Debt, patriarchy, and Hesiod

Thanks to the guys over at Savage Minds, I picked up and started reading David Graeber’s Debt: The First 5,000 Yearsand increasingly, talking about it to anyone who will listen. Graeber’s book is really good, very interesting and thought-provoking, and it’s given me lots of ideas.

Today, while waiting in line for a burger, I came across a section in the book where Graeber makes an argument for the origins of patriarchy. He argues that anxieties about the sexual propriety of women emerge when human economies become increasingly commercial. A human economy is one where money is “used to arrange marriages and settle affairs of honor” (177) but not to purchase commodities. Such economies primarily arrange relationships between people. But these human economies can be transformed into something else, economies where slavery exists and humans can be bought and sold. Graeber is particularly concerned with debt and debt-bondage. (That is, when an individual took out a loan and used members of his household as sureties on that loan, and if he then defaulted on the loan, then these household members could be put into various forms of servile relationships with the creditor). As Graeber argues,

for much of the rural poor, debt dependency was institutionalized, with the daughters of poor debtors, predictably, often dispatched to brothels or to the kitchens or laundries of the rich. In either case, between the push of commoditization, which fell disproportionally on daughters, and the pull of those trying to reassert patriarchal rights to “protect” women from any suggestion that they might be commoditized, women’s formal and practical freedoms appear to have been gradually but increasingly restricted and effaced. As a result, notions of honor changed too, becoming a kind of protest against the implications of the market… (186)

Graeber then proceeds to discuss the ancient Greek evidence (186-188), without, however, mentioning Hesiod. It immediately seemed to me clear that Hesiodic poetry works very well with Graeber’s larger master narrative. You have in Hesiod on the one hand an anxiety about economic hard work and self-reliance, the importance of passing on to one’s son or sons (although ideally one should have only one son) a large farm, and the avoidance of risky economic enterprises. Hesiod also places his poetic persona in opposition to the elites of the city and their violent, hubristic activity. On the other hand, there is an anxiety about control over female sexuality, an anxiety expressed in the succession myth in the Theogony but also in the Works and Days (trans. Evelyn-White 1914):

(320-341) Wealth should not be seized: god-given wealth is much better; for it a man take great wealth violently and perforce, or if he steal it through his tongue, as often happens when gain deceives men’s sense and dishonour tramples down honour, the gods soon blot him out and make that man’s house low, and wealth attends him only for a little time. Alike with him who does wrong to a suppliant or a guest, or who goes up to his brother’s bed and commits unnatural sin in lying with his wife, or who infatuately offends against fatherless children, or who abuses his old father at the cheerless threshold of old age and attacks him with harsh words, truly Zeus himself is angry, and at the last lays on him a heavy requittal for his evil doing. But do you turn your foolish heart altogether away from these things, and, as far as you are able, sacrifice to the deathless gods purely and cleanly, and burn rich meats also, and at other times propitiate them with libations and incense, both when you go to bed and when the holy light has come back, that they may be gracious to you in heart and spirit, and so you may buy another’s holding and not another yours.

(342-351) Call your friend to a feast; but leave your enemy alone; and especially call him who lives near you: for if any mischief happen in the place, neighbours come ungirt, but kinsmen stay to gird themselves. A bad neighbour is as great a plague as a good one is a great blessing; he who enjoys a good neighbour has a precious possession. Not even an ox would die but for a bad neighbour. Take fair measure from your neighbour and pay him back fairly with the same measure, or better, if you can; so that if you are in need afterwards, you may find him sure.

(352-369) Do not get base gain: base gain is as bad as ruin. Be friends with the friendly, and visit him who visits you. Give to one who gives, but do not give to one who does not give. A man gives to the free-handed, but no one gives to the close- fisted. Give is a good girl, but Take is bad and she brings death. For the man who gives willingly, even though he gives a great thing, rejoices in his gift and is glad in heart; but whoever gives way to shamelessness and takes something himself, even though it be a small thing, it freezes his heart. He who adds to what he has, will keep off bright-eyed hunger; for it you add only a little to a little and do this often, soon that little will become great. What a man has by him at home does not trouble him: it is better to have your stuff at home, for whatever is abroad may mean loss. It is a good thing to draw on what you have; but it grieves your heart to need something and not to have it, and I bid you mark this. Take your fill when the cask is first opened and when it is nearly spent, but midways be sparing: it is poor saving when you come to the lees.

(370-372) Let the wage promised to a friend be fixed; even with your brother smile — and get a witness; for trust and mistrust, alike ruin men.

(373-375) Do not let a flaunting woman coax and cozen and deceive you: she is after your barn. The man who trusts womankind trust deceivers.

(376-380) There should be an only son, to feed his father’s house, for so wealth will increase in the home; but if you leave a second son you should die old. Yet Zeus can easily give great wealth to a greater number. More hands mean more work and more increase.

(381-382) If your heart within you desires wealth, do these things and work with work upon work.

(383-404) When the Pleiades, daughters of Atlas, are rising, begin your harvest, and your ploughing when they are going to set. Forty nights and days they are hidden and appear again as the year moves round, when first you sharpen your sickle. This is the law of the plains, and of those who live near the sea, and who inhabit rich country, the glens and dingles far from the tossing sea, — strip to sow and strip to plough and strip to reap, if you wish to get in all Demeter’s fruits in due season, and that each kind may grow in its season. Else, afterwards, you may chance to be in want, and go begging to other men’s houses, but without avail; as you have already come to me. But I will give you no more nor give you further measure. Foolish Perses! Work the work which the gods ordained for men, lest in bitter anguish of spirit you with your wife and children seek your livelihood amongst your neighbours, and they do not heed you. Two or three times, may be, you will succeed, but if you trouble them further, it will not avail you, and all your talk will be in vain, and your word-play unprofitable. Nay, I bid you find a way to pay your debts and avoid hunger.

To be clear, I am not arguing that Hesiod’s Works and Days is a poem that is “really” about debt-bondage. Hesiod doesn’t mention it directly, although he does urge Perses to free himself from debt. Nor does Hesiod express any anxiety over losing members of his household to debt. As Ian Morris put it in Burial and Ancient Society (1987, 201):

Ed. Will assumed that Hesiod’s grumblings about the basileis were those of a proto-revolutionary railing about exclusion from power, and tried to see a situation of mounting discontent and debt bondage in seventh-century Boeotia (1957; followed by Detienne (1963, 15-27)). But as many historians have commented, there is nothing to suggest that either Hesiod or Perses was in debt to the basileis, and indeed the words for debt occur only rarely in the Works and Days.

On the other hand, there is no reason that Hesiod’s anxieties could not have been shaped by broad economic structures and processes,well known to all Greek historians, in which farmers across Greece, especially poor farmers or those with many children who thereby inherited increasingly small parcels of land, ran the risk of falling into relationships of debt with their richer neighbors and losing their autonomy to them. Indeed, Hesiod anxieties over the economic autonomy of the nuclear family and the family’s control over women are hardly unique to him. But it may not be coincidental that these axes of ancient Greek culture emerged in a period when not only debt-bondage, but the more extreme debt-slavery, was a recurring problem for Greek communities. As Ed Harris has recently argued (Harris 2002), Solon in early 6th century BC Athens outlawed the latter (debt-slavery) but not the former (debt-bondage), which continued to be practiced in Athens and indeed in most parts of Greece.

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