Oeconomicus, by Xenophon


The conversation was resumed as follows: Thanking Ischomachus for what he had told me about the occupations of his wife; on that side I have heard enough (I said) perhaps for a beginning; the facts you mention reflect the greatest credit on both wife and husband; but would you now in turn describe to me your work and business? In doing so you will have the pleasure of narrating the reason of your fame. And I, for my part, when I have heard from end to end the story of a beautiful and good man’s works, if only my wits suffice and I have understood it, shall be much indebted.

Indeed (replied Ischomachus), it will give me the greatest pleasure to recount to you my daily occupations, and in return I beg you to reform me, where you find some flaw or other in my conduct.232

The idea of my reforming you! (I said). How could I with any show of justice hope to reform you, the perfect model233 of a beautiful, good man — I, who am but an empty babbler,234 and measurer of the air,235 who have to bear besides that most senseless imputation of being poor — an imputation which, I assure you, Ischomachus, would have reduced me to the veriest despair, except that the other day I chanced to come across the horse of Nicias,236 the foreigner? I saw a crowd of people in attendance staring, and I listened to a story which some one had to tell about the animal. So then I stepped up boldly to the groom and asked him, “Has the horse much wealth?” The fellow looked at me as if I were hardly in my right mind to put the question, and retorted, “How can a horse have wealth?” Thereat I dared to lift my eyes from earth, on learning that after all it is permitted a poor penniless horse to be a noble animal, if nature only have endowed him with good spirit. If, therefore, it is permitted even to me to be a good man, please recount to me your works from first to last, I promise, I will listen, all I can, and try to understand, and so far as in me lies to imitate you from tomorrow. To-morrow is a good day to commence a course of virtue, is it not?

You are pleased to jest, Socrates (Ischomachus replied), in spite of which I will recount to you those habits and pursuits by aid of which I seek to traverse life’s course. If I have read aright life’s lesson, it has taught me that, unless a man first discover what he needs to do, and seriously study to bring the same to good effect, the gods have placed prosperity237 beyond his reach; and even to the wise and careful they give or they withhold good fortune as seemeth to them best. Such being my creed, I begin with service rendered to the gods; and strive to regulate my conduct so that grace may be given me, in answer to my prayers, to attain to health, and strength of body, honour in my own city, goodwill among my friends, safety with renown in war, and of riches increase, won without reproach.

I, when I heard these words, replied: And are you then indeed so careful to grow rich, Ischomachus? — amassing wealth but to gain endless trouble in its management?

Most certainly (replied Ischomachus), and most careful must I needs be of the things you speak of. So sweet I find it, Socrates, to honour God magnificently, to lend assistance to my friends in answer to their wants, and, so far as lies within my power, not to leave my city unadorned with anything which riches can bestow.

Nay (I answered), beautiful indeed the works you speak of, and powerful the man must be who would essay them. How can it be otherwise, seeing so many human beings need the help of others merely to carry on existence, and so many are content if they can win enough to satisfy their wants. What of those therefore who are able, not only to administer their own estates, but even to create a surplus sufficient to adorn their city and relieve the burthen of their friends? Well may we regard such people as men of substance and capacity. But stay (I added), most of us are competent to sing the praises of such heroes. What I desire is to hear from you, Ischomachus, in your own order,238 first how you study to preserve your health and strength of body; and next, how it is granted to you239 to escape from the perils of war with honour untarnished. And after that (I added), it will much content me to learn from your own lips about your money-making.

Yes (he answered), and the fact is, Socrates, if I mistake not, all these matters are in close connection, each depending on the other. Given that a man have a good meal to eat, he has only to work off the effect by toil240 directed rightly; and in the process, if I mistake not, his health will be confirmed, his strength added to. Let him but practise the arts of war and in the day of battle he will preserve his life with honour. He needs only to expend his care aright, sealing his ears to weak and soft seductions, and his house shall surely be increased.241

I answered: So far I follow you, Ischomachus. You tell me that by labouring to his full strength,242 by expending care, by practice and training, a man may hope more fully to secure life’s blessings. So I take your meaning. But now I fain would learn of you some details. What particular toil do you impose on yourself in order to secure good health and strength? After what particular manner do you practise the arts of war? How do you take pains to create a surplus which will enable you to benefit your friends and to gratify the state?

