is a great irony that prosperity affords posterity the luxury of
forgetting its origins. Though not a hard-and-fast rule of societal
evolution, generations who grow up wealthy often lack respect for
or understanding of the values and ideas that generated the very
wealth from which they benefit.
There is an
honesty, realism, and practical virtue often accompanying generations
that have to endure difficult labor that is sometimes lost on later
generations that inherit a comfortable material life. This is not
a new phenomenon but is present throughout history. Compare, for
example, the life and work of the ancient Greek poet Hesiod with
that of the great philosopher Aristotle some 300 years later.
sometime around 700 B.C. in the region of Boeotia, which he described
in his Works and Days as a "cursed place, cruel in winter,
hard in summer, never pleasant." Though little is known about
his life, he was apparently a shepherd who claimed to have been
given the gift of song by the Muses one day while tending his flock.
Regardless of the source, Hesiod’s poetry is full of colorful mythology,
practical wisdom, and sound ethics. The ancient poet wrote at a
time near the end of the Greek Dark Ages and at the beginning of
the Archaic period. Greece was a highly decentralized region made
up of mostly small, self-governing societies, and the merchant class
was just beginning to emerge.
It is in this
context that Hesiod gives advice to his wayward brother Perses in
his Works and Days. The poem is a very practical treatise on the
value of hard work, the need to cultivate strong personal character
and to focus on one’s own welfare rather than the affairs of others.
There is a strong individualism throughout Works, and even a foreshadowing
of Bernard de Mandeville’s Grumbling Hive and Adam Smith’s invisible
hand, as Hesiod describes the value of self-interest and the ability
of envy and strife to motivate hard work and wealth creation.
M. Morehouse [send him mail]
is the director of campus leadership for the Mackinac Center for
Public Policy. He lives in Vicksburg, Michigan, and blogs at www.mighigansfe.org