On Wealth and Necessity

August 31st, 2013

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Let’s begin with a scripture reading from Hesiod:

Work! Work, and then Hunger will not be your companion,
while fair-wreathed and sublime Demeter
will favor you and fill your barn with her blessings.
Hunger and the idling man are bosom friends.
Both gods and mortals resent the lazy man,
a man no more ambitious than the stingless drones
that feed on the bees’ labor in wasteful sloth.
Let there be order and measure in your own work
until your barns are filled with the season’s harvest.
Riches and flocks of sheep go to those who work.
If you work, you will be dearer to immortals
and mortals; they both loathe the indolent.
No shame in work, but plenty of it in sloth.
If your work brings you wealth, you will be envied by the slothful,
because glory and excellence follow riches.
Whatever your lot, nothing will be as good as work,
if you take my advice and turn your foolish mind
away from the possessions of your fellow men
to labor in the service of what is your own.
Shame of the useless kind attends the poor,
and shame can either harm or profit men;
shame brings poverty while boldness leads to riches
–not stolen wealth, god-given is much better.

Works and Days, 299-319 (tr. Apostolos N. Athanassakis)

There is a fear and a resistance to work in our society, including inside the Pagan community. Many believe that if they think positive thoughts, good things will just come to them on the power of their thoughts alone. Good things will come because you deserve it. Just think and grow rich.

As Hesiod explained, this wasn’t true in ancient times and it still isn’t true today, despite what pop religion says. Most Pagans I’ve known fall into two camps: “The Gods Will Provide as They Will,” where we have little to no influence over what They give, and “Society Will Take Care of Me,” where other people will provide for us and all we need to do is influence them to do so. I have known a few Pagans who fall into a third camp, “The Gods Help Those Who Help Themselves,” but those are not nearly as common. Why is this?

Hesiod firmly stood in the “The Gods Help Those Who Help Themselves” camp. He even explicitly said this, when he said, “If you work, you will be dearer to immortals/and mortals; they both loathe the indolent.” This goes against the common belief today that poverty is a disease that is inflicted upon you by external forces, such as the Gods, completely out of your control. It is thought of as being similar to catching the flu or some other malaise. As a result, most people fall into the “Society Will Take Care of Me” camp, as they lack the faith to believe that the “Gods Will Provide.” Now, many people think of themselves as not being the recipient of social care, but they believe that if bad times come to them, society should take care of them. Note, when they say “society,” they mean “government.”

The problem with this thought is that there must be a way to pay for this care that “society” provides. It has to be directly provided by someone. If “society” is providing for your health care, then there needs to be a doctor or nurse in the room with you providing this care. This person needs to be paid to provide for their livelihood. Who pays for this? Today, the government generally does if you don’t have your own health insurance. In the near future in the US, the government will be paying, even if you have your own health insurance, through the new subsidies. But from where does the government get the money to do this? It generally comes from the “rich.” This is a particularly popular thought today, as most want to make the rich pay even more to the government, so it can in-turn be given to the poor to provide for them. Hesiod discusses this in the aforementioned passage. He said, “If your work brings you wealth, you will be envied by the slothful,/because glory and excellence follow riches.”

So does that mean that we are all to be selfish and ignore those who are in need, and deserve aid? What are we to do with our wealth? How should we be helped when we fall upon hard times ourselves, if not through “society” (i.e. the government)?

Hesiod addresses this too:

In proportion to your means, offer the gods sacrifices
that are pure and unblemished, and burn choice thighs for them.
At other times seek their favor with burnings and libations
when you go to sleep and when the holy light looms on the horizon

Invite your friends to dinner and leave your enemies out
and remember that neighbors come first.
If misfortune strikes your house, neighbors will come
in their bedclothes; kinsmen will dress up.

Neighbors should measure well, and you must give back
no less than you take, and even more if you can,
that you may find enough when you are in need again.

Works and Days, 336-350 (tr. Apostolos N. Athanassakis)

Through this, Hesiod says that we should work to help ourselves and gather wealth so we may not starve, but we also need to help others as well. This is voluntary charity; directly giving aid and succor to your neighbors in need instead of assuming that “society” will do this for you. If you give to those who are in need, and offer regular sacrifices to the Gods, then they will help you in your times of need.

Let’s relate this back to the three camps I mentioned at the beginning. Through Hesiod’s wisdom, we learn that all three actually combine into one cohesive thought, if we think about them through his words.

  1. The Gods Will Provide as They Will. Hesiod says to change this idea, as we know we can influence this through regular offerings and sacrifices. Offer the first, choice, portion of each meal to the Gods. Offer some milk or alcohol daily. Offer the burning of candles or incense regularly. All of these things are from the wealth you received through your work and Their grace.
  2. Society Will Take Care of Me. Hesiod says to change this thought to “My Neighbors and Friends Will Take Care of Me, as I Offer Care to Them.” Your neighbors and friends know you best and will be there for you when you are in need, provided you offer them aid as well. Giving, not just money but time and other resources too, is a much more loving, personal and reliable way to help others in need than relying on the government coercing others to do it for you. The goodwill you generate will pay you back later when you’re in need and your friends and neighbors help you out as you did them.
  3. The Gods Help Those Who Help Themselves. This is Hesiod’s main point in Works and Days. You need to work hard for what you want, save for what you may need later in hard times, offer some to the Gods in thanks, and offer as you can to others in need.

These are the things we can all work on improving in our lives today and everyday. Work hard to build up your own wealth so you will not later hunger. Give to others who deserve your help and are in need of it. If you don’t have enough, work hard to get more. If you do have enough, work hard to give more to others. And regardless of whether you feel you have enough or not, give tangible sacrifice to the Gods.

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