Why then (Ischomachus replied), my habit is to rise from bed betimes, when I may still expect to find at home this, that, or the other friend, whom I may wish to see. Then, if anything has to be done in town, I set off to transact the business and make that my walk;243 or, if there is no business to do in town, my serving-boy leads my horse to the farm; I follow, and so make the country-road my walk, which suits my purpose quite as well, or better, Socrates, perhaps, than pacing up and down the colonade.244 Then when I have reached the farm, where mayhap some of my men are planting trees, or breaking fallow, sowing or getting in the crops, I inspect their various labours with an eye to every detail, and, whenever I can improve upon the present system, I introduce reform. After this, as a rule, I mount my horse and take a canter. I put him through his paces, suiting these, as far as possible, to those inevitable in war245 — in other words, I avoid neither steep slope246 nor sheer incline, neither trench nor runnel, only giving my utmost heed the while so as not to lame my horse while exercising him. When that is over, the boy gives the horse a roll,247 and leads him homewards, taking at the same time from the country to town whatever we may chance to need. Meanwhile I am off for home, partly walking, partly running, and having reached home I take a bath and give myself a rub;248 and then I breakfast — a repast which leaves me neither empty nor replete,249 and will suffice to last me through the day.

pransus non avide, quantum interpellet inani ventre diem durare.

Then eat a temperate luncheon, just to stay A sinking stomach till the close of day (Conington).

By Hera (I replied), Ischomachus, I cannot say how much your doings take my fancy. How you have contrived, to pack up portably for use — together at the same time — appliances for health and recipes for strength, exercises for war, and pains to promote your wealth! My admiration is raised at every point. That you do study each of these pursuits in the right way, you are yourself a standing proof. Your look of heaven-sent health and general robustness we note with our eyes, while our ears have heard your reputation as a first-rate horseman and the wealthiest of men.

Isch. Yes, Socrates, such is my conduct, in return for which I am rewarded with — the calumnies of half the world. You thought, I daresay, I was going to end my sentence different, and say that a host of people have given me the enviable title “beautiful and good.”

I was indeed myself about to ask, Ischomachus (I answered), whether you take pains also to acquire skill in argumentative debate, the cut and thrust and parry of discussion,250 should occasion call?

Isch. Does it not strike you rather, Socrates, that I am engaged in one long practice of this very skill,251 now pleading as defendant that, as far as I am able, I do good to many and hurt nobody? And then, again, you must admit, I play the part of prosecutor when accusing people whom I recognise to be offenders, as a rule in private life, or possibly against the state, the good-for-nothing fellows?

But please explain one other thing, Ischomachus (I answered). Do you put defence and accusation into formal language?252

Isch. “Formal language,” say you, Socrates? The fact is, I never cease to practise speaking; and on this wise: Some member of my household has some charge to bring, or some defence to make,253 against some other. I have to listen and examine. I must try to sift the truth. Or there is some one whom I have to blame or praise before my friends, or I must arbitrate between some close connections and endeavour to enforce the lesson that it is to their own interests to be friends not foes.254 . . . We are present to assist a general in court;255 we are called upon to censure some one; or defend some other charged unjustly; or to prosecute a third who has received an honour which he ill deserves. It frequently occurs in our debates256 that there is some course which we strongly favour: naturally we sound its praises; or some other, which we disapprove of: no less naturally we point out its defects.

He paused, then added: Things have indeed now got so far, Socrates, that several times I have had to stand my trial and have judgment passed upon me in set terms, what I must pay or what requital I must make.257

And at whose bar (I asked) is the sentence given? That point I failed to catch.258

Whose but my own wife’s? (he answered).

