Oeconomicus, by Xenophon

VIII

And did you happen to observe, Ischomachus (I asked), whether, as the result of what was said, your wife was stirred at all to greater carefulness?

Yes, certainly (Ischomachus answered), and I remember how piqued she was at one time and how deeply she blushed, when I chanced to ask her for something which had been brought into the house, and she could not give it me. So I, when I saw her annoyance, fell to consoling her. “Do not be at all disheartened, my wife, that you cannot give me what I ask for. It is plain poverty,155 no doubt, to need a thing and not to have the use of it. But as wants go, to look for something which I cannot lay my hands upon is a less painful form of indigence than never to dream of looking because I know full well that the thing exists not. Anyhow, you are not to blame for this,” I added; “mine the fault was who handed over to your care the things without assigning them their places. Had I done so, you would have known not only where to put but where to find them.156 After all, my wife, there is nothing in human life so serviceable, nought so beautiful as order.157

“For instance, what is a chorus? — a band composed of human beings, who dance and sing; but suppose the company proceed to act as each may chance — confusion follows; the spectacle has lost its charm. How different when each and all together act and recite158 with orderly precision, the limbs and voices keeping time and tune. Then, indeed, these same performers are worth seeing and worth hearing.

“So, too, an army,” I said, “my wife, an army destitute of order is confusion worse confounded: to enemies an easy prey, courting attack; to friends a bitter spectacle of wasted power;159 a mingled mob of asses, heavy infantry, and baggage-bearers, light infantry, cavalry, and waggons. Now, suppose they are on the march; how are they to get along? In this condition everybody will be a hindrance to everybody: ‘slow march’ side by side with ‘double quick,’ ‘quick march’ at cross purposes with ‘stand at ease’; waggons blocking cavalry and asses fouling waggons; baggage-bearers and hoplites jostling together: the whole a hopeless jumble. And when it comes to fighting, such an army is not precisely in condition to deliver battle. The troops who are compelled to retreat before the enemy’s advance160 are fully capable of trampling down the heavy infantry detachments in reserve.161

“How different is an army well organised in battle order: a splendid sight for friendly eyes to gaze at, albeit an eyesore to the enemy. For who, being of their party, but will feel a thrill of satisfaction as he watches the serried masses of heavy infantry moving onwards in unbroken order? who but will gaze with wonderment as the squadrons of the cavalry dash past him at the gallop? And what of the foeman? will not his heart sink within him to see the orderly arrangements of the different arms:162 here heavy infantry and cavalry, and there again light infantry, there archers and there slingers, following each their leaders, with orderly precision. As they tramp onwards thus in order, though they number many myriads, yet even so they move on and on in quiet progress, stepping like one man, and the place just vacated in front is filled up on the instant from the rear.

“Or picture a trireme, crammed choke-full of mariners; for what reason is she so terror-striking an object to her enemies, and a sight so gladsome to the eyes of friends? is it not that the gallant ship sails so swiftly? And why is it that, for all their crowding, the ship’s company163 cause each other no distress? Simply that there, as you may see them, they sit in order; in order bend to the oar; in order recover the stroke; in order step on board; in order disembark. But disorder is, it seems to me, precisely as though a man who is a husbandman should stow away164 together in one place wheat and barley and pulse, and by and by when he has need of barley meal, or wheaten flour, or some condiment of pulse,165 then he must pick and choose instead of laying his hand on each thing separately sorted for use.

“And so with you too, my wife, if you would avoid this confusion, if you would fain know how to administer our goods, so as to lay your finger readily on this or that as you may need, or if I ask you for anything, graciously to give it me: let us, I say, select and assign166 the appropriate place for each set of things. This shall be the place where we will put the things; and we will instruct the housekeeper that she is to take them out thence, and mind to put them back again there; and in this way we shall know whether they are safe or not. If anything is gone, the gaping space will cry out as if it asked for something back.167 The mere look and aspect of things will argue what wants mending;168 and the fact of knowing where each thing is will be like having it put into one’s hand at once to use without further trouble or debate.”

