Ancient Greece’s Legacy for Liberty: A Tale of Two Brothers
The ancient Greek poet Hesiod favored productive work over violent expropriation.
In his 1908 essay The State, German sociologist Franz Oppenheimer famously distinguished between “two fundamentally opposed means whereby man, requiring sustenance, is impelled to obtain the necessary means for satisfying his desires” – namely, “one’s own labor and the equivalent exchange of one’s own labor for the labor of others,” which he labeled the “economic means,” and “the forcible appropriation of the labor of others,” which he labeled the “political means.” Oppenheimer accordingly defined the State, given its reliance on taxation, as “the organization of the political means,” having as its essence “the exploitation of human labor.”1
The ancient Greek writer most associated with championing the economic means and condemning the political means is Hesiod.
Hesiod and Homer are, by repute, the twin founders of Greek epic poetry. Tradition makes them contemporaries and poetic rivals; one late account (2nd century CE, though perhaps drawing on earlier material) even has Hesiod besting Homer in a public competition, the judge decreeing that “it was right that he who called upon men to follow peace and husbandry should have the prize rather than one who dwelt on war and slaughter.”2 But while Hesiod’s poems do appear to date from the 8th or 7th century BCE – and thus from around the time the Homeric corpus is thought to have reached something like its current form – in fact there’s no definite evidence that either author was aware of the other (if there even was an individual “Homer,” or an individual “Hesiod” for that matter).
While Homer’s poems contain no authorial self‐references, Hesiod’s identify their author – though with what accuracy we do not know – by name, profession, and geographical location, as a farmer in the region of Mount Helikon in central Greece, a locale he describes as “holy” in one work, and as “bad in winter, tiresome in summer, and good at no season” in another.3 Hesiod’s Works and Days, a poem of advice on successful farming addressed to his apparently ne’er-do-well brother Perses, summarizes the poet’s experience in agriculture, and more broadly in life.
Although Hesiod’s self‐righteous tone, pious moralizing, and preachy scolding may often make us sympathize with Perses, Works and Days does offer, in proto‐libertarian spirit, a sustained defense of the economic over the political means. “[L]isten to justice,” Hesiod advises Perses, “and put away all notions of violence”; for “fish, and wild animals, and the flying birds” may “feed on each other, since there is no idea of justice among them,” but “to men [Zeus] gave justice,” which is the “best thing they have.”4 Hesiod condemns both force and fraud: “[g]oods are not to be grabbed” either by “force of hands” or by “cleverness of … tongue.”5 There is a personal edge to this advice; by Hesiod’s account, much of his own inheritance had been unjustly appropriated by Perses, who first obtained it in a lawsuit by bribing the judges,6 and then, having wasted most of it, came begging to Hesiod for more, and indeed received help for a while until Hesiod lost his patience.7
The right way to obtain goods, Hesiod tells Perses, is rather through productive labor:
Famine is the unworking man’s most constant companion. … It is from work that men grow rich and own flocks and herds .… Work is no disgrace; the disgrace is in not working .… [S]hame goes with poverty, but confidence goes with prosperity.8
Hesiod stresses the material benefits of productivity, and encourages Perses to develop habits of thrift and foresight: “work out some way to pay your debts, and escape from hunger.”9 “It will not always be summer. The barns had better be building.”10
Hesiod also urges his brother to cultivate the virtue of reciprocity, since he will have a hard time gaining assistance form others if he is unwilling to offer it himself:
Take good measure from your neighbor, then pay him back fairly with the same measure, or better yet, if you can manage it; so, when you need him some other time, you will find him steadfast. … We give to the generous man; none gives to him who is stingy.11
While Hesiod champions productive labor, it would be misleading to say he celebrates it. For the most part he regards it as a necessary evil, and looks back with nostalgia to a golden age when “the races of men” lived “free from laborious work.”12 The prospect of labor‐saving technology haunts him: “the gods have hidden … what could be men’s livelihood,” whereby “easily in one day you could work out enough to keep you for a year, with no more working.”13 But in contrast to the Christian hope of an eventual return to the paradise from which humankind has been exiled, Hesiod gloomily concludes that “[n]ever by daytime will there be an end to hard work and pain, nor in the night to weariness.”14 Yet he is perhaps not completely consistent in this, since he also holds out as a live possibility the prospect of a community of the “straight and just” who “do their work as if work were a holiday,” while the “grain‐giving land yields them its harvest” and they “prosper in good things throughout.”15
Hesiod’s critique of force and fraud is not confined to private actors; he also offers spirited denunciations of the rulers of his day. By contrast with Homer, who focuses on the perspective of kings and nobles (even if, as I’ve argued, he doesn’t always agree with that perspective), Hesiod presents the perspective of the commoner, denouncing “barons who eat bribes”16 and “rulers … who for their own greedy purposes twist the courses of justice aslant,”17 and comparing aristocrats to birds of prey with their helpless victims “spitted on the clawhooks.”18
In Hesiod, in effect, we see the heroes of Homeric epic from below, through the eyes of a Thersites revived and vindicated. Hesiod, though, is not eager to repeat Thersites’ mistake of challenging authority directly – for “[h]e is a fool who tries to match his strength with the stronger.”19 Hesiod has learned the lesson of Odysseus’s staff on Thersites’ back (though again, whether Hesiod knows Homeric epic and is responding to it directly remains unclear).
Hesiod’s defense of production and exchange over force and fraud has its limits, however. Hesiod never questions the legitimacy of slavery, but instead takes for granted that his ideal farmer will have servants who, by all appearances, are slaves. The subordination of women to men and the exploitation of women’s household labor likewise goes unquestioned. Indeed, a strong suspicion of women – who “live with mortal men, and are a great sorrow to them”20 – runs through both of Hesiod’s major poems; for example, he advises:
Do not let any sweet‐talking woman beguile your good sense with the fascinations of her shape. It’s your barn she’s after. Anyone who will trust a woman is trusting flatterers.21
And the myth of Pandora, which treats the creation of woman as a curse sent by Zeus to punish man, finds its earliest known statement in Hesiod.22 Unsurprisingly, Hesiod was more alert to forms of oppression from which he and people like him suffered, than to forms from which he and people like him benefited.