will come running ungirt, but kinsmen will stay to gird themselves first”. We still use this expression nowadays, 2700 years later: “Ungirt comes the neighbor running and the kinsmen girt”
That’s why, “Count what you get from your neighbor and return more of it… If you are generous you will receive things, but no one gives anything to the stingy… and he who gives willingly, even if he gives a lot, becomes happy in his soul. But he, who shamelessly scrounges, even if he only takes a little, gets his heart to freeze”.
We still remember in Greece, that in the past whenever a housewife loaned anything from her neighbor, she’d return more than she got. A glass almost overflowing, a dish filled to the top, a pan full of food.
Even if you manage to become wealthy, you should never neglect proper management if you don’t want to face a disaster.
“Eat enough of your jar when it is full or when it is almost empty. When it is half full, show some self-control. It is misery when you have to restrain yourself near the end”
“Because if you put a bit on top of a bit and you do it often, soon it will pile up and be a lot”, or as we nowadays say “One by one each bean, you’ll fill your bag”.
Justice and Corruption
“… (Zeus) ordained this law for humans, that animals, fishes and birds should devour another, because there is no right in them. But to mankind he gave justice which proves far the best”
“Badness can be got easily and in shoals. For she lives very near us and the road to her is smooth. But between us and virtue, gods have placed our sweat. The path to virtue is long and steer and rough at first. But once you have reached the top, she is easy to approach although in the beginning it was hard”
Seven centuries later, Jesus would repeat the same message: “Enter in at the narrow gate: for wide is the gate, and broad is the way, that leads to destruction, and many there be who go in there. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it” (Matthew 7:13-14)
“Do not get corrupt gain: corrupt gain is as bad as ruin”
“Watch out lords, judge your trials fairly, don’t ask for gifts and stop the twisted decisions. He who brings bad to someone, harms himself mostly”
And its modern form: “Digging someone’s grave, you dig your own grave”.
The last excerpt points out the vanity of unrighteousness. Today we’d say “the unjust action doesn’t turn out well” and “whatever the wind gathers, the devil blows away”.
Hesiod explains that when injustice and greed grow big, then “Aidos and Nemesis will leave men and go to the immortals” (Aidos and Nemesis, the goddesses of shame and Retributive justice). And men will stay behind with bitter misfortunes and nothing will save them from harm anymore.
Hard work, solidarity with neighbors, justice and honesty, never lost their value during the centuries since. Can you think of a better system of values that would ensure a decent life and freedom?