Words of wisdom: ‘Give to him who gives’

Invite your friend to a feast, but leave your enemy be. Invite in particular whoever lives near you. For if a farm-problem arises, neighbors will come in their bedclothes, whereas in-laws would get dressed. A bad neighbor is as much a pain as a good one is a blessing. The man whose portion includes a good neighbor possesses something of value. Not even a cow would be lost – unless the neighbor’s a bad one. Measure things out properly from your neighbor, and pay him back properly, too, with the exact measure – and even better, if you can. That way you can find enough should you be in need later on.

Don’t seek ill-gotten gain; ill-gotten gain is on par with ruin. Treat your friend like a friend and go visit your visitor. Give to him who gives. Don’t give to him who doesn’t give. Anyone would give to a giver. No one gives to a nongiver. Giving is good. Snatching is bad. (It’s a ‘giver’ of death.) For the man who gives willingly, even if he gives much, rejoices in the gift and feels glad in his heart. The man who takes for himself, observing no sense of shame, even if it involves a small amount, hardens the heart. For if you add a little to a little and do it often, even that amounts to much in no time.

He who adds to what he has wards off burning hunger. What’s stored at home, at least, doesn’t worry a man. At home is better; what’s outside is apt to spoil. To take from what you have is fine, though it pains the heart to need what you don’t have. I urge you to take note of these things.

When a jar is at its beginning or near its end, take your fill. In the middle be sparing. To be sparing at the bottom, though, is stingy.

Hesiod, Works and Days 342-369

Today we may hope for quiet neighbours we can count on to take care of a parcel that might arrive should we be out. Getting on with neighbours makes life more peaceful, and – as Hesiod pointed out nearly 3,000 years ago – a carefully cultivated relationship with those close-by can ensure a helping hand when emergencies arise.

Writing around the 8th century BC, Hesiod was not just an early Greek poet, but also a shepherd in the fields of Boeotia. In his didactic poem Works and Days (which lends its name to the farm owned by M D Usher, the compiler of the anthology this extract comes from), Hesiod shares his instructions for a peaceful, productive, and prosperous (but not greedy) life on the land. His advice stresses the importance of hard work in good living, the ruin that comes from procrastination, and, here, the value of good relationships and of a measured approach to storage management. Some (‘treat your friend like a friend’) may seem all too obvious, but for Hesiod the key is in the reciprocity, not indiscriminate, boundless generosity: give gladly so others will return the favour.

This passage from Hesiod’s Works and Days comes from How to Be a Farmer: an ancient guide to life on the land, selected, translated, and introduced by M D Usher. The book is published by Princeton University Press as part of their Ancient Wisdom for Modern Readers series (ISBN 978-0691211749, price £12.99). The extract is reprinted here by permission.