Saturday, May 9, 2015

Hesiod and the Degeneration Model of History (c. 800 BC)

"For here now is the Age of Iron. Never by daytime will there be an end to hard work and pain, nor in the night to weariness, when the gods will send anxieties to trouble us."

Next to Homer, Hesiod (c. 700 BC) is the other classic poet of pre-Socratic Greece. Like the Illiad, the Theogeny and Works and Days are art, religion, science, and history all in one.

The Theogony is a collection of stories and hymns, and one of the oldest written sources for Greek mythology. It tells the story of how creation, the gods, and all living things emerged from the primordial sea; how the children of the Titans overthrew their parents and established their kingdom on Olympus; how Prometheus taught men to make fire, and was punished for his presumption; and how the gods feared that people would become too powerful, and overthrow them, so gave Pandora a box they knew she would open, and set endless trouble loose on the earth. Gods and men, Hesiod declares, live in perpetual conflict – with themselves, with each other, and with the world as a whole. People are born, live, and die in toil and suffering, and the best they can hope for is to enjoy a few moments of genuine happiness, and to leave behind many children, who will live as they have. Things are much the same on Olympus, for although the gods never die, and Zeus is king there, the gods feud with one another constantly, and he is an irresponsible lecher who forces himself on anything that moves (except his wife, Hera.) These gods are not transcendent, perfect beings such as we are used to, but very big, powerful, and immortal human beings, who must be propitiated from time to time, but are not necessarily admirable or just.

Works and Days is a kind of "Poor Richard's Almanac" for Homeric Greece, and provides much practical wisdom, in verse, for Greek farmers. It also presents a very general account of the past, for according to Hesiod the world has seen five ages, each corresponding to a race of man, since its creation. In the Golden Age the ancients were happy, care free, gentle, and knew neither work nor suffering. After them came the Silver Age, in which their descendants traded their innocence for intelligence and passion. They quarreled with each other, rebelled against the gods, made new discoveries, and were punished with mortality. Then came the Bronze Age, when people were extraordinarily brave and strong, but fought so violently they destroyed themselves. Afterwards came the Age of Heroes, identified with the Trojan War and Odysseus – the first time people recognizably like the Hesiod’s contemporaries appeared, though they too were superior in every way. At last came the Iron Age, the present, where life is full of misery, suffering, cruelty, hard work, and death.

The works of Homer and Hesiod are the cornerstones of the Greek literary tradition, and in some respects their accounts of the world agree. However, they see the past very differently, and derive from it a different ethos for the present. As we have seen, the passage of time has little meaning to Homer, for in his account one generation is more or less the same as any other, and what matters is the time of gods and legends. In other words, he stresses continuity over change. Hesiod, on the other hand, stresses change, for his Iron Age is very different from the Age of Heroes, and both are in every respect inferior to the Golden Age with which history began. The essential action of history is, in other words, degeneration – every generation knows less, does less, and is worth less than the ones that preceded it, until at last when things could not get any worse, the present age of brutal cruelty arrived.

Although this is not a cheerful view of life, it does have an explanatory power not found in Homer, for Hesiod explains many things that Homer waved away as “the will of Jove.” He knows why people have to work so hard – it is because we are inferior to our ancestors, who had no such troubles, but who foolishly gave up their happiness, and ultimately destroyed themselves. Similarly, he knows why life is full of so many misfortunes – it is because people angered the gods with their disobedience, who avenged themselves by laying a trap which a woman (sorry, but that’s the way he tells the story) foolishly fell into. He also knows why the gods seem to fight against us so often, for they are afraid we will become too powerful and overthrow them. In short, Hesiod, unlike Homer, locates his audience in time, and explains the present in terms of the past. Although his story is not a pleasant one, it does provide some practical guidance: obey the gods, do not trust women (again, sorry), and accept toil and suffering as your lot.

These are indeed very different maxims than those Homer provides, for where he holds up invincible warriors like Achilles for our admiration, Hesiod sees little in war but folly and self-destruction. The heroes of his story are not gods or warriors –they are everyday, toiling people, whose heroism is that they patiently endure. These are not, one suspects, the type of stories that would have been told to kings and lords, who had no use for handy tips about farming, and did not want to be bored with the suffering of little people. Rather, they would have been told to humble people seeking solace in what little time they had for rest. Further, Hesiod provides a sense of collective human identity that one misses in Homer, for the people of the present are unified by common ancestry, common toil, and common suffering, and must endure misfortunes that are common to all. No prospect of individual glory lifts them above the world of the mundane, as it does Homer’s heroes, who have little in common with each other, and for whom the chance at fame and glory means everything. However, Hesiod agrees with Homer that the present never quite measures up to the past, for such was the universal prejudice of the ancient world. Then “hallowed ancestors” always loomed larger than life, “the old ways” were always best, and all “innovations” were greeted with suspicion, and perhaps even fear – for had not such innovations angered the gods in the past, and brought down upon us the sufferings of the present?

Although we still miss in Hesiod a sense of the importance of space – that people and customs vary from place to place –, he is clearly beginning to approach a notion of the past that resembles our own, at least in some respects. Indeed, his view is very common even today, for it is repeated every time we call something “modern” as a way to condemn it, every time we invoke the past as a happier, simpler time, and every time we disparage our contemporaries in contrast to the wise, virtuous, happy people of the past. Indeed, we echo his view of the past every time we begin a sentence with a phrase such as “it used to be that…”, “things weren’t always like this…”, or even “back in the day…” – phrases that seem to transport us to a time beyond recall, when the world made more sense, and the corruption of the present was unknown.

Synopsis of the Theogony:
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Synopsis of Works and Days:
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(Part of a Series on Philosophy of History III of XXXV)

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