Oeconomicus, by Xenophon


So (continued Socrates), when I heard his wife had made this answer, I exclaimed: By Hera, Ischomