“The land provides the greatest abundance of good things, but doesn’t allow them to be taken without effort. It trains people to endure the cold of winter and the heat of summer.”
“Furthermore, the land also freely teaches justice to those who are capable of learning; for it does people favors in proportion to how well they serve it.”
Xenophon, The Estate Manager
The land is a teacher. Indeed Xenophon says it teaches ‘freely’… “to those who are capable of learning.”
What is required to become capable of learning what working the land has to teach? There is no easy answer to this question. Last week we saw that the land teaches humility. Perhaps therein is always the first lesson; it is the person who has learned humility who can then also learn the other lessons that the land would teach us. Are we willing to learn and be formed by something as simple as gardening?
Working the land can form in us a good work ethic. But there are work ethics, and then there are work ethics. A good work ethic always includes that one is willing to work hard; but there is more. Not everyone who works hard has a good work ethic—as is clear in those who work hard to become wealthy with too little concern, for instance, for the consequences to others living their household.
The land, Xenophon suggests, “does people favors in proportion to how well they serve it.” How remarkable! It’s as though the land has been designed to draw out of us a good disposition, the very disposition that will be our own fulfillment. The land asks to be cared for—he even uses the word ‘served.’ And the land will show us—again if we have eyes to see—when we are working it well.
But why do some people have soil that seems ready to reward immediately, and others don’t? And what of all our failures and false starts? Is the land saying to some of us—“Don’t bother, you just don’t get it? You don’t have a green thumb…”
The land, I am convinced, does not say that to any of us. Just as life itself—though it seems at times to say that—never really says such a thing to us.
The land calls for persevering effort, and the willingness to look and learn, and readjust, and start again. It calls us to have an attitude of care, and indeed of husband-ing. Such an attitude it will always reward, all in good time. And such an attitude is the very heart of a good work ethic.
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This is the third 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: Elsa Beskow (1874-1953), children’s author and illustrator