I must tell you, Socrates, what strikes me as the finest and most accurate arrangement of goods and furniture it was ever my fortune to set eyes on; when I went as a sightseer on board the great Phoenician merchantman,169 and beheld an endless quantity of goods and gear of all sorts, all separately packed and stowed away within the smallest compass.170 I need scarce remind you (he said, continuing his narrative) what a vast amount of wooden spars and cables171 a ship depends on in order to get to moorings; or again, in putting out to sea;172 you know the host of sails and cordage, rigging173 as they call it, she requires for sailing; the quantity of engines and machinery of all sorts she is armed with in case she should encounter any hostile craft; the infinitude of arms she carries, with her crew of fighting men aboard. Then all the vessels and utensils, such as people use at home on land, required for the different messes, form a portion of the freight; and besides all this, the hold is heavy laden with a mass of merchandise, the cargo proper, which the master carries with him for the sake of traffic.

Well, all these different things that I have named lay packed there in a space but little larger than a fair-sized dining-room.174 The several sorts, moreover, as I noticed, lay so well arranged, there could be no entanglement of one with other, nor were searchers needed;175 and if all were snugly stowed, all were alike get-atable,176 much to the avoidance of delay if anything were wanted on the instant.

Then the pilot’s mate177 —“the look-out man at the prow,” to give him his proper title — was, I found, so well acquainted with the place for everything that, even off the ship,178 he could tell you where each set of things was laid and how many there were of each, just as well as any one who knows his alphabet179 could tell you how many letters there are in Socrates and the order in which they stand.

I saw this same man (continued Ischomachus) examining at leisure180 everything which could possibly181 be needful for the service of the ship. His inspection caused me such surprise, I asked him what he was doing, whereupon he answered, “I am inspecting, stranger,”182 “just considering,” says he, “the way the things are lying aboard the ship; in case of accidents, you know, to see if anything is missing, or not lying snug and shipshape.183 There is no time left, you know,” he added, “when God mkes a tempest in the great deep, to set about searching for what you want, or to be giving out anything which is not snug and shipshape in its place. God threatens and chastises sluggards.184 If only He destroy not innocent with guilty, a man may be content;185 or if He turn and save all hands aboard that render right good service,186 thanks be to Heaven.”187

So spoke the pilot’s mate; and I, with this carefulness of stowage still before my eyes, proceeded to enforce my thesis:

“Stupid in all conscience would it be on our parts, my wife, if those who sail the sea in ships, that are but small things, can discover space and place for everything; can, moreover, in spite of violent tossings up and down, keep order, and, even while their hearts are failing them for fear, find everything they need to hand; whilst we, with all our ample storerooms188 diversely disposed for divers objects in our mansion, an edifice firmly based189 on solid ground, fail to discover fair and fitting places, easy of access for our several goods! Would not that argue great lack of understanding in our two selves? Well then! how good a thing it is to have a fixed and orderly arrangement of all furniture and gear; how easy also in a dwelling-house to find a place for every sort of goods, in which to stow them as shall suit each best — needs no further comment. Rather let me harp upon the string of beauty — image a fair scene: the boots and shoes and sandals, and so forth, all laid in order row upon row; the cloaks, the mantles, and the rest of the apparel stowed in their own places; the coverlets and bedding; the copper cauldrons; and all the articles for table use! Nay, though it well may raise a smile of ridicule (not on the lips of a grave man perhaps, but of some facetious witling) to hear me say it, a beauty like the cadence of sweet music190 dwells even in pots and pans set out in neat array: and so, in general, fair things ever show more fair when orderly bestowed. The separate atoms shape themselves to form a choir, and all the space between gains beauty by their banishment. Even so some sacred chorus,191 dancing a roundelay in honour of Dionysus, not only is a thing of beauty in itself, but the whole interspace swept clean of dancers owns a separate charm.192

“The truth of what I say, we easily can test, my wife,” I added, “by direct experiment, and that too without cost at all or even serious trouble.193 Nor need you now distress yourself, my wife, to think how hard it will be to discover some one who has wit enough to learn the places for the several things and memory to take and place them there. We know, I fancy, that the goods of various sorts contained in the whole city far outnumber ours many thousand times; and yet you have only to bid any one of your domestics go buy this, or that, and bring it you from market, and not one of them will hesitate. The whole world knows both where to go and where to find each thing.

