“Do you think it is any less necessary to ask the gods for mercy where agricultural affairs are concerned? Sensible farmers, I can assure you, worship and pray to the gods about their fruits, grain, cattle, horses, sheep—yes, and all their property.”
Xenophon, The Estate Manager
Virgil speaks of it, and Cato, and Hesiod, in addition to Xenophon. Working the land calls for prayer.
So many of the most profound things in life call for this amazing combination: hard work, and prayer. The farmer knows that he cannot prosper without disciplined, persevering labor. And he knows just as well that his disciplined, persevering labor is far from sufficient.
So he prays, asking, as Xenophon suggests, for divine mercy. To ask for mercy is to ask for something that is not due. Indeed, when working the land, the very fruit of our labor always remains a gift.
There is a deservedly popular folk song written by Dave Mallet called “The Garden Song,” the refrain of which says:
Inch by Inch and row by row,
Someone bless these seeds I sow,
Someone warm them from below,
Till the rain comes tumblin’ down.
The gardener knows as he plants his seeds that great powers are at work: in the seed, in the soil, in the sky. And if he is like the sensible farmer of whom Xenophon speaks, he will see his absolute dependence, in his work, on powers that transcend him and his work.
The humble man is close to the earth, and the man close to the earth is humble. The word humble is from the word for soil–humus. But true humility never means aiming low. It means aiming high, with full understanding that we achieve what is great only by a power greater than our own, and by our being willing to plead, regularly, for assistance.
As we garden, we have a special opportunity to realize and practice these truths anew. Yes, those who depended for their very livelihood on what they grew, learned prayer and humility through a more pressing need. But ultimately, are we any less dependent than they were? Gardening can remind us, among other things, of this truth.
This is the second in a Series on Why Everyone Should Garden, according to the ancients.
Xenophon (430-354 B.C.) was a soldier, historian, and philosopher of Athens. Like Plato he wrote dialogues featuring Socrates as a great teacher. Among, these dialogues is Oeconomicus, translated as The Estate Manager, in which we get an insight into the structure and principles of the ancient household.
Image: unknown early 20th century.