What the Farmer Knows

Sunday, April 1, 2007
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The study of Greek and Latin seems incongruous when compared with the dirty life of a farmer. The former requires poring over obscure texts with complicated syntax and forgotten vocabulary—the latter, hours riding a smoky tractor or shoveling dung out of a barn.

But beyond the modern dichotomy that separates the world of the academic from the larger muscular one outside, that divide shouldn’t apply to the case of classics. After all, nine out of ten ancient Greeks were rural people. The majority of them were farmers. And that truth is reflected in many of Homer’s similes in his Iliad and Odyssey, Hesiod’s Works and Days, Aris-tophanes’ Acharnians, or the vast treatises of Theophrastus, where so often Greek thought is expressed through the life of agriculture.

The late David Grene’s small memoir Of Farming and Classics: A Memoir (University of Chicago Press) tries to explain how, at least in the case of one exemplary life, farming and the classics enhanced each other. At the outset, we should note that this distinguished classicist has written an atypical autobiography, in that there is nothing in it on the evolution of the field, turf battles won or lost, or books written or not—of the sort written by J. K. Dover, E. R. Dodds, or Gilbert Murray.

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Other than brief sketches of those who taught the young Grene at Dublin—J. G. Smyly, George Mooney, and Sir Robert Tate—there is little about the nature of Grene’s own research and scholarly interests and almost nothing about his two wives, children, or family life in general or the nature of his intellectual development once he began his long career at the University of Chicago. And Grene was, in modern terms, hardly a successful, or even a typical, farmer. He lost money raising small herds and flocks, tending to his pasturage, avoiding machines when possible, and lamenting the steady mechanization and corporatization of agriculture while tending the three farms he acquired over his 88 years in both Ireland and Illinois.

Most of the labor, as he describes it, was dirty and backbreaking—and, one could argue, came at the expense of scholarly publication. Today we associate Grene with fine translations of the Greek playwrights and a few incisive articles and short books, but not with a magnum opus of classical scholarship or overseeing the doctoral training of the great classicists or shaping the public intellectuals who passed through Chicago during the more than half-century of Grene’s tenure there.

Nine out of ten ancient Greeks were rural people. The majority were farmers.

There is no index, only a brief bibliography of Grene’s work and a few abbreviated eulogies from his peers and colleagues. Dust-jacket blurbs rightly describe the author or the book’s contents with words like “quirky” and “idiosyncratic.”

Grene’s memoir, then, focuses mostly on his early education in Ireland. Nice reflections abound on the nature of his work with animals and his efforts to foster broad general education, especially during the stormy tenure of Robert Maynard Hutchins at the University of Chicago and the creation of the Committee on Social Thought. He includes some good asides on Allan Bloom, Harpo Marx, and others he met—though nothing on Richmond Lattimore, with whom Grene edited the Chicago translations of fifth-century Athenian drama. His worry over the end of shared knowledge of great texts and ideas dovetails neatly with a similar lament on the decline of small farming.

He reasonably defends fox hunting (“Long may it flourish—and I believe it will”), castigates the Chicago Stock Yards, limns vignettes of actors and directors that reflect Grene’s love of the theater, and gives a balanced sketch of the great strengths and frailties in the Great Books approach at Chicago. Throughout shines his understated love of the America that befriended him at an early age: “After all the years in between, this, my beginning sentiment of admiration and awe about America, has never entirely faded.”

Throughout, Grene exemplifies two crucial aspects of modern life. First is the symbiosis that can be obtained between the life of contemplation and action—and how hard physical and dirty work helps rediscover nature, bringing with it a certain pragmatism that permeates reading and thinking: “Small farming as an attractive job depends on the possession of a mind not now common.” What prevents this labor from devolving into drudgery is the ability to frame the banal activities of the day in the wisdom of the ages through reading the Greeks.

Most of the labor on his farms, as scholar David Grene describes it, was dirty and backbreaking—and, one could argue, came at the expense of scholarly publication.

Second, Grene reminds us what it is (and is not) that constitutes success in life. It is not nice homes, large farms, distinguished titles, or top salaries. Indeed, Robert Pippin, in his fine introduction, tells us that, in his 80s, Grene taught for a time without compensation. He surely had the talent (his recall of Greek was phenomenal) and energy to have been materially successful and well-off had that been his focus.

Rather, as we read here, Grene was more interested in students and, above all, in imparting wisdom to others that neither Greek nor farming alone might bequeath, but could in concert.

I empathize with Grene, in that I have tried to farm and study Greek and Latin for most of my life—albeit in the more brutal world of both California agribusiness and the California State University system. After reading (and rereading) this short but memorable autobiography, I realized that my life wasn’t all as preposterous as it too often seems. And I thank the late David Grene for explaining why that is so.