The centuries ebb and flow on a cosmic tide between faithfulness and depravity as men commit their lives to a seemingly infinite range of virtuous and vicious acts. Though man tears himself away from the face of God in pursuit of idols, God never abandons His creation. The glorious age of the Ancient Greek pagans has bequeathed to us great stores of edifying and enduring works. No Catholic should refrain from embracing the Ancient Pagan writers any more than they should resist the embrace of goodness, truth, and beauty. Pagan perception brings no offense to Christian formation. We take truth where it is found and all truth belongs to Christ. Chesterton wrote in The Ballad of the White Horse:
Because it is only Christian men
Guard even heathen things.
The Ancient Pagan writers were inspired in heart, mind, and soul; they kept the sparks of truth alive until Christ came to fan them into flames. C.S. Lewis confirms that “the Pagan stories are God expressing Himself through the minds of poets, using such images as He found there.” The wisdom of pagan poets is the mercy of Divine Providence.
In the Homeric age, around 700 B.C. there was a shepherd named Hesiod born in the ancient city of Askra near Mt. Helicon, a land that the shepherd himself described as “a cursed place, cruel in winter, hard in summer, never pleasant.” Out of that hard land grew Hesiod, who became known as the Father of Greek Didactic Poetry. His writing was inspired by the nine Muses born from Memory. One day Hesiod received a commission from the Muses to be their prophet and poet and they “breathed a sacred voice into” his mouth; that same “sacred voice” that is the pagan image of the “sacred breath” we know to be the Holy Spirit.
Hesiod’s most famous poem is called Works and Days, and it typifies the practice of Hesiod’s daily life while portraying the nature of virtue and vice. It is interspersed with episodes of fable, allegory, and personal experience. It has three distinct parts. The first is an exposition of honest labor and a warning against idleness and strife. The second is a compilation of the rules of husbandry. The third is a religious calendar of the months.
Works and Days was written for and dedicated to the poet’s brother Perses, to whom he referred often as a “great idiot,” a moniker not undeserved. When their father died, Hesiod received the smaller share of the inheritance. His profligate brother Perses wasted the bigger portion until he was destitute. Ill-formed character led Perses to take Hesiod to court and sue for the other portion of his father’s bequest. Perses bribed the judges who ruled in his favor and left Hesiod without his rightful inheritance. Perses immediately squandered his ill-gotten gains and had the audacity to beg Hesiod for help, again. Hesiod, in the Christian spirit, returned good for evil and helped his brother with this warning “there will be a limit to this unmerited kindness.”
In lieu of material help, Hesiod wrote Works and Days to impart wisdom and to teach the virtues of hard work to Perses so that he might choose to reform his life. After invoking the inspiration of the Muses, Hesiod makes an appeal to Zeus, beseeching guidance to hit the mark for his misguided brother: “Hear, Zeus, and set our fallen laws upright. And may my song to Perses tell the truth.”
After his initial appeal, Hesiod foreshadows the Apostles Catechism, the Didache, that opens with these words: “there are two ways, one of life and one of death; but there is a great difference between the two ways.” Similarly, Hesiod explains, “there are two strifes, one you will praise and this one even rouses the shiftless to work, and the other increases vile war and calamity, she is cruel. The hearts of the two strifes are different.” Hesiod goes on to advise: “do not let wicked strife persuade you, skipping work to gape at politicians and quarrels of the market place.” The good strife, says Hesiod, “was set by Zeus who lives in air on high, set in the roots of earth, an aid to men.”
The conceptions of the good and bad strife represent the two ways described in the Didache and they are delineated across the ages by Pope John Paul II’s exposition of the culture of life and culture of death in Evangelium Vitae. Hesiod’s account of the two strifes is a set of paving stones upon which we can build our Christian understanding of the two world views; the way of the Cross and the way of the world, corresponding to the way of life and the way of death.
Hesiod devotes many lines to the nature of justice and tells us “to men Zeus gave justice and she in the end has proved the best thing they have.” Modernity has shifted the measure of justice from the objectively ordered standard of the good, true, and beautiful to the standard of the subjective “eye of the beholder.” Appetites have replaced ethics, personal preference has replaced the common good and Lady Justice is bound and gagged by the demands of ego. Hesiod would restore the good Lady to her rightful stature by inverting our modern question of “what is owed to me?” back to “what is owed to the other?”
Hesiod warned that “Justice, revered by all the Olympian gods, whenever she is hurt by perjurers, straightway she sits beside her father Zeus, and tells him of the unjust hearts of men, until the city suffers for its lords.” Hesiod echoes Holy Mother Church in elucidating sin and disorder as communal, not private. We are inundated with reports of men acting cruelly and we ignore the avalanche of evidence that demonstrates damage to families of fatherless homes, communities steeped in crime and society in the throes of breakdown. Modernity promotes violence and disorder as personal rights, but as Hesiod would warn us, there will be a great toll exacted on our souls.
Hesiod reminds us of how difficult it can be to cultivate virtue in declaring that “we are only human and disorder is our greatest enemy.” Hesiod’s prudent words on virtue and vice are an augury to Christ’s own words found in Mathew 7:13-14 “Enter by the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the way is easy, that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. For the gate is narrow and the way is hard, that leads to life, and those who find it are few.” And as Hesiod forecasts: “I mean you well Perses, you great idiot! Badness is easy to have; you can take it by handfuls without effort. The road that way is smooth and starts here beside you, but between us and virtue, the immortals have put what will make us sweat. The road to virtue is long and steep uphill hard climbing at first, but the last of it, when you get to the summit, if you get there, is easy going after the hard part.”
Works and Days is a beacon beaming across vast oceans of time speaking to us across the ages. It is full of timeless wisdom and earthly prudence. Drink in the words of this fine poem, good reader, and consider why it has been resistant to the ravages of time. Then feast on the poem’s ideas that will edify your soul and give you sustenance as you journey through this “vale of tears.” Here I gave you only a few foretastes to whet your appetite, for so plentiful is the fare, that you must allow Hesiod to serve you himself. It is for you to accept the Ancient Poet’s gracious invitation to seat yourself at the banquet of the Great Western Conversation and join in the feast. Quiet your mind, still your soul, get comfortable in front of a warm fire and discover what the fingerprints of God look like when we find them on a pagan soul.
This essay originally appeared at Crisis Magazine and is republished here with permission.
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