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a view to the bottom of a river on a sunny winter day

Victor Davis Hanson, The Other Greeks: The Family Farm and the Agrarian Roots of Western Civilization (The Free Press: New York, 1995)

I hold then, that there never has yet existed a wealthy and civilized society in which one portion of the community did not, in point of fact, live on the labour of the other. Broad and general as is this assertion, it is fully borne out by history. This is not the proper occasion, but, if it were, it would not be difficult to trace the various devices by which the wealth of all civilized communities has been so unequally divided, and to show by what means so small a share has been allotted to those by whose labour it was produced, and so large a share given to the non-producing classes. The devices are almost innumerable, from the brute force and gross superstition of ancient times, to the subtle and artful fiscal contrivances of modern.

– John C. Calhoun, “Slavery a Positive Good,” 6 February 1837 https://en.wikisource.org/wiki/Slavery_a_Positive_Good

I finally read The Other Greeks by Victor Davis Hanson in summer 2018. This book, published in 1995, contains an argument that farmers working 9- to 13-acre (20-30 3 to 5 hectare) plots were key to Greek culture wrapped in two rants about the decline of the American family farm and the decadence of American academics. Victor Davis Hanson’s writings on ancient agrarianism are less famous than his political columns and his ideas about Greek warfare, but I enjoyed working through this book. Farming is obviously a topic that Hanson cares deeply about, and because he put so much care into this book I can tell that he sees some of the implications of his argument.

The ancient history in this book is interwoven with the story of a 40 acre farm near Selma, California which the Hansons have held for five generations (only three generations were able to make a living from it, his parents got jobs in town and he tried to keep the farm going after his grandfather retired but found that the only way was to use his salary and royalties from teaching and punditry to subsidize the farm). In his view, both classical Greek and modern US culture were at the best while society was dominated by rural small farmers, and any threat to this class is a threat to freedom and democracy.

To my knowledge, Victor Davis Hanson has never written about why his Swedish great great grandparents were able to take a share of “the richest farmland in the world” for a token price in 1875, just like Wikipedia estimates that the indigenous population of the San Joaquin Valley fell 93% from 1850 to 1900 but falls silent on what exactly happened (today all the nations of the Yokuts are a few thousand strong, about as many as one of the little farming towns Hanson loves).

There is a debate about what share of the population belonged to the traditional property-owning, hoplite-fighting, speaking-in-the-assembly class. If you read this book quickly, you will see that the families with 10 acres or so of land who he calls yeomen made up “half to a third” or “a near majority” of the free male population. At first that seems like a large proportion, but his yeomen have “small farms for a family and a slave or two” (pp. 207, 208, 459). He estimates 80-100,000 adult citizens, 10,000? adult metics, 80-150,000 slaves, total “perhaps nearly 200,000 adult residents of Attica” in the fifth century BCE (p. 209), and 12,000 hoplites out of 60-000-70,000 adult residents of Boeotia. So Hanson believes that there was a glorious age of freedom as long as Greece was run by “yeomen” farmers, and believes that his “yeomen” families made up 15-22% of the population of Attica and 13,000-25,000 adult men.

Many other experts think this is too high. In “The Myth of the Middle-Class Army” (p. 54), Hans Van Wees estimates that they comprised 9 to 30% of the citizens of Athens (between 3,000 and 10,000 adult men). In another article he argues that there were three slaves for every free person in Athens a few years after the death of Alexander (“Athens’ property classes and population in and before 317 BC: Demetrius and Draco,” Journal of Hellenic Studies (2011) 131 pp. 95-114.) In Men of Bronze, Lin Foxhall argued that there is no sign of a dense network of medium-sized farms in the archaeological record until the end of the sixth century BCE. Part of the dispute is technical issues such as whether half the grain fields were left uncultivated in a given year: Hanson’s “yeomen farms” are smaller than van Wees zeugitai farms because he thinks they could get more from a smaller piece of land, and Hanson relies mostly on literature whereas Foxhall focused on archaeology. But I want to focus on what Hanson is arguing, not whether he is correct.

If you read The Other Greeks carefully, you see that “a third to one half” of the citizens being yeomen farmers translates to a fifth or a sixth of the population. And while Hanson says again and again that he does not like big estates worked by gangs of slaves, in a footnote on page 457 he tells you how these one or two slaves fit into the lives of his yeoman farmers with 10 or 12 acres:

Agricultural slavery, even more than homestead residence, made intensive agriculture possible. It prevented the spread of helotage. It sharply defined the independence and freedom of the rising Greek yeoman in a way not found elsewhere.