And, pray, how do you conduct your own case? (I asked).259

Not so ill (he answered), when truth and interest correspond, but when they are opposed, Socrates, I have no skill to make the worse appear the better argument.260

Perhaps you have no skill, Ischomachus, to make black white or falsehood truth (said I).261

232 Lit. “in order that you on your side may correct and set me right where I seem to you to act amiss.” metarruthmises — remodel. Cf. Aristot. “Nic. Eth.” x. 9. 5.

233 Cf. Plat. “Rep.” 566 A, “a tyrant full grown” (Jowett).

234 Cf. Plat. “Phaed.” 70 C; Aristoph. “Clouds,” 1480.

235 Or rather, “a measurer of air”— i.e. devoted not to good sound solid “geometry,” but the unsubstantial science of “aerometry.” See Aristoph. “Clouds,” i. 225; Plat. “Apol.” 18 B, 19 B; Xen. “Symp.” vi. 7.

236 Nothing is known of this person.

237 “The gods have made well-doing and well-being a thing impossible.” Cf. “Mem.” III. ix. 7, 14.

238 “And from your own starting-point.”

239 As to the construction themis einai see Jebb ad “Oed. Col.” 1191, Appendix.

240 See “Mem.” I. ii. 4; “Cyrop.” I. ii. 16. Al. “bring out the effect of it by toil.”

241 Lit. “it is likely his estate will increase more largely.”

242 Or, “by working off ill-humours,” as we should say.

243 See “Mem.” III. xiii. 5.

244 xusto — the xystus, “a covered corrider in the gymnasium where the athletes exercised in winter.” Vitruv. v. 11. 4; vi. 7. 5. See Rich, “Companion,” s.n.; Becker, op. cit. p. 309. Cf. Plat. “Phaedr.” 227 — Phaedrus loq.: “I have come from Lysias the son of Cephalus, and I am going to take a walk outside the wall, for I have been sitting with him the whole morning; and our common friend Acumenus advises me to walk in the country, which he says is more invigorating than to walk in the courts.”— Jowett.

245 See “Horsemanship,” iii. 7 foll.; ib. viii.; “Hipparch,” i. 18.

246 “Slanting hillside.”

247 See “Horsemanship,” v. 3; Aristoph. “Clouds,” 32.

248 Lit. “scrape myself clean” (with the stleggis or strigil. Cf. Aristoph. “Knights,” 580. See Becker, op. cit. p. 150.

249 See “Lac. Pol.” ii. 5. Cf. Hor. “Sat.” i. 6. 127:

250 Lit. “to give a reason and to get a reason from others.” Cf. “Cyrop.” I. iv. 3.

251 “The arts of the defendant, the apologist; and of the plaintiff, the prosecutor.”

252 “Does your practice include the art of translating into words your sentiments?” Cf. “Mem.” I. ii. 52.

253 Or, “One member of my household appears as plaintiff, another as defendant. I must listen and cross-question.”

254 The “asyndeton” would seem to mark a pause, unless some words have dropped out. See the commentators ad loc.

255 The scene is perhaps that of a court-martial (cf. “Anab.” V. viii.; Dem. “c. Timocr.” 749. 16). (Al. cf. Sturz, “Lex.” s.v. “we are present (as advocates) and censure some general”), or more probably, I think, that of a civil judicial inquiry of some sort, conducted at a later date by the Minister of Finance (to stratego to epi tas summorias eremeno).

256 Or, “Or again, a frequent case, we sit in council” (as members of the Boule). See Aristot. “Pol.” iv. 15.

257 See “Symp.” v. 8. Al. dielemmenos = “to be taken apart and have . . .”

258 Or, “so dull was I, I failed to catch the point.”

259 See “Mem.” III. vii. 4; Plat. “Euth.” 3 E.

260 See Plat. “Apol.” 19-23 D; Aristoph. “Clouds,” 114 foll.

261 Or, “It may well be, Ischomachus, you cannot manufacture falsehood into truth.” Lit. “Like enough you cannot make an untruth true.”


Last updated Tuesday, March 4, 2014 at 14:12