Thursday, September 04, 2014

Xenophon's Oikonomikos

An oikonomikos is the manager of a household or estate; thus the title of Xenophon's dialogue (Oikonomikos in Greek, Oeconomicus in Latin) is often translated as 'The Estate-Manager'. It was highly regarded by the Romans, who had a translation of it by Cicero, and was also a very popular work in the Renaissance. There are a number of obvious anachronisms scattered through the dialogue that make clear that Xenophon is deliberately writing Socratic fiction.

A great deal hinges on how one approaches the interpretation of the work. The dialogue is often read in a fairly straightforward way as just Xenophon putting his own idea of good advice for estate-management in Socrates' mouth. There are good reasons to question this, however. Some of Socrates' statements are highly exaggerated, and Ischomachus at several points makes clear that he thinks Socrates is cracking jokes. In addition, Socrates and Ischomachus do not agree on the value of questioning for education. It is also the case that while some of the opening discussion finds echoes in the later discussion, there are discrepancies in how wealth is treated. It would be unreasonable to expect Plato's multi-leveled ironies in Xenophon, but recognizing this is a far cry from expecting Xenophon to be unable to write irony at all, which is the impression you get from many commentators on the dialogue.

You can read a translation of Xenophon's Oeconomicus online in English at the Perseus Project.

The Characters

The dialogue has an introductory dialogue, between Socrates and Critobulus, at the end of which Socrates begins narrating a dialogue he had previously had with Ischomachus.


Critobulus is an appropriate interlocutor for the dialogue because his father, Socrates' friend Crito, was a farmer who became moderately wealthy through good management of his estate.

There are quite a few scattered references to Ischomachus, but it is difficult to get a coherent picture out of it. He is a wealthy landowner. Other sources seem to indicate that his wealth did not last. There also seems to have been some sort of scandal involved with his wife, at least as indicated by a surviving speech against Callias by Andocides. Ischomachus's daughter seems to have married the wealthy Callias, who may have been trying to shore up his wealth, which was being drained by the Peloponnesian War. When Ischomachus died, Callias seems to have become the guardian of Chrysilla, Ischomachus's wife (women were treated as minorities in ancient Athens). The daughter seems to have tried to kill herself and then run away; Callias divorced her, and then married Chrysilla. If any of this is the case, and Xenophon was aware of any of it, then much of Ischomachus's role in the dialogue must be at least partly ironic.

In addition, Xenophon claims at the beginning that he was a witness to the conversation between Socrates and Critobulus, although he doesn't contribute; as with the similar claim at the beginning of his Symposium, this is one of the anachronisms of the dialogue -- other elements indicate that this conversation takes place after Xenophon's Persian expedition and exile from Athens. In addition, there are anonymous others who are listening to the discussion.

The Plot and The Thought

Xenophon remarks as a matter of introduction that he once heard Socrates discussing oikonomia, the Socrates opens the dialogue itself by asking Critobulus if oikonomia is a kind of knowledge (episteme) the way medicine and the like are. Critobolus says he thinks it is, and they discuss what it means to have something as property, with Socrates arguing that nothing is genuinely property unless it is beneficial and useful. After a brief discussion of actual management, they talk about Critobulus's wife, with Socrates saying that the wife is often as important as the husband to the successful functioning of the estate. Socrates addresses the question of what crafts need to be considered in oikonomia by taking the Great King of Persia as a model. He then argues that farming (georgia) has many advantages for both the individual and society, including teaching justice (5.12). Critobulus repeatedly asks, however, for an explanation of that fact that results from farming are so very different, with one person working very hard and getting very little while another works relatively little and gains a lot. To this end, Socrates relates a conversation he had with Ischomachus. It is surely significant that the narrative with Ischomachus is not introduced for the general purpose of discussing estate-management but for discussing specifically "why some farm in such a way that their farming gains them all they need and more, while the result of others' labour is that their farming fails to make a profit" (6.11).

Socrates had been investigating the beautiful/noble/splendid (kalos) and good (agathos), finding good artisans and examining their beautiful products, but he really wanted to find someone who merited that greatest of Greek compliments, kalos kagathos, beautiful and good. At first he tried looking for those who were beautiful, and then seeing if he could find any goodness in them, but this failed; all he learned is that many who are beautiful have corrupt minds. So he tried a different strategy, this time looking for people who had the reputation of being beautiful and good. The name Ischomachus came up, so Socrates set out to find him. This he did in the agora, where he was sitting at the Stoa of Zeus Eleutherios, and Socrates expressed surprise that he wasn't doing anything, since Ischomachus seemed to be a very busy person. Ischomachus replies that he usually is, but today he is waiting to meet some people from out of town.

