The Economist

The Economist by • October 31, 2008 • Printer-friendly

Xenophon’s Oeconomicus offers a pragmatic alternative way of looking at questions of wealth, property, and human happiness.  He is neither an economist nor a philosopher, only a man who, though he valued courage and honor above wealth, understand the true significance of property as the foundation of prosperity and happiness.  In these dark times, his common-sense pagan wisdom has much to teach us.

I shall be quoting from the widely available (on translation of H.G. Dakyns, if only because it saves me the trouble of acquiring a translation.  Where relevant, I shall correct or clarify the translation by referring to the Greek text, which is also available on Perseus, if that site is up and running again.  Let me begin with a few remarks on the author, cribbed largely from the Oxford Classical Dictionary .

Life of Xenophon

Xenophon, son of Gryllus, was born to a wealthy Athenian family in 428/7 BC and died about 354.  As a young man he attached himself to Socrates, though it was not to the Platonic metaphysician we know from the later dialogues but to the reactionary sophist who criticized the mores of the Athenian democracy.  One of the charges against Socrates was that he corrupted the youth.  When we look at some of his prominent disciples and friends–Alcibiades, Critias, Charmides, Meno the Thessalian–it is easy to see why this charge stuck.  Alcibiades was a brilliant opportunist who betrayed his city, Critias and Charmides were leaders of a clique of fascist thugs who ruled Athens at the end of the Peloponnesian War as “The Thirty,” and Meno, according to Xenophon, was perfectly corrupt and dishonest.  Some of Socrates’ prominent students–including Plato–were anti-democratic and expressed admiration for the Spartans.  This was an aristocratic fashion that Socrates did not invent, but he did nothing to discourage it.

Xenophon left Athens in 401, just two years after a  democratic restoration that might have made life difficult for a man of aristocratic leanings.  He accepted the invitation of Proxenus of Thebes to accompany him on an expedition whose ultimate goal was the elevation of Cyrus, the younger son of the late king Artaxerxes, on the Persian throne.  He immortalized his adventures going up the country in the Anabasis.  On the expedition, he collaborated with Spartan adventurers and enlisted under the Spartan Thibron.  The politics are complicated but the result of his collaboration was a sentence of exile. Upon returning to Greece, he went with  his comrades  to Sparta, where he as treated with respect and later given an estate.  As a friend and admirer of the Spartan king Agesilaus, whom he memorialized in a biographical essay, he found himself on the Spartan side at Mantineia, fighting against Athens.  As relations between teh two fading great powers improved, he returned to Athens.  His son Gryllus died fighting for Athens and was honored by having one of Aristotle’s  dialogues–a published work that has not survived–named after him.

Xenophon was an exemplary Greek: a soldier, a traveler, a man of unbounded curiosity who wrote works of history (the Hellenica), biography, and recollections of Socrates as well as treatises on hunting and, in the case of the Oeconomicus , household management.  Solid, intelligent, gentlemanly, but never brilliant or eccentric, he gives us a rare glance into the mind of an affluent and intelligent Greek of his day.

One of the many topics that have occupied–rather fruitlessly–the attention of scholars is the different portraits of Socrates drawn by Plato and Xenophon.  Plato’s Socrates evolves from a dialectical gadfly who drives interlocutors into a corner where they have to confess their ignorance into a comprehensive metaphysician and finally into something like a skeptic.  I have always believed that the evolution is more Plato’s than his mentor’s.  Xenophon’s Socrates has many traits in commons with Plato’s first version in the “aporetic” dialogues (Euthyphro, Laches, etc.), but he is more practical and down-to-earth.  Common sense suggests that each writer took from Socrates what most interested him.  The question is ultimately as insoluble as which portrait of Jesus is correct, Mark’s or John’s?

Oeconomicus chapters I-III

I. Socrates and Critobulus enter into a discussion about the management of wealth and the role of the oeconomicus or household manager, whether he be the owner or merely a hired steward.  If economy is a skill, they agree, then it is a valuable one.  They also agree that the oikos (household) should be regarded as a man’s entire property and not just what is in his house.  But, once Socrates gets the sucker to admit that a man’s enemies are not part of his wealth, he forces him to acknowledge that true wealth is only that which is beneficial to the possessor.  Thus ownership of a piece of unproductive land on which we labor in vain only to starve, is not wealth.   Similarly money, if squandered on vices that harm us, is not wealth, while enemies–if they provoke us to improve–are.  People who are enslaved to passions are not wealthy, no matter how much they may own, because they use their money to their own detriment.

II. Socrates sets out to prove that the poor philosopher is wealthier than the rich Critobulus, who is forced to spend vast amounts on a lavish life style,  various charities, and  liturgies–that is, committments to pay for public activities such as the staging of tragedies or the fitting out of a ship.  Nothing constitutes wealth unless it is possessed by  someone who knows how to use it.  Along the way, Socrates casually distinguishes between resale value and use.  Thus an unmusical person who owns a flute has wealth if he is willing to sell it, but not if he wishes to retain it.  This is a significant point, I believe, and quite Greek.  While we tend to think of property rights almost exclusively as the right to buy and sell, they were more interested in maintaining possession.  Now that the question of expertise has been introduced, Socrates uses his famous irony to provoke the wealthy Critobulus into giving him lessons on oikonomia, wealth-management.  In doing so he alludes to his own propensity for grilling supposed experts on their technical knowledge, and the reader knows full well that his procedure is to make the general confess he knows nothing of courage, the pious man nothing of piety, etc.  We almost pity Critobulus.

