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Saturday, April 20, 2013

Philosophy of History of Philosophy: A History (1b)—Heaven is High and the Emperor is Far Away

A year ago on Round and Square (20 April 2012)—Writing And Time (Introduction)
[a] Culture RF
This is one post in a four-part series. Click below for the other posts:
High 1          High 2          High 3          High 4

I recently wrote an essay for a website that proposed to deal with history, philosophy, culture, and the practice of daily life in early China and Greece. The piece that was finally published was a great deal different from this one, so I am happy to post the "long version" here. As will be clear soon enough, I see profound connections between the thought of Greek thinkers such as Hesiod and Herodotus, on the one hand, and Chinese writers from Sima Qian to the anonymous authors of the Book of Songs (詩經/诗经). Through it all, like a flowing watercourse, runs the calendar and a question that I think needs asking (and re-asking) as we study history: what is the relationship between repeatable events, such as we find every year at certain points of the calendar, and singular moments in the past. This is a philosophical question...about history, culture, and time. That is why it is the second post in this series on the philosophy of history (of philosophy).

Hesiod—Works and Days
          Days come from Zeus; heedfully and properly for each one,
          Tell your men about them.[1] 

A farmer-poet of eighth century BCE Boetia was one of the finest articulators of natural rhythms who ever lived. Hesiod understood that the cycles of the natural world must intersect with the cultural world of thinkers and laborers, and that while understanding the particularities of weather was—like comprehending the will of Zeus—impossible, a knowledge of its nuanced patterns would enable the farmer to merge his labor with proper meteorological timing.
[b] Works and Days RF

For Hesiod, a farm was a complex operation, and it is clear that he loved to think about its crops, its animals, and the human beings that together made up its operation. Farming implies society just as much as it implies nature. Even more, it demands a blending of man, animal, and machine that requires a startling level of managerial aplomb. Hesiod describes the proper days to be gentle to the sheep, the proper proportions for mortar and pestle, the need for strong materials in the oxen’s yoke, and the value of a good ox. All of this he does while writing for a tiny percentage of literate readers in a time when almost no farmers could hope to read anything more complex than their own names.

Hesiod’s Works and Days is not a farming manual. It is, rather, a narrative poem peppered with details about life on the land and dominated by a vision of farming in response to the rhythms of nature. Stephanie Nelson has argued quite persuasively that many scholars have misread the “episodic” character of Works and Days, and particularly the blending of cosmogonic understanding with the cycles of the agricultural year.[2] Even the implied narrator’s “advice” is tinged with hostility toward his brother, Perses, who is the subject of combined diatribe and lecture in the poem. Together, the advice and the frustration—which slowly seems to transfer from the brother to the insecurity brought on by fickle nature—takes on the tone of a farming manual, instructing the farmer to “do this and do that.”

          When the heat of the sharp sunbeams ceases its sweaty warmth,
          and the autumn rain has fallen from mighty Zeus
          and men’s skins are turned lighter—for this is when the Dog Star
          hangs only briefly in daytime on the heads of men reared for doom,
          but shares most of its time with night—
          then is the timber you cut with the ax freest from the worm;
          it has dropped its leaves on the ground, and its branching has ceased;
          cut your wood then and remember the timeliness of your work.[3] 
[c] Large-small RF

The larger rhythms and continued scolding—even a sense of ominous fate—give way to specific information about what to cut, how to envision what has been cut, and the manners in which the material should be crafted from there.

          Cut three foot for a mortar, and three cubits for a pestle,
          and seven for an axle—that would suit very well.
          If you cut eight foot of wood, cut off some of that for a mallet,
          and for a ten palm wagon cut three span for a wheel.
          There are many bent timbers; take home, when you find it, a plowtree—
          of holm oak, after a search of hill and field both.
          This is the strongest of any for plowing with oxen,
          once Athene’s servant has fitted it to the plowstock
          and also, with wooden pegs, secured it to the pole.[4] 

Few passages in the Western poetic tradition have moved as deftly as this one from natural form to cultural product, and the whole of Hesiod’s poem has just such a sense of vacillation between the poles of large cosmological matters and small practicalities, such as of tool making. Moreover, he always has a backup plan.

          See that you have two plows, having
          worked them up at home,
          one of a single block of wood and the other jointed;
          far better to have two of them, for, if you break one,
          put the other on your oxen.[5] 
[d] Vivid RF

Several authors have noted that Hesiod only gives the illusion of walking the farmer through all of the details of the agricultural year, as would a serious farming manual of the kind that we have in the West and in East Asia many centuries later.[6] As Nelson points out, “Hesiod has a vivid description of sowing, but no advice on what to sow.”[7] Indeed, this enormously revelatory source about everyday life in early Greece cannot merely be read for its farming advice without leading to serious misunderstandings. And if we cannot read it as Hesiod’s step-by-step approach to farming, how can we understand the “works and days” of ordinary people in the eighth century BCE?

This is the challenge faced by everyone who studies early societies, and there is a slender line between giving up on a poem that claims to be an agricultural tract and a stubborn desire (which always fails) to “separate the wheat from the chaff” and sift the farming advice from its overall context. As we shall see in the following sections, walking that line is the everyday work of today’s historians of early Greece and China. The only workable solution is to be found in knowing one’s texts so thoroughly that the patterns of work, days, sociality, and decision-making begin to appear clearly within the rhetoric of the text itself. Although this is far more difficult than it sounds, it is something that the best readers have been doing for three thousand years. It is also the only way to understand keenly what is left to us of everyday life in Hesiod’s world.

This is one post in a four-part series. Click below for the other posts:
High 1          High 2          High 3          High 4
[e] Keen RF
[1] David Grene, Hesiod’s Works and Days, in Stephanie Nelson, God and the Land: The Metaphysics of Farming in Hesiod and Vergil (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998), 28. 
[2] Stephanie Nelson, God and the Land: The Metaphyisics of Farming in Hesiod and Vergil (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998), 38-39. 
[3] Grene, Hesiod, 19-20.
[4] Grene, Hesiod, 20.
[5] Grene, Hesiod, 20. 
[6] One example is from a Song dynasty’s manual written in the twelfth century. The text shows clearly the relentless focus on practical issues of land management, planning, and tool use. Yet even this source quotes extensively from Chinese classics as it explains the farmer’s connection to the land. Translated excerpts from the text can be found on Columbia University’s extensive Asian Studies website.
[7] Nelson, God and the Land, 50.

Grene, David. Hesiod’s Works and Days, in Stephanie Nelson, God and the Land: The Metaphysics of Farming in Hesiod and Vergil (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998 

Nelson, Stephanie. God and the Land: The Metaphyisics of Farming in Hesiod and Vergil (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998 

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