“And why is this?” I asked. “Merely because they lie in an appointed place. But now, if you are seeking for a human being, and that too at times when he is seeking you on his side also, often and often shall you give up the search in sheer despair: and of this again the reason? Nothing else save that no appointed place was fixed where one was to await the other.” Such, so far as I can now recall it, was the conversation which we held together touching the arrangement of our various chattels and their uses.

155 “Vetus proverbium,” Cic. ap. Columellam, xii. 2, 3; Nobbe, 236, fr. 6.

156 Lit. “so that you might know not only where to put,” etc.

157 Or, “order and arrangement.” So Cic. ap. Col. xii. 2, 4, “dispositione atque ordine.”

158 Or, “declaim,” phtheggontai, properly of the “recitative” of the chorus. Cf. Plat. “Phaedr.” 238 D.

159 Reading agleukestaton, or, if with Breit, akleestaton, “a most inglorious spectacle of extreme unprofitableness.”

160 Or, “whose duty (or necessity) it is to retire before an attack,” i.e. the skirmishers. Al. “those who have to retreat,” i.e. the non-combatants.

161 Al. “are quite capable of trampling down the troops behind in their retreat.” tous opla ekhontas = “the troops proper,” “heavy infantry.”

162 “Different styles of troops drawn up in separate divisions: hoplites, cavalry, and peltasts, archers, and slingers.”

163 See Thuc. iii. 77. 2.

164 “Should shoot into one place.”

165 “Vegetable stock,” “kitchen.” See Holden ad loc., and Prof. Mahaffy, “Old Greek Life,” p. 31.

166 dokimasometha, “we will write over each in turn, as it were, ‘examined and approved.’”

167 Lit. “will miss the thing that is not.”

168 “Detect what needs attention.”

169 See Lucian, lxvi. “The Ship,” ad in. (translated by S. T. Irwin).

170 Lit. “in the tiniest receptacle.”

171 See Holden ad loc. re xelina, plekta, kremasta.

172 “In weighing anchor.”

173 “Suspended tackle” (as opposed to wooden spars and masts, etc.)

174 Lit. “a symmetrically-shaped dining-room, made to hold ten couches.”

175 Lit. “a searcher”; “an inquisitor.” Cf. Shakesp. “Rom. and Jul.” V. ii. 8.

176 Lit. “not the reverse of easy to unpack, so as to cause a waste of time and waiting.”

177 Cf. “Pol. Ath.” i. 1; Aristoph. “Knights,” 543 foll.

178 Or, “with his eyes shut, at a distance he could say exactly.”

179 Or, “how to spell.” See “Mem.” IV. iv. 7; Plat. “Alc.” i. 113 A.

180 “Apparently when he had nothing better to do”; “by way of amusement.”

181 ara, “as if he were asking himself, ‘Would this or this possibly be wanted for the ship’s service?’”

182 “Sir.”

183 Or, “things not lying handy in their places.”

184 Or, “them that are slack.” Cf. “Anab.” V. viii. 15; “Mem.” IV. ii. 40; Plat. “Gorg.” 488 A: “The dolt and good-for-nothing.”

185 “One must not grumble.”

186 “The whole ship’s crew right nobly serving.” uperetein = “to serve at the oar” (metaphorically = to do service to heaven).

187 Lit. “great thanks be to the gods.”

188 Or, “coffers,” “cupboards,” “safes.”

189 Cf. “Anab.” III. ii. 19, “firmly planted on terra firma.”

190 Or, “like the rhythm of a song,” euruthmon. See Mr. Ruskin’s most appropriate note (“Bib. Past.” i. 59), “A remarkable word, as significant of the complete rhythm (ruthmos) whether of sound or motion, that was so great a characteristic of the Greek ideal (cf. xi. 16, metarruthmizo),” and much more equally to the point.

191 “Just as a chorus, the while its dancers weave a circling dance.”

192 Or, “contrasting with the movement and the mazes of the dance, a void appears serene and beautiful.”

193 Lit. “now whether these things I say are true (i.e. are facts), we can make experiment of the things themselves (i.e. of actual facts to prove to us).”

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