Last Updated on September 6, 2023, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 608
Progress versus Regress
The pastoral is generally a conservative genre—always looking backward with nostalgia to simpler times when the world was thought to be newer, better, and more virtuous. Though it might be surprising for a modern audience that a text as old as Works and Days, written about 700 BCE, hearkens back to an earlier, more idyllic time, it does indeed make this assertion. Rather than expressing a modern, unfailing belief in the inherent improvement that "progress" entails, Hesiod rather perceives a devolution in his own time in relation to bygone eras.
In Works and Days, he describes a world that has devolved from perfection in the Golden Age into a period of conflict and strife: the Iron Age. Hesiod asserts that in the Golden Age, the first age, life was much better: people lived in harmony, they never aged, and they died peacefully in their sleep. Gradually, however, through the Silver and Bronze ages, as humankind developed new technologies and began to establish urban existences, Hesiod asserts that the quality of life gradually depreciated.
Thus, he argues for a return to the simple virtues embodied in the life of a farmer, which is in concert with nature, and argues that the key to happiness can be found by looking backward, not forward. While he states that there is a possibility that forward-looking progress might impart a kind of happiness, he argues that the more prudent choice is to return to a lifestyle that is proven to be idyllic: an archaic life of simplicity.
The Virtue of Work
Unlike more literary pastoral works in which nature is divorced from work, Hesiod's pastoral vision is rooted in the labor of the farmer. For this reason, Hesiod repeatedly emphasizes the central importance of work and thus the all-important virtue of being a hardworking individual. Hard work is required in order to bring forth the good life from nature's bounty, but Hesiod states that this "hard" work is not in itself a "hardship," because of its inherent rewards. Like the oak tree and the bees, men who work hard
are never visited by Hunger . . . instead . . . for them, the earth bears much life sustenance.
Thus hard work, as requiring full physical and mental attention, saves the worker from focusing on the lives of others and helps them instead bring about their own prosperity. Likewise, Hesiod states that idleness is a vice that is abhorred by both men and gods. This version of the pastoral stands in sharp contrast to the genre that eventually emerged in the British literary tradition, where the individual, enjoying a genteel kind of nature, is afforded nature's bounty with little to no effort on their part.
Living in Harmony with Nature
As a pastoral, Works and Days celebrates the simple joys of the natural world, such as the warmth and beauty of summer, but these always occur within the context of an orderly schedule of events. Thus, Hesiod's pastoral paradise requires a life that is disciplined and attuned to the larger cycles of nature and auspices of the gods.
Hesiod doles out meticulous advice about how to live the pastoral life properly in order to profit from its joys. Hesiod advises readers "to take care to mark the days . . . giving each day its due." For example, he states that the twelfth month is better than the eleventh for shearing sheep and gathering grain, and the thirtieth day of the month is best for inspecting a farm. Thus he puts forth the necessity of aligning oneself in the larger order of nature to gain prosperity: the individual must work in harmony with the earth rather than attempt to dominate or control it.