III.  Socrates begins by distinguishing beween two kinds of possessors: 1Those who waste their money on worthless display, and 2) Those who are content with owning only what they need and can use.  Parallel to this set are those who 1) cannot even lay their hands on their stuff when they need it and those who 2) have everything in its proper place and available for use.  As a corollary to this distinction, he sets up two classes of husbands: those whose wives are trained to be good managers and those whose wives are careless spendthrifts.  The wives are bad  either because their husbands failed to train them properly or because they are simply perverse.  This is an important point, because husbands and wives are partners, not masters and slaves.  When Critobulus admits that he does not often converse with his wife, Socrates blames him for not educating her.  Nothing is more important for household success:

“My belief is that a good wife, being as she is the partner in a common estate, must needs be her husband’s counterpoise and counterpart for good; since, if it is through the transactions of the husband, as a rule, that goods of all sorts find their way into the house, yet it is by means of the wife’s economy and thrift that the greater part of the expenditure is checked, and on the successful issue or the mishandling of the same depends the increase or impoverishment of a whole estate.”

IV  Socrates distinguishes between the baser mechanical arts that distort the body and narrow the mind and the nobler arts of farming and the military.  He cites the example of the younger Cyrus, whom he had served in his attempt to seize the Persian throne.  Cyrus was a well-known Hellenophile but also a model Persian.  Xenophon, like Herodotus, admires many features of Persian life, a position that some modern multi-culturalists would say was incompatible with the supposed xenophobia of the Greeks. He repeats teh story that Cyrus claimed never to have sat down to supper without having worked up a sweat, either in agricultural work or in some military exercise.  Socrates goes on (V) to praise the life of the farmer as the most conducive to human happiness:  It brings plenty, both for everyday use but also the products to be offered in sacrifice to the gods.  And, agriculture–unlike mechanic arts that distort the body or business that requires no exercise–demands the exercise that makes the body strong and healthy.  He even goes so far as to praise the beauty of the natural world, which Greek writers often take entirely for granted.  Farming also requires the kind of cooperation that will be demanded in battle, when the farmer-soldier is called upon to defend his land and those of his neighbors.

In VI-VII, Socrates outlines the argument so far and begins to flesh out the abstractions by describing a man who is kalos kai agathos, which can be translated as handsome and good or as good and brave or a combination of these qualities.  It is the Athenian ideal of what used to be known as the gentleman and includes nobility of appearance and conduct, a good family, and bravery in war.  Socrates recounts a meeting with this gentleman, Ischomachus, in the portico of Zeus Eleutherios, who has the time to spend on public business and in discourse with his friends because his wife, whom he has trained,  is capable of managing affairs at home.  Note that the training began with prayer and sacrifice, dedication to a common purpose.  It was for this common purpose that the two families joined them in marriage, which joins their funds together as well as their persons.  The two purposes of mariage, as he says, are 1) procreation of children to continue the family, and 2) to rear the children to the point that they will be able to reciprocate when the parents are old.  The Greeks very firmly believed that it was the child’s duty to take care of aged parents, and that is Medea’s chief preoccupation, in Euripides’ play, when she murders her children. I knew a Chinese lady whose children did well and she made each one of them contribute $100 per month to her, if only as an acknowledgment of their debt.

Husband and wife have a common purpose, but each is framed by divine and natural power to perform a discrete set of tasks:  Men are stronger and bolder and to them is assigned hard labor and fighting, while women are born with a greater affection for children and the ability to tend to more sheltered  activities.  In the many ethical qualities needed in both sets of functions, they are equally endowed.

The woman’s job is like that of the Queen bee, who supervises all within the hive and makes sure that the laborers go out and perform  their duties.  So long as there is an orderly life, to say nothing of civilization, it is woman’s job to make man work to deserve her.  As my old friend Mel Bradford once observed, when it was the fashion to attack black men for their evil ways, black women, in making themselves sexually available at an early age, were failing in an essential duty.

Oeconomicus VIII-X

After embarrassing his wife by asking for something in the house she could not find, Ischomachus apologizes for having failed to tell her where to put it.  There is nothing so useful or so good/fine, he explains as order, taxis, a word often used in military language.   The old soldier Xenophon doesnot hesitate then to draw out an allegory of the household as an army in which good order produces good results.  If Xenophon seems a bit obsessive on storage, it may be that Greeks of his day had not reached the pitch of organization we have, with closets, shelving, etc.  They used mainly chests or left things lying about.

Ischomachus finds his wife wearing high heels and having used pigments to improve her complexion.  Somewhat priggishly he chides her by suggesting these arts are dishonest.  Now, if his wife is under 30–as she is–his objections are well-taken.  Young women don’t need to wear make-up, but a wise man should never be unhappy with his wife’s efforts to make herself more pleasing to him.  The case of a young American woman flaunting her looks in public is entirely different.  Athenian women lived rather seccluded lives.

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