A Wealth-and-Welfare Reading of Hesiod's Works and Days

We begin with Hesiod’s Works and Days.  Hesiod probably composed Works and Days (in addition to Theogony and Shield of Heracles, the other complete works of his that remain) at the end of the eight century BC.  This is likely contemporaneous with Homer’s famous epics.  However, Hesiod lived on the Greek mainland, whereas Homer came from Asia Minor.  According to Dorothea Wender, who translates and introduces the version I use, whereas “the tradition in Asia Minor…produced epics designed for an upper-class audience, the tradition in Boeotia (Hesiod’s district…) produced more pedestrian works: genealogies, catalogues, handbooks on divination, astronomy, ethics, farming and mental work.”  Finally, it’s worth noting that Hesiod, as with Homer, may have been more than one person.  Scholars are divided on the question as to whether all of Hesiod’s works derive from a single author.

Works and Days is an eclectic work with an overarching theme: “The poem, a mixture of mythology, ethical maxims, a farmer’s calendar, some tips on sailing and a collection of wise and superstitious sayings, is really one long hymn to work and prudence.”  Hesiod uses the poem to instruct his brother Perses, who evidently is a bit of a wastrel, “how to be a well-adjusted and successful peasant.”  Amusingly, Hesiod comes across as “a grouchy old farmer; he mistrusts ‘lords’ but has no ideas about changing society.  He believes in justice, honesty, conventional piety, self-reliance, self-denial, foresight, and work.  He dislikes city folk, the sea, women, gossip and laziness.”  If unadulterated agrarian jingoism is your cup of tea, you cannot do better than Works and Days.

A conventional economic analysis of the text—that is, one concerned primarily with wealth and welfare—focuses on the many lines devoted to labor, mercantile activity, law, and prudence.  Wealth-and-welfare economists will be drawn to these subjects because they most clearly embody conventional economic concerns with production and distribution, as well as the rules governing these processes.

A final note before proceeding to the text: the meter of Works and Days is dactylic hexameter, the same as most of the ancient Greek and Latin poems.  Wender’s translation employs “unrhymed iambic pentameter” (blank verse).

Hesiod begins with an invocation of the Muses and a plea to Zeus, to restore justice in the land and to grant the poet inspiration to relay the truth of the good life to Perses.  Immediately after, Hesiod tells of the goddesses called Strife, a theme carried over from Theogony.  The goddesses embody two principles that move men to action.  A well-trained economist will immediately think of the distinction between genuine productive activity and rent-seeking; a very well-trained economist will be reminded of Smith and Mandeville:

Strife is no only child.  Upon the earth

Two Strifes exist; the one is praised by those

Who come to know her, and the other blamed.

Their natures differ; for the cruel one

Makes battles thrive, and war; she wins no love

But men are forced, by the immortals’ will,

To pay the grievous goddess due respect.

The other, first-born child of blackest Night,

Was set by Zeus, who lives in air, on high,

Set in the roots of earth, an aid to men.

She urges even lazy men to work:

A man grows eager, seeing another rich

From ploughing, planting, ordering his house;

So neighbour vies with neighbour in the rush

For wealth: this Strife is good for mortal men—

Potter hates potter, carpenters compete,

And beggar strives with beggar, bard with bard.


O Perses, store this in your heart; do not

Let Wicked Strife persuade you, skipping work,

To gape at politicians and give ear

To all the quarrels of the market place.

He has no time for courts and public life

Who has not stored up one full year’s supply

Of corn, Demeter’s gift, got from the earth.

When you have grain piled high, you may dispute

And fight about the goods of other men.

Hesiod apparently thinks little of politicians, and desires Perses to keep away from the vanities of the agora.  He strongly recommends that Perses, if he must meddle in others’ affairs, at least make certain he’s cultivated his own garden first.

Justice is another of Hesiod’s recurring concerns.  He writes as someone who witnessed the law perverted into an instrument of plunder.  However, his concern is broader than his narrow experience.  He recognizes the link between evenhanded application of law and general prosperity.  Economists too appreciate the importance of institutions—the ‘rules of the game’—for determining the wealth and poverty of nations.  If the rule of law does not prevail, countries will remain mired in squalor.  Passages like the following will undoubtedly capture the attention of institutional economists:

But when judges of a town are fair

To foreigner and citizen alike,

Their city prospers and her people bloom;

Since Peace is in the land, her children thrive;

Zeus never marks them out for cruel war.