Socrates asks him what he normally does when he isn't waiting for foreigners, noting that he asks because he wants to understand why Ischomachus has the reputation for being beautiful and good. Ischomachus is pleased at the remark, butwryly remarks that when the state calls on him to pay for liturgies or new warships, they always just summon him as 'Ischomachus', not as 'Kalos Kagathos'. He notes that he rarely spends time indoors, because his wife is perfectly capable of managing the house (oikos). They then discuss Ischomachus's wife for several sections.

Socrates eventually asks what Ischomachus himself does, noting again that he wants to know what it is that gives Ischomachus the reputation of being beautiful and good. Ischomachus replies that he will be happy to do so, in order that Socrates can tell him if he is doing anything wrong. Socrates responds in turn that it would probably be inappropriate for him to tell a beautiful and good man what he was doing wrong, since he himself has a reputation for being a chatterer with his head in the clouds (a clear allusion to the representation of Socrates in Aristophanes' The Clouds) and a beggar. But he does take comfort in the fact that, when people were discussing how excellent a horse was, he asked the groom if the horse had any money, and the groom (no doubt thinking him crazy) replied that horses have no money; it means that his lack of money will not prevent him from becoming a good man.

Ischomachus replies that he prays to the goods for wealth, and here we have a clear indication of a difference of view between Socrates and Ischomachus -- Socrates is distinctly skeptical of the idea that having much property is a good thing, and says that he'd really rather hear first about how Ischomachus stays healthy and survives in battle. Ischomachus insists that they are related, and describes his training regime. When Socrates expresses amazement at how much he is able to do in order to get the reputation of being beautiful and good, Ischomachus responds that he often gets attacked by sycophants (i.e., people who make a living out of suing other people). Socrates asks what he does to make sure he can hold his own in argument, and Ischomachus notes that he practices with his servants and his wife, who often beats him in argument.

Socrates says he is impressed that Ischomachus is keeping such a time-wasting promise, given that he has all the property to take care of, but Ischomachus replies that he isn't neglecting his property, because he has a foreman. They talk about the training of foremen, in which responsibility (epimeleia) plays a significant part, and then Socrates asks the general question of whether it is possible to train someone in responsibility without being responsible himself. Ischomachus replies that it is not, and they continue discussing the training of a foreman.

Since knowledge of tillage is an essential part of what a foreman must know, they discuss the difficulty of teaching this, with Ischomachus insisting that it is very easy to learn and that Socrates almost certainly knows most of it already. Ischomachus questions Socrates, and Socrates ends up giving the right answers. This leads to another clear indication of difference of view between Socrates and Ischomachus. Socrates uses his own case as an opportunity to ask Ischomachus if this might not show that questioning is itself a kind of teaching (19.15):

Is questioning an educational process, Ischomachus? I'm asking because I've just understood your method of questioning me. You take me through points that I know, you show me that these points are no different from points I'd been thinking I didn't know, and thus you convince me, I think, that I do know the latter points too.

Ischomachus, however, denies this, and insists that it is just the case that farming is something everyone already knows. This, I think, is one of the keys to interpreting the dialogue, and it is perhaps the most important of several parallels between Critobulus and Ischomachus: neither of them is fully understanding what Socrates is doing when he is questioning them. Critobulus keeps interrupting the course of Socrates' questioning in order to try to get Socrates to give him answers about the things he wishes to know, and Ischomachus is completely unable to consider any possibility that he himself might learn from being questioned.

It is at this point that the discussion finally turns to the question Critobulus had asked originally, which had started Socrates' narration of the discussion with Ischomachus: if farming is so easy to learn, why do farmers get such very different results? Ischomachus says that the differences arise not from the fact that people don't have the knowledge but from the fact that they don't put it into practice through hard work. He gives as an example hard work in farming the scheme developed by his father, which he has continued. The way to make money in farming is to buy neglected farms, fix them up, and sell them for a profit; Ischomachus loved farming so much that he did that all the time. While Socrates doesn't come out and say so, it is clear that he sees the irony in this -- Ischomachus really makes money not out of farming but out of selling farms -- and doesn't entirely like it; he compares it, apparently sarcastically, to the unscrupulous acts of Athenian traders who 'love grain' so much that instead of selling it to grain-poor Athens, they make fortunes selling it in whatever foreign market that will deliver the highest price. Obviously such people do not really love the grain at all; and the negative implication for Ischomachus is very clear. But Ischomachus takes Socrates to be joking, and replies that it makes perfect sense to say that someone has a love of building houses even if he sells all the houses he builds in order to build others. Socrates replies -- again, apparently sarcastically -- that he very much believes Ischomachus when he says that "everyone is naturally inclined to love the things which they think will profit them" (20.24).

