HOW TO BE A FARMER: An Ancient Guide to Life on the Land

Selected, translated and introduced by M.D.Usher

ISBN 978-0-691-21174-9 Princeton  £12.99

 Reviewed by Alan Dent

Did you know there were no bakers in Rome until 171 BCE? Or that the first coins were stamped with sheep and oxen? Or that pecuniary is derived from pecus meaning livestock? Or that Cicero’s name owes its origin to cier, meaning chick-pea? This little book which presents the Latin or Greek alongside the English is full of fascinating details, but that’s incidental; its core is a selection of texts by Hesiod, Plato, Lucretius, Varro, Vergil, Horace, Pliny the Elder, Columella, Musonius Rufus, Cato and an extract from Daphnis and Chloe. Throughout, the benefits of rural life are exemplified. It has to be born in mind, as M.D.Usher points out in his introduction, that slavery was taken for granted in the ancient world; a difficult matter to set aside, rather like ignoring the fact of employment in our own time while venerating life in the countryside. However, keeping that in mind, there is much wisdom and interest here. 

“A bad neighbour is as much a pain as a good one is a blessing,” writes Hesiod (342-69). Some things change hardly at all. Yet Hesiod isn’t concerned merely with avoiding boundary disputes. “Don’t seek ill-gotten gain,” he says, “ill-gotten gain is on a par with ruin.” This emphasis on prosperity gained through principled effort runs throughout the collection. Being wealthy is not what matters (perhaps Donald Trump would benefit from this book), but working honestly and being generous if you succeed: “Giving is good. Snatching is bad.” The ancients believed a sense of shame was essential, something we would do well to recall. To snatch, to take more than you deserve is shameful and hardens the heart. In the same way, idleness and lack of providence are sources of misery: “The man who puts off work grapples with constant ruin”. Work, however, is not employment. The ideal proposed here is that of to each person a “competence”. The ideal of work is that of the person in control of what they do and produce. In this version, work is not drudgery or humiliation but the means by which people assert their independence and dignity.  

Plato, who expressed some unpleasant ideas about dictators and who famously expelled poets from his republic, has Socrates debating the bucolic utopia.  He’s an early advocate of the division of labour: it makes better use of people’s time and adds to the efficiency of communal life. People live in cities because we are by nature social and the skills of ten people are sure to exceed those of one; but a city needs justice. The bucolic utopia is a combination of the rural and the urban where collective effort provides more and better than the individual can.  

Lucretius, Usher points out, anticipated the Law of Conservation of Energy in his view that nothing comes from nothing, nor is ever permanently lost. Modern physics tells a different story, but all the same, Lucretius reminds us that, while we’re here, we need to take account of how the eco-system works; “why couldn’t nature produce people so large as to cross the sea on foot…” The world is as it is, everything has its place and its role. As we face a climate crisis which may uproot millions, we would do well to think like Lucretius.  

“Oh, farmers. How lucky they are…” writes Vergil in the extract from his poem The Georgics. The rural life may not be luxurious, but farmers benefit from the delights of the countryside and the healthy life of hard work in the open air. The self-sufficiency of the farmer obviates envy of the rich but also, pity for the poor. A somewhat curious notion, but perhaps what Vergil is suggesting is that the contentment of the farming life alleviates the distress of witnessing the struggles of the poor. The farmer has “never laid eyes on the mad Forum, its iron laws, or the public archives.” He is apart from the court, ambition, the pursuit of luxury, politicians’ machinations. It’s a somewhat oversimplified view, but as Usher points out, contradicted in other parts of the poem. Agriculture is about ten thousand years old, prior to that we were all hunter-gatherers. During that ten-thousand-year period we have generated civilisations founded on cities. Jericho is usually thought of as the oldest city. Cities permit a literate, symbolic, scientific culture, but Vergil reminds us they are sited in the countryside. Our dependence on the land and those who work it is absolute and the fantastical predictions of laboratory-made food notwithstanding, probably will be as long as we exist. 

Horace begins the extract Usher titles Simple Tastes by asserting: “I loathe the uninitiated mob and keep it at bay.” This is difficult to take in our democratic age and a reminder, along with the caveat about slavery, that the ancients embraced a much more limited definition of democracy. The chief definer of our democracy was born to poor farmers. By all accounts he disliked the hard labour of the farm, preferring to read and write. Nevertheless, perhaps his rural roots granted him  some of the straightforward simplicity which permitted him clarity and principle of “government of the people, by the people, for the people”, a formula more respected in the breach than the observance. “The person who wants what is enough is not made anxious by the roiling sea or by the fierce rush of Arcturus setting..” Modern economists would quibble over what is meant by enough, but common sense, a faculty much in evidence among the writers here, tells us. “Why take riches in exchange for my valley in Sabina when they only increase one’s hassles?” asks Horace, a question almost embarrassing in the face of the ostentatious display of exorbitant wealth taken for granted in our culture.  

Usher has made a judicious selection and his translations are fluent and elegant. He’s a remarkable man; not only a professor of Classics but also a farmer along with his wife, husbanding a hundred and twenty-five acres in Vermont. Like the writing in the book, he offers a wise example along with the positive face of today’s troubled and divided America.