96. Oeconomicus, or, A Treatise on the management of a farm and household, by Xenophon (c.370 BC)

Plot:  Socrates retells a discussion with Ischomachus about domestic management – the duties required of a husband and wife in managing their property, their slaves and servants, and the art of agriculture.

Although a Socratic dialogue in that Socrates appears and discusses questions with an expert, in this case Socrates recognises Ischomachus as an expert in his subject, treating his words with interest and respect, and genuinely listens and take note of his answers without looking for flaws in logic or to ridicule his opinions.

Some points of interest :

  • Goods are something serviceable to the owner, so livestock or any other possession which cannot properly be used by the owner, or causes him loss instead of gain, cannot be considered goods.
  • Friends, and even enemies, who can be used to advantage to realise profit, are goods. This makes a little more sense with the example that a general’s finances and reputation may be increased from a successful campaign against his enemies.
  • Household management is the domain of the wife, who if gained young (under 15 and unburdened by any chance of education) and trained well by her husband, will provide a good partner. (Although in fairness Ischomachus seems to treat his young wife as an equal partner in their marriage within the expectations that she manage everything about their household while he brings goods and profit from outside, and does not undervalue her importance or contributions to their shared prosperity)
  • The importance of placing one’s possessions in good order throughout the house so they may be found instantly when needed, in other words “a place for everything and everything in its place” (I must admit this has always been one of my failings as I always seem to spend a lot of time looking for things I used last week and have put done unthinkingly – usually screwdrivers for some reason!)
  • By asking Ischomachus many questions about agriculture, specifically the growing and harvesting of corn, and Ischomachus turning the questions back on Socrates to answer, and Socrates answering correctly each time from his observations but not actual experience, Socrates wonders if he might indeed know other arts which he has never practised. Xenophon does not introduce the concept of preknowledge which Plato put in his Socratic dialogues

My version this time is taken from Xenophon’s Minor works, translated by the Reverend J S Watson and published in 1888 by George Bell and Sons of Covent Garden in the city of London, England. A bit yellow around the edges, but so shall I be when I am approaching 130 years.

Favourite lines/passages:

A warning of the perils of excessive pleasure (pages 76-77)

“… There are also certain deceitful mistresses that sway them, pretending to be goddesses of pleasure, such as gaming and frivolous social gratifications, which, in process of time, make it evident even to the victims of their deceptions that they are but pains disguised in the garb of pleasures; and … prevent them from applying to useful occupations.

…. these also are slaves, and slaves of extremely troublesome mistresses, some being devoted to the luxuries of the table, some to licentiousness, some to intoxication, some to foolish and expensive objects of ambition, which exercise such cruel sway over those whom they get under their power, that as long as they see them in vigour and able to work, they compel them to bring whatever they gain to expend upon their desires, but when they find them unable to work through old age, they leave them to spend their declining years in misery, and endeavour to make slaves of others”

Personal rating: Nudges into a 4 (just)

Next : Xenophon’s Apology, yet another defence of Socrates.


  1. I have informed the cats that I no longer consider them to be goods (I stopped considering them to be good long ago, after the piddling on the furniture incident). I am now off to seek some frivolous social gratifications…


  2. In recent negotiations with my cat Belle the Bookish, she has firmly classified me as a good, in that I am of some use to her opening those pesky ring pull cans. Kimmy the Lit-Terrier is still working on the question “Who’s a good dog?”


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