Famine and blight do not beset the just,

Who till their well-worked fields and feast…

Yet Hesiod is also deeply concerned with private, not just public, virtue.  In fact, his motive is to persuade Perses to reform his prodigal ways and become a virtuous yeoman.  Hesiod admonishes Perses not to be covetous of others’ wealth.  First and foremost, the man who seeks another’s goods has his soul corrupted by vice:

He hurts himself who hurts another man,

And evil planning harms the planner most.

Furthermore, Hesiod warns that dire consequences are sure to follow when covetous desires translate into covetous behavior.  The safest and most virtuous course is to set oneself to work.  As the saying goes, idle hands are the devil’s workshop:


From working, men grow rich in flocks and gold

And dearer to the deathless gods.  In work

There is no shame; shame is in idleness…

…No matter what your luck,

To work is better; turn your foolish mind

From other men’s possessions to your own,

And earn your living, as I tell you to…

Money should not be seized; that gold which is

God’s gift is better.  If a man gets wealth

By force of hands or through his lying tongue,

As often happens, when greed clouds his mind

And shame is pushed aside by shamelessness,

Then the gods blot him out and blast his house

And soon his wealth deserts him…

Hesiod’s counsel of prudence also extends to neighborly generosity.  He emphasizes reciprocity as a foundation for hospitality and social stability:

Approach the men who come to you, and give

To him who gives, but not, if he does not.

We give to generous men, but no one gives

To stingy ones.  Give is a lovely girl,

But Grab is bad, and she gives only death.

The man who gives ungrudgingly is glad

At heart, rejoicing in his gift, but if

A man forgets his shame and takes something,

However small, his heart grows stiff and cold.

Strategically minded economists will agree that sustained cooperation with fellow cooperators, combined with penalties for defectors, can create a great deal of order and interpersonal coordination.  In addition to personal flourishing, reciprocal generosity can create and sustain high levels of social trust.  High trust cultures also tend to be dignity-respecting cultures.  (Of course, it would be a mistake to confuse Hesiod’s society for a proto-liberal one.  We are discussing mechanisms, not outcomes.)

There are stumbling blocks for conventional economists who read Hesiod, too.  Economists will be uneasy with the poet’s disdain for commerce.  While Hesiod does give Perses advice about how to profit from maritime trade, it is clear the poet’s attitude is one of reluctance.  “Well, if you must” seems to be the most enthusiasm he can muster.  Enlarging one’s wealth through shipping is alright…so long as one does it respectably, keeping a healthy distance from it.  Too many men of means lose their virtue and their capital on maritime adventures.  Whether because they voyage out-of-season or imprudently allocate their cargo, would-be profiteers

…find it hard

To get away from trouble.  Men do this

Unwisely, wretched men, for whom the breath

Of life is money…

Preserve a sense of right proportion, for

Fitness is all-important, in all things.

After lines and lines of instructions about when to sow and when to reap, what day to pay the household staff, how to honor the gods, and even how to behave at social gatherings, Hesiod concludes with some good, old-fashioned country piety:

…He is truly blest

And rich who knows these things and does his work,

Guiltless before the gods, and scrupulous,

Observing omens and avoiding wrong.

So much for a wealth-and-welfare reading of Hesiod.  What have we learned?  Truthfully, not much.  We encountered some proverbs about prudent behavior that are universal, and many more proverbs that are quite contextual and particular.  Most distressingly, a conventional economic reading of Works and Days cannot help but gloss over the best of the poetry.  What of Prometheus and Pandora?  What of the Myth of the Five Ages?  These are some of the most stirring parts of the poem, yet a wealth-and-welfare reading has little to say about them.

The best a conventional economic reading of Works and Days can do is notice surface-level similarities to conversations that economists are currently having.  Wealth-and-welfare economists will say this is hardly a ringing endorsement of classical literature.  I say it is hardly a ringing endorsement of wealth-and-welfare economics.


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