The world is in a state of upheaval at the moment, and we’re all looking for things to make us feel less anxious. Maybe Classics can help.
Today’s interview is with Joshua Kinlaw
Is there a source from the ancient world that you find yourself coming back to when you want to feel better?
Hesiod’s Works and Days. “Thus said the hawk to the nightingale…while he carried her high up among the clouds, gripped fast in his talons, and she, pierced by his crooked talons, cried pitifully. To her he spoke disdainfully: ‘Miserable thing, why do you cry out? One far stronger than you now holds you fast, and you must go wherever I take you, songstress as you are. And if I please, I will make my meal of you, or let you go.’”
This is not a “comfortable” text but I find it helpful in reckoning with Justice while that ideal has never been so relevant in my lifetime in my country (among others). “Justice” is easy to claim but much harder to explain or implement. Hesiod helps initiate what could be a good conversation.
When did you first come across this passage?
I had to wait for graduate school. In my first year, Prof. Christopher Smith introduced this passage as a foundational text of Western political thought. I tried to write a “commentary” on it as a paper for a different seminar; it was not well received. I’ve come back to it every other year or so when I cover Hesiod in Classical Lit courses. He teaches me something new each term.
Can you tell me a bit about this text and its context?
Dating to the seventh century BCE, Works and Days is among the earliest Western classical texts, so its author is infamously shadowy, but not quite so much as Homer. We get some autobiographical bits about Hesiod’s background and vocation. He vied with Homer as first and greatest poet of the Greek world. Works and Days is the lesser-known work of a lesser-known poet, which I find appealing.
What is it about this work that appeals to you most?
This is probably a counter-intuitive choice for comfort lit. Hesiod is unapologetically flawed. He has more in common with the disappointment of the author of Ecclesiastes than not. Yet there is honesty in his self-presentation—arguably born of depression and hardship—that epic poets tend to avoid. Works and Days is the result of a family feud. Its author is struggling and frankly grumpy. But he is also doing his best to deal with mortality, injustice, and disappointment. He is therefore a poet for this century.
And finally… what do you do, outside of Classics, to cheer yourself up?
I enjoy swimming in both lakes and oceans. Music is also important for good cheer. I’ve been following a band or two for the last twenty years, trying to attend concerts each summer. P.G. Wodehouse and Peter Sellers also help.
Joshua Kinlaw is Assistant Professor of History & Humanities at The King’s College. He lives in New York City.
Catch up with all the Comfort Classics interviews here.