And he also admires the way Greek colonists gave each other equal plots of land in a beautiful grid designed with Greek geometrical science (pp. 194-196). He does not have a lot to say about whose land it was before they arrived, but readers of The Western Way of War or Carnage and Culture can get the general idea. When Macedonian or Persian barbarians threaten to conquer “westerners” Hanson launches into a flow of eloquent speech about freedom and slavery, but when “westerners” are about to conquer and murder or enslave foreigners he slips into a flat descriptive mode or just drops the subject. And he is very frank about the tyranny of ancient and modern farmers over their wives (pp. 130-135).

So when you look closely, The Other Greeks is arguing that its wonderful balanced regimes of homesteaders were ruled by about 15-20% of the population. We hear about a widow spinning for piece-work pay in the Iliad, and male and female labourers hired by the year in Hesiod’s Works and Days, but Hanson seems to think it was important for Greek freedom that these lowly free workers were replaced with slaves: he describes the poor Athenians who accepted pay for jury service as “the mob on the dole” (p. 5) and hired farm workers as “shiftless” (p. 70). And he thinks that slaves may well have formed the majority of the population of Attica in this period. That kind of argument that slavery is a positive good and necessary for anyone to live a civilized life was last current before the American Civil War, although Hanson does not approve of large plantations or race-based slavery.

“Agricultural slavery … sharply defined the independence and freedom of the rising Greek yeoman”? I think Hanson has read and understood the ideas of thinkers like Samuel Johnson (“How is it that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty among the drivers of negroes?”) or Edmund Morgan (American Slavery, American Freedom) who observe that people who talk about freedom often mean the freedom to dominate and enslave. He just does not find that kind of freedom despicable.

Underlying and fundamental to our most basic philosophy is our concern and respect for the dignity of the individual. … Upon reflection, it is easy for us to realize that our conception of the dignity of the individual could have originated only in Christianity. … the Christian religion, born on the border of East and West, found its acceptance in the West, and became a part of the heritage and culture of the West, as contrasted to the East of the Orientals. … There are also those in this world who are the devisees of a totally different heritage and with whom we have no identity in either antiquity or modern times…. Our society may well be said to be… the exemplification of the maximum development of the Western civilization…. At the opposite extreme exists the Eastern heritage, different in every essential, not necessarily in a way that it is inferior, but different…. The chasm of difference between the two… is in heritage, the force that shapes the man to form unchangeable, except, if at all, by the infinite passage of time…. Oriental and Hawaiian groups constitute in excess of 70% of Hawaii’s population. This large segment of the population has a heritage… in a word, Eastern…. There is serious doubt in my mind as to whether the Hawaiian people would not be seriously handicapped, possibly even precluded, in defending themselves from such as the communist-dominated Longshoremans Union by the imposition upon them of Western institutions of government, since their heritage has not equipped them to comprehend the philosophy essential to the effective operation of these institutions. … There is even greater doubt in my mind that the Hawaiian people could contribute to the degree of harmony remaining in the conduct of affairs of our Federated Republic…. An abandonment of the United States of America in favor of a United States of America and Pacific— precedenting a United States of the World— would actually benefit no one but toll the death-knell of our Federated Republic…

– US Senator (for South Carolina) Strom Thurmond, a prominent opponent of the Civil Rights Act and supporter of racial segregation who angrily denied that he was a racist, “Against Hawaii Statehood” (1959) https://delong.typepad.com/files/thurmond-hawaii.pdf

In sum, the Greek agrarian city-state had been able to fashion an unusually egalitarian social, political, and military system, but one (like many modern liberal states) closed to the larger, ever-present (and growing) world of have-nots surrounding the polis, the other who desperately wanted the economic and social advantages of polis life. Herein lay the dilemma. To open up the discriminatory gates of polis citizenship was- as modern states have often discovered- to corrupt the carefully constructed equilibrium and the unifying agricultural heritage that had evolved over two centuries of agrarianism. For the Greek geôrgoi to refashion the traditional polis for all residents might just as likely lose it for everyone.