The dialogue ends with a long speech of Ischomachus on how he will concede one thing to Socrates, namely, that it also involves authority, which is common to many other things, which depends on the gods. It is difficult to know exactly how to interpret this. The basic idea seems very Xenophontic: Xenophon tends to emphasize both the importance of hard work and the value understanding how to exercise authority. On the other hand, Socrates' goal in discussing these matters with Ischomachus was to find out why he had the reputation of being beautiful and good. And all that we've learned about Ischomachus is that he seems to do well because other people do the work for him. His wife does all the domestic work. His foreman seems to do all the practical farming work. It's sometimes hard not to take his insistence that everyone already knows what is involved in agriculture as a sign that he doesn't actually know much about the subject, and just thinks he already does. He doesn't even make his major profit off of the produce of farming but instead off of real estate sales. So we seem to have the implicit conclusion that Ischomachus is not kalos kagathos, and that his reputation arises mostly from the work of others. This suggests that Socrates' narrative is quite ironic even in its own terms. If that is the case, there is certainly more going on here than is generally discussed in commentary on the dialogue.

There's no need to think that everything Ischomachus says is wrong or absurd; as the narrative is quite long, Socrates can obviously be using it to try to make many different points to Critobulus, by simply giving him a different vantage point on the questions he has been asking. But I don't see how one can not see the obvious ironies here. Setting aside the apparent irony of what we seem to know about Ischomachus from other sources -- which in a dialogue by Plato would be taken immediately as an indicator of irony in the dialogue -- Ischomachus and Socrates clearly diverge at several points, including the especially important question of whether questioning is a kind of teaching. Moreover, Ischomachus repeatedly fails to give any clear idea of what he does, despite being asked the question explicitly twice -- instead we spend practically all the time talking about what Ischomachus's wife and servants do. What little we get about Ischomachus's work itself (11.14-18) consists of Ischomachus rising early, walking out to his farm if he doesn't have business in Athens (as he does this day, sitting in the agora for long periods of time waiting to meet people), looking around the farm where his servants are already doing the work, supervising any changes he thinks should be made, then training with his horse, and finally walking and running back to Athens, all the while making sure that he eats regular meals. The man can't be doing more than an hour or two of work a day. And to crown it all, I don't see why anyone would not take the revelation in the penultimate section about how Ischomachus actually makes his money as anything else but a sign that we shouldn't take him with complete seriousness.

  Additional Remarks

* The dialogue starts so abruptly that it is commonly thought that it began as an additional section of the Memorabilia that grew big enough to stand alone.

* The description of the Great King's estate management is very Xenophontic; Xenophon, of course, saw Persia firsthand in his expedition with Cyrus the Younger and also wrote a highly idealized historical fiction about the education of Cyrus the Great. Xenophon signals that this is his own idea of how Socrates might handle the topic by having Socrates describe the behavior of Cyrus the Younger and remark that, if he had lived, he would have been a great ruler -- very Xenophon, that. There are also verbal parallels in the description of Cyrus's death with Xenophons account of the same thing in Anabasis 1.9.31.

* A feature of Athenian life that comes up quite often in this dialogue is the peculiarity of the Athenian taxation system. When the Athenians needed to fund some extraordinary and expensive item best not drawn from its regular treasury, like a religious festival or new warships, they would summon a rich citizen and make them pay for it. The expectation was that the wealthy citizen would do this as a part of his civic responsibilities. (This, incidentally, is one of the things Aristotle has in mind when he talks about the virtue of magnificence.)

* An element of Greek marriage practice that plays an important role in the dialogue is that wives were often taken when they are very young. It is not actually surprising that Critobulus has very little to say to his wife. As Ischomachus notes, his wife was fifteen when he married her, and Critobulus's may be even younger. A considerable part of what Socrates seems to be doing with the Ischomachus narration is trying to show Critobulus that he is really serious in saying, at the end of section 3, "My opinion is that when a wife is a good partner in the house, her contribution is just as beneficial as her husband's." Note, too, Socrates remark at the beginning of section 10 that if Ischomachus's account is right, his wife's mind is as good as a man's.

Quotations are from Xenophon, Conversations of Socrates, Waterfield, tr. Penguin (New York: 1990) 269-359.


  1. Enbrethiliel12:59 PM


    So even after he's definitely dead, they still make up stories to tell about him? LOL! Socrates is better than zombies!

  2. Itinérante4:48 AM

    I sure became a fan of him(or we say his?) after this summer ^^


Please understand that this weblog runs on a third-party comment system, not on Blogger's comment system. If you have come by way of a mobile device and can see this message, you may have landed on the Blogger comment page, or the third party commenting system has not yet completely loaded; your comments will only be shown on this page and not on the page most people will see, and it is much more likely that your comment will be missed.