Xenophon on Home Economics

The world’s first text on home economics gives an idea of its great import. Xenophon, an Athenian, was born in 431 B.C. and was a pupil of Socrates. He fought with the Spartans and was exiled from Athens before settling in Corinth. The format of his book, Oeconomicus, will be familiar to lovers of Plato, as it’s a dialogue between Socrates and Crito of Alopece (Critobulus) about the proper way to manage an estate. Socrates talks at length about a man named Ischomachus and his wife, in order to illustrate the principles of “the science of the household.” You can find this book for free on Amazon for Kindle. It’s also available in old-fashioned book form. Here’s a brief summary of some of the highlights from this ancient text on home ec.

Money Is Only Good if You Know How To Manage It

Crito begins by saying that the business of the good economist is to manage his house and estate. Socrates says if money can’t be managed well, it should be banished to the remote corners of the earth rather than be reckoned as “wealth.”

Friends and Foes Should be Managed, and Can Count as Wealth

Crito replies to a question from Socrates, saying friends count among a man’s wealth, even in a deeper sense than cattle, since they’re likely to prove more beneficial than cattle. Socrates asks him, then shouldn’t ones foes be able to count as wealth too, if the economist can use them to benefit?

Be on Guard Against Those with Slave-like Qualities

Socrates advises Crito to be on guard against those in his household who have the qualities of slaves—being prone to luxury, drink, and idleness. (Socrates is using the term slave to denote a person who is a slave to his own passions.) He tells Crito that the economist should be like a warrior in guarding against this type of person in his household, for this attitude not only makes men miserable, it’s an attitude that is contagious.

Sometimes You Think You’re Rich, When You’re Really Not

Socrates next discusses the negative sides of being rich. Crito has to make numerous, costly sacrifices in order to keep up with the expectations of someone of his station. He is bound to welcome foreigners as guests and entertain them richly (in ancient Greece, such hospitality was expected between those of the same social class). Also, he has to be in a kind of servitude to his fellow citizens, for if he was unkind he’d lose his supporters. In addition, he is called upon to support the state in numerous ways, such as public buildings and services. If there is war, he’ll be called upon to donate money.

Socrates says that although he is poor monetarily, he doesn’t have to bother with any of these things. Plus, he has so many good friends, if he was ever in need of food or some other trifle, he would have plenty of assistance. Crito’s situation is the opposite: He has much less freedom (and thus, true richness) than Socrates, but is always called upon to help others.

A Good Wife Can Be Key to Being a Good Economist

Socrates says that depending on how a husband treats his wife, she can be either an asset or a liability to the wealth of the estate.

Crito is confused, and asks whether the husband should really bear the blame if his wife is a misfit with money.

But Socrates is insistent, and gives the illustration that if sheep go astray, we blame the shepherd, not the sheep. Likewise, if a rider cannot control his horse, we don’t blame the horse. The only time the woman can be blamed for her mismanagement of household goods is if she knows what she is doing is wrong, and intentionally delights in mismanaging the household property. If the husband has not properly taught her “fair and noble” conduct, then he should be held responsible for her behavior.

Socrates questions Crito, and finds he is like most husbands: He entrusts matters of great importance to his wife, and talks to her more than anyone else. Crito also admits they were married when his wife was young, when she had almost no experience dealing with the world (implying she would definitely need her husband’s guidance to learn about economics and management).

Socrates says it’s of the utmost importance that a wife be taught economics and household management. For although it is through the man that wealth comes into the house, it’s the woman who manages the goods of the house and controls whether that wealth increases or is merely thrown away.

Agriculture Is the Best Occupation for a Gentleman

Socrates says all high and mighty people have a love of working with the land:

Earth, in the first place, freely offers to those that labour all things necessary to the life of man; and, as if that were not enough, makes further contribution of a thousand luxuries.

He compares the Earth to a sweet mistress, who will give all of her gifts for a smile. The Earth is also a generous hostess, who provides fires in the winter, streams and shade in the summer, and a bounty of fruits. But he cautions those who would work the land to be noble in their dealings, for:

Earth, of her own will, gives lessons in justice and uprightness to all who can understand her meaning, since the nobler the service of devotion rendered, the ampler the riches of her recompense.