– Victor Davis Hanson, The Other Greeks (1995), p. 364

To Hanson (and Thurmond) creating the good community for some requires holding others outside or keeping them as hewers of wood and drawers of water. And at some point, whether you define those others in terms of race, “heritage,” religion, or culture is an academic quibble. Most people look, talk, and worship like their parents and schoolmates, so talking about race, culture, or religion lets you exclude the same people. As Roel Konijnendijk has written, Hanson’s vision of the good society is white supremacist in practice, even though he firmly rejects racial theories. If you poke around in the darker corners of the internet, you can find open racists like F. Roger Devlin lecturing him for lacking the courage to push his arguments as far as they can go or begging him to contribute to their journals (both links are to the Wayback Machine- ed.)

One of the reasons for the primacy of violence is that, unlike the industrial world, in the agrarian world wealth can generally be acquired more easily and quickly through coercion and predation than through production. Consequently ‘specialists in violence are generally endowed with a rank higher than that of specialists in production.’

– Moshe Berent, “Anthropology and the Classics: War, Violence, and the Stateless Polis,” The Classical Quarterly 50.1 (2000), p. 258 (thanks Josho Brouwers)

If you know some world history or ethnography, you know that there are plenty of societies where most families have about the same size of house, the same quality of diet, and bury their dead with the same things as most people of the same age and gender (and yes Mr. Thurmond, there were millions of Christians in Egypt, Ethiopia, Syria, and India before the first white Anglo-Saxon Protestant arrived). Those societies were not always organized around patriarchy and private land ownership, and sometimes they even let women work in the fields, but they didn’t leave a lot of writing because until recently the materials were too expensive (and because settler states in the 19th and 20th century often destroyed their records, or just declared them irrelevant so that eventually someone threw out grandpa’s box of old books to make room for a new television). If civilization, however defined, is going to survive this century, I think that self-organized communities of equals committed to humane values are more likely to save it than Hanson’s violent farmers who care about nothing more than passing on the farm better than their father left it to them (and there is a lot of inspiration for those communities in classical Greek texts, just not the bits of those texts which are cited in this book). I think we need to look forward to the way we can make a changing world as consistent with our values as possible, not pump ourselves up with stories of a vanished golden age and higher cultures erasing lower ones. (And The Other Greeks sort of agrees, there is praise for Parent-Teacher Associations and farmers’ co-ops alongside the warnings that political action is useless, your neighbours will steal your water and your vine-props, and the family farm in the United States is doomed). But I think it is important to be frank that our disagreements are not just about what the ancient world was like, but about what kinds of social order are worth defending, and that you can’t divide Hanson’s books into some that describe the past and others which try to change the present.

This blog is not funded by a public-sector pension or The National Review Online, just by my gentle readers on Patreon or paypal.me or even liberapay

This post was written in ?2018? and edited and scheduled at the beginning of 2020 before the present tragic situation in Europe. I delayed it from its scheduled publication date of 21 March.

Further Reading: If you want works on early agriculture by someone who believes that early Greek and Roman small farmers achieved something special but doesn’t argue that slavery was a positive good, check out the works of Geoffrey Kron (although I am a bit concerned to read a 33 page article on the classical Greek economy which focused on “equality” but does not mention slaves in Greece at all and only mentions serfs in Greece once). Two Oxen Ahead by Paul Halstead sounds fun and describes actual Greek farmers raising staple crops. And if you want a direct attack on this kind of politics, check out Gwynne Dyer’s Waiting for the Canadian Hordes (2004) or Gabriel Schoenfeld’s Sophistry in the Service of Evil (2019).

If I ever publish these ideas in print, I may track down and talk about a passage on “whether the White community in the South is entitled to take such measures as are necessary to prevail, politically and culturally, in areas in which it does not prevail numerically?” in “Editorial: Why the South Must Prevail,” William F. Buckley Jr. ‘s The National Review, 24 August 1957

Edit 2020-04-29: Corrected the figure in hectares (although I don’t have a paper copy of the book available to check)

Edit 2021-04-16: For another statement by a far-right American that the ideal government would be run by the richest 20%, see David Forbes, “The Secret Authoritarian History of Science Fiction” https://www.vice.com/en/article/9ak7y5/the-secret-authoritarian-history-of-science-fiction “In ‘Constitution for Utopia,’ written in 1961, (editor and crank John W.) Campbell (Jr.) argued outright that the best possible government would only allow the wealthy—specifically the wealthiest fifth of the population—to vote.” This essay was reprinted by other hard-right science fiction writers like Jerry Pournelle.