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Ancient and modern

Hesiod on work and welfare

10 November 2012

9:00 AM

10 November 2012

9:00 AM

Job, jobs, jobs: no political party can talk of much else. But the concept of the ‘job’ and the ‘wage’ emerges out of the Industrial Revolution. What of worlds where ‘jobs’ did not exist? The Greek didactic poet Hesiod (c. 680 BC) has a most instructive take on the matter.

Hesiod was a peasant farmer, i.e. he farmed land primarily for survival, as a way of life, not as a business to make a profit. In his rather rambling Works and Days, Hesiod describes how his wretched brother Perses bribed his way into getting a larger share of a disputed inheritance than he did, but (presumably) wasted it and now lives in idleness and beggary. Serves him right, says Hesiod; that is not the way ahead. It is a life of honest work that makes a man.

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Get the job done, says Hesiod: ‘Do not put things off till tomorrow and the next day. That man never fills his granary. It is application that produces increase. The man who puts off work wrestles with ruin.’ Look after the pennies, he recommends: ‘If you lay down even a little on a little, and do this often, that could well grow big; he who adds to what is there keeps burning hunger at bay.’ Protect what you have: ‘What is stored away at home is never a worry; better to have things there in the house than outside.’ One son is best (ie. do not divide up the inheritance), but if Zeus grants more, ‘More hands, more work, more surplus.’

The consequence of this way of life is dramatic: ‘It is through work that men become rich in flocks and wealthy, and a working man is much dearer to the immortals. Work is no disgrace, but idleness is; and if you work, you will soon find the idle man will envy you as you enrich yourself — for wealth is accompanied by honour and prestige.’ The sentiment is very Greek: nothing beats being looked up to.

‘Work, work, work!’ cries Hesiod. But would Miliballs ever call on their supporters to do any such thing? For the party of the workers, it is ‘jobs’ that are sacred. Only a nasty party would ever ask anyone to work.

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