Socrates claims that agriculture and animal husbandry is the best employment for a gentleman. It’s easy to learn, pleasant to do, allows one to exercise the body, and gives a person freedom for friendships and civic duties. He cautions against entering any field of “base mechanic arts . . . on the ground that they destroy the bodies of the artisans, as far as we can see, and crush their spirits.”

The Story of Ischomachus and His Wife

Next, Socrates tells Crito about a man named Ischomachus, who is an example of a man who is “beautiful and good”—a true gentleman. Socrates is clear that he only looks at internal beauty, since he’s found that many who are outwardly beautiful are inwardly knaves.

Socrates saw Ischomachus one day in the marketplace, sitting by a temple of Zeus, and asked why he was just sitting there at leisure. Ischomachus replied he didn’t have to stay indoors all day, since his wife was capable of managing their domestic affairs. In response to Socrates’ questioning, he describes his wife. She was 15 when they married, and the extent of her education had been to control her appetites and self-indulgence, which he considers to be “the most important matter in the bringing-up of man or woman.”

The book describes how men and women are endowed with different skills, in order to complement each other: Men with greater capacity for extremes of weather, military marches, and courage; women with more affection for newborns and desire to be a guardian of the home. When his wife asked him how her duties were similar to the queen bee, the response is:

She too stays in the hive and suffers not the other bees to idle. Those whose duty it is to work outside she sends forth to their labours; and all that each of them brings in, she notes and receives and stores against the day of need; but when the season for use has come, she distributes a just share to each.

Xenophon on a Woman’s Dress and Makeup

Socrates relates how one day Ischomachus’ wife made herself up with white lead and rouge, and was wearing high-heeled shoes. He asked her if she would love him more if he exaggerated his wealth and passed off fake jewels as the real thing. His wife was horrified, and said she couldn’t truly love him if he were a fake.

Ischomachus then asked if she would prefer him more if he wore makeup, and upon her reply in the negative, he requested she do the same. His wife agreed, and asked for advice as to how she could become, not falsely pretty, but truly beautiful with no deceit.

How to be Truly Graceful

This is the advice Ischomachus gave his wife, and it’s as relevant today as it was more than 2,000 years ago:

Not to be for ever seated like a slave; but, with Heaven’s help, to assume the attitude of a true mistress standing before the loom, and where her knowledge gave her the superiority, bravely to give the aid of her instruction; where her knowledge failed, as bravely try to learn. I counselled her to oversee the baking woman as she made the bread; to stand beside the housekeeper as she measured out her stores; to go tours of inspection to see if all things were in order as they should be. For, as it seemed to me, this would at once be walking exercise and supervision. And, as an excellent gymnastic, I recommended her to knead the dough and roll the paste; to shake the coverlets and make the beds; adding, if she trained herself in exercise of this sort she would enjoy her food, grow vigorous in health, and her complexion would in very truth be lovelier. The very look and aspect of the wife, the mistress, seen in rivalry with that of her attendants, being as she is at once more fair and more beautifully adorned, has an attractive charm, and not the less because her acts are acts of grace, not services enforced. Whereas your ordinary fine lady, seated in solemn state, would seem to court comparison with painted counterfeits of womanhood.

Xenophon on the Qualities of a Beautiful Person

The Oeconomicus also describes the qualities of a person who is truly beautiful:

  • The ability to satisfy more than their own wants. They are able to create a surplus of wealth, so they can help their city, as well as residents in their city who are less fortunate.
  • The creation of goodwill and kindness toward those in his employ.
  • Teaching others how to live a virtuous life.
  • To be a good master, in order to have good servants.
  • To educate those in one’s employ in the ability to be good rulers, that they may eventually set up households and businesses for themselves.

The result of all of these actions, referred to as “the royal code,” is a more harmonious society. Rather than the unjust being rewarded with wealth, only the just will be rewarded. Men will not harbor resentment and envy in their hearts due to unjustice, and all will strive for honor.