Wednesday, February 8, 2017


Lilah Grace Canevaro, Hesiod's Works and Days: How to Teach Self-Sufficiency. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2015. Pp. xiii, 269. ISBN 9780198729549. $89.95.

Reviewed by J.J. Mulhern, University of Pennsylvania (

Version at BMCR home site


This book follows some other recent studies of Hesiod in proposing to show how, in Works and Days, the poet intended to shape his own reception as a teacher; it is distinctive in the way it presents self-sufficiency as Hesiod's theme in his didactic efforts.

It begins, after a short introduction, with a chapter, "Two Reading Traditions: Linear and Excerpting," which points to two ancient modes of reading Works and Days — reading excerpts and reading linearly (long passages or the whole work). The evidence for excerpting is found in the way the poem "comes apart" into separable units (p. 12) and in quotations of excerpts by ancient authors. Recognizing the interplay of modes, it is suggested, can lead toward a "more nuanced understanding" of the poem (p. 29).

In Chapter 2, "Two Structuring Strategies: Detaching and Tethering," this line of argument is continued. With respect to the detaching strategy, which corresponds to reading excerpts, Hesiod writes on useful topics, according to the author, makes his lines detachable from their context, and formulates his lines "in an open way" (p. 32) to make them more applicable. Still, not every use was intended: "I do not argue that all meanings are latent in the text. Rather, I maintain that the text and the reception it engenders are governed by authorial crafting and by moral intent" (p. 33). Also: "Hesiod had a clear idea of what he wanted his poem to be used for" (p. 50). In 2.3, the author observes: "To make his teachings detachable, Hesiod makes them self-contained: grammatically and logically each unit can operate alone" (p. 51). The other strategy is described as tethering, so that the excerpts "are tethered to the poem . . . This tethering facilitates a linear reading: a continuous performance" (p. 71).

Chapter 3, "Two Ideals: Self-sufficiency and Didacticism," begins to present self-sufficiency as "the Iron Age ideal" p. (83). Self-sufficiency is first of all "the self-sufficient operation of one's own oikos" (p. 86), in which the farmer will perform all the crafts and have a wife and one heir (p. 87). "Of course," the author observes, "there are practical problems with this ideal of self-sufficiency, but Hesiod offers advice for managing them as best he can." Self-sufficiency extends to agriculture, poetry, learning, and justice (p. 93). As to didacticism—presumably "depending on a teacher" (see p. 213): "To instil this idea," according to the author, "Hesiod employs a didactic method based on intellectual self-sufficiency, on thinking for oneself" (p. 94), though it also includes "listening to a teacher" (p. 99). These ultimately are combined by the author: "Hesiod advocates not blind adherence to his teachings but some degree of interpretative effort and creative input on the part of his audience" (p. 113).

Chapter 4, "Didactic Methods," mainly identifies the methods in its different sections. 4.1 presents offering choices, though favoring one of them. 4.2 describes hiding meaning through manipulating tradition in, for example, the myth of Prometheus and the myth of the metals (pp. 150-151) or the representation of the cicada as both a divine singer and a symbol of idleness (pp.154-155). 4.3 covers manipulating language, as in etymologies, riddles, contrasts, and coinages. 4.5 addresses advising for the long term. The other sections of this chapter consider the "splitting of concepts" including eris, zēlos, elpis, and aidōs (p. 189, 4.4), assertions of didactic authority (4.6), and reciprocity of goods and words (4.7).

Chapter 5, "Filling the Gaps [left by the two modes of reading]" (p. 214), which is the last chapter, proposes to offer comparative evidence to support the contention that "the poet intended his poem to be read in certain ways" and to adduce some passages "in which Hesiod himself reflects on his own didactic practice" (p. 214). Given the emphasis throughout the book on authorial intention, the reader may be surprised to find here, "Of course we cannot know conclusively how Hesiod intended his poetry to be received (we are not even able to prove he existed, let alone read his mind)—we can see only the final outcome" (p. 226). Certainly there is nothing as explicit in Works and Days about the poet's expected reception as Horace's non usitata nec tenui ferar penna or exegi monumentum, and Horace certainly knew how to write phrases and lines that could be and have been excerpted even by those who have been devoted to reading whole poems.

The scarcity of linguistic evidence makes it more of a challenge for the author to argue "that self-sufficiency is consistently foregrounded" (p.89) by Hesiod and that "throughout the Works and Days self-sufficiency is especially prized" (p. 125) and that one can see "Hesiod's persistent focus on self-sufficiency and the oikos" (p. 140). The abstract nouns for self-sufficiency and sufficiency, which would be evidence for Hesiod's having the concepts and which are regarded as evidence for these concepts in later authors, including especially the philosophers and the Greek Fathers, don't occur in Works and Days, nor do other expressions that would have about the same force.1 The author's quotation of egkattheo oikōi at 627 hardly can count as an argument that Hesiod "advises self-sufficiency of the oikos" (p. 93), since egkatatithēmi indicates putting away without regard to quantity or amount and in this case has to do not with stocking the oikos but with laying up one's boat for the season; nor is there linguistic argument in the studies by Millettt2 and Marsilio cited as authorities (p. 4). The author seems to recognize the importance of linguistic evidence and argument in quoting an occurrence of arkeō at Thucydides I.22.4, but it is not obvious that arkountōs hexei — 'it will be enough' — marks the historian as "a champion of intellectual self- sufficiency" (p. 221) or that this reference is germane to the book's theme absent similar linguistic evidence in Hesiod.

At some points a stronger editorial hand might have been helpful. On p. 87, for example, one encounters "The farmer should be resourceful, weaving (538), sewing (544)," etc., where the farmer presumably is male, and on p. 116, "female activities such as weaving" (also p. 122: "a woman's ergon, weaving"). While an attempt to deal with "this apparent incongruity" appears on p. 199, some readers may have looked for it earlier. Further, there seems to be a forced relation on p. 116: "here [63-64] Athene teaches Pandora to weave [repeated on p. 199]; at 699 Hesiod advises teaching one's wife." In 699 (698 in Solmsen, 699 in Most) Hesiod advises marrying a maiden so that one may teach her careful habits (ēthea kedna, quoted on p. 39), not weaving.

The book cites and addresses a range of current issues in Hesiod studies, and the bibliography includes both older and newer scholarship. Set-off Greek passages regularly, and words and phrases in text sometimes, are accompanied by English translations, which may make the book more accessible to non-specialist readers.


1.   Still useful is T.N. Davis, "Autarkeia: Historical Development of a Concept from Homer to Aristotle." Ph.D. diss., Harvard University, 1947.
2.   Although Millett does mention self-sufficiency several times, it appears that self-sufficiency is his own way of conceptualizing part of Hesiod's message—a message Millett sums up as "a sequence of instructions on how best to keep an oikos prosperous, and even to increase its wealth," which might be more or less than self-sufficiency. See P. Millett, "Hesiod and His World," Proceedings of the Cambridge Philological Society 210 (1984), p. 94.

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