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the Complete Review
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To purchase Oeconomicus

Title: Oeconomicus
Author: Xenophon
Genre: Dialogue
Written: ca. 385 BCE (Eng. 1923; rev. 2013)
Length: 177 pages
Original in: classical Greek
Availability: in: Memorabilia. Oeconomicus. Symposium. Apology - US
in: Memorabilia. Oeconomicus. Symposium. Apology - UK
in: Memorabilia. Oeconomicus. Symposium. Apology - Canada
Économique - France
in: Die sokratischen Schriften - Deutschland
in: Tutti gli scritti socratici - Italia
in: Recuerdos de Sócrates - España
  • Greek title: Οἰκονομικός
  • Translated by E.C.Marchant and O.J.Todd
  • Revised by Jeffrey Henderson
  • There are numerous other translations of this work
  • This is a bilingual edition that includes the original Greek text

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Our Assessment:

B : engaging and well-presented

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Classical Philology . 21:3 (7/1926) Geneva Misener
Times Literary Supplement* . 19/1/1996 P.J.Rhodes
[* review of a different translation]

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The complete review's Review:

       In Oeconomicus Xenophon presents a lengthy Socratic dialogue focused on a single (larger) subject -- as opposed to the many short examples he presented in Memorabilia. And whereas in Memorabilia Xenophon offers some running commentary of his own as well, here he basically presents only the dialogue -- Socrates, and the words of those he speaks with --, after noting in opening:

I once heard him also discuss the subject of estate management as follows.
       The conversation he records begins like a familiar Socratic dialogue, Socrates posing questions of and engaging in discussion with Critobulus. It's unusual then in switching to a second exchange, Socrates in dialogue with an expert in the field, Ischomachus -- which Socrates relates verbatim to Critobulus -- a conversation within the conversation, as it were (with poor Critobulus completely shut out of it, reduced to passive listener), which takes up two-thirds of the entire book.
       The subject-matter -- estate management and farming -- are not city-dweller Socrates' strongpoint; indeed, as he explains, his reason for seeking out Ischomachus was because he had heard Ischomachus was a paragon -- "someone known as a gentleman". (In their original 1923 translation E.C.Marchant and O.J.Todd put that in quotes -- "someone known as ‘a gentleman’" --; in his 2013 revision Jeffrey Henderson does away with those, though they seem to make it clearer that Socrates' term can't be equated with a modern (or, say, nineteenth-century English) conception of 'gentleman'. Admittedly, however, Socrates harps on the term enough in Oeconomicus (and elsewhere) that that becomes self-evident.)
       Socrates is a big fan of outdoor activity -- notably war (or at least soldierly preparation for it) but also farming; even the philosophizing he practiced was generally of the open-air (as opposed to closed classroom) sort. Indoor-activity and the repetitive-routine is scorned -- not just by Socrates, but he's certainly on board with that attitude, agreeing that "the so-called banausic occupations are scorned and, naturally enough, held in low regard in our states" -- not least because sitting inside all day (maybe even by a fire ...) has a deleterious effect on men: "As their bodies become womanish their souls lose strength too".
       Marchant/Todd translated what Henderson has as 'banausic' (literally the Greek original) as "illiberal arts", which also helps convey exactly what Socrates finds wrong with it -- as, interestingly, one of the reasons he is so opposed to it is because he sees it undermining the very connected social fiber of the state (presumably one reason he was always wandering about outdoors, easily accessible):
Moreover, these so-called banausic occupations leave no spare time for attention to one's friends and city, so that those who follow them are reputed bad at dealing with friends and bad defenders of their country. In some of the states, in fact, and especially in those reputed to be warlike, it is not even lawful for any of the citizens to work in the banausic occupations.
       Farming, on the other hand, offers much variety -- and the great outdoors, making it a noble pursuit -- even for an estate owner, who, to do his job properly of course can't hide in his office all day but must inspect his lands and be involved with how they are worked. (Ischomachus admirably even goes so far as to actually get his hands dirty, getting involved even, for example, in the planting of various crops and trees, but the actual working of the land is of course left to the lowlier.)
       Socrates' dialogue with Critobulus considering the pursuit of estate management -- one's own, or working for someone else. It is yet another field where expertise leads to success -- if one can avoid becoming a slave to other 'rulers', including those: "deceitful mistresses that pretend to be pleasures": from gambling to drink to lechery. Socrates' recognizes the danger of these passions, and insists: "we must fight for our freedom against all these as persistently as if they were armed men trying to enslave us" -- his notion of freedom tending, as always, to the puritanical.
       Socrates emphasizes the importance of farming -- arguing it is something: "not even the wealthiest can do without", providing not just wealth (in terms of improved estates) and food, but countless other benefits (not least, healthy work in the fresh air). He easily convinces Critobulus that: "farming is the fairest, noblest, and most pleasant way of earning a living". Since, however, Socrates has little actual experience or firsthand knowledge of how to really make a go of it, Socrates also shares the instructive conversation he had with a master of the subject, Ischomachus -- a true 'gentleman' in this area.
       In their exchange Ischomachus takes on the role of guide, revealing to Socrates the secrets of his success. Of course, it is all a bit suspect, as Socrates conveniently gets the answers he is looking for, as -- not so surprisingly -- successful farming and estate management turn out to rely on exactly that approach that Socrates touts with regards to everything else, and life in general ..... It comes as no surprise to eventually find Ischomachus at one point realize:
     "Here again then, Socrates, student and teacher are of one opinion; and what's more, you the student stated this opinion before I did."
       Funny how that happens ..... But by the end it's obvious even to Ischomachus what game Socrates is playing, and how he is playing it, pointing out to him, about yet another point: "You know quite well and are only trying to draw me out again".
       Ischomachus begins by acknowledging the role of his wife -- her competence in handling the household permitting him to devote his attention elsewhere and meaning that he does not have to: "pass my time indoors" (the kind of thing Socrates frowns upon). Ischomachus notes how he trained his wife for the job: marrying her when she was not yet fifteen, and properly a blank slate -- until then: "she had lived under diligent supervision, seeing, hearing, and speaking as little as possible" -- he had been able to train her for her proper role. (This problematic (to put it mildly) assignment of family-roles -- specifically with the woman 'valued' for her contribution but that limited to a specific small domestic sphere -- remains disappointingly popular.)
       Xenophon does use the example of Ischomachus and his wife to support Socrates' larger points on family structure and relationships. There are some odd good points thrown in along the way, such as Ischomachus convincing his wife to do without make-up (arguing that it is a kind of deceit which is pointless in a relationship where those involved should (and will) always see each other's true colors) -- but, predictably, in this Socratic lesson Ischomachus has to add that he encourages his wife to, for example, mix flour, knead dough, and shake and fold the laundry as: "such exercise would give her a better appetite, improve her health, and add natural color to her complexion". Proper, dutiful work enhances natural beauty -- while lazy "wives who sit about like fine ladies open themselves to comparison with painted and fraudulent women". (Henderson softened this; Marchant/Todd called them 'painted and fraudulent hussies'.)
       Of course, it's not just wives and womanfolk that need training; Socrates also has Ischomachus explain how he trains the men who work for him -- after first noting the hopeless cases such as drunkards and sluggards, as well those who too readily fall desperately in love. (With, no doubt, a Socratian sigh, Ischomachus has to admit: "it isn't easy to find hope or occupation more delightful than devotion to the darling boys !" .....)
       Socrates is pleased with how things go, wrapping up by praising Ischomachus:
     But I am pondering how skillfully you've presented the whole argument in support of your proposition, Ischomachus. For you stated that farming is the easiest of all occupations to learn, and after hearing all that you've said, I'm quite convinced that this is so.
       Of course, the *skillful presentation* is more thanks to Socrates, who, as always, leads the way, even when he pretends to assume the mantle of the student. That his views on the value of farming are confirmed comes as no surprise; as to the ease of learning it, that's more of a stretch -- neither the reader (nor, one can point out, Socrates) are likely to decide on a change of occupation based on what they've heard here.
       Early on, Socrates admitted to Critobulus: "I am all eagerness to tell you all I know", and, boy, ain't that the truth; twist it however you want, Socrates is one hell of a busybody know-it-all (and an opinionated one at that). Of course, he redeems himself some by being artful in his teaching -- and Xenophon's fine presentation -- both of which here involve Socrates pretending to be the pupil much of the time (though in fact, of course, always leading the way). If the conversation (with Ischomachus) within a conversation (with Critobulus) is a bit of an awkward literary device, Oeconomicus is otherwise a well-crafted piece of work. The philosophy hardly convinces, but it is revealing -- about Greek conditions of the time, social and economic (in the broadest sense), especially, but also specifically much of Socrates' own thinking -- and even if the subject-matter may not seem the most interesting, this actually is a consistently engaging read.

- M.A.Orthofer, 29 April 2020

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Oeconomicus: Xenophon:
  • Xenophon at the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy
  • Xenophon books and writers
Other books by Xenophon under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Historian and philosopher Xenophon (Ξενοφῶν) lived ca. 430 to 354 B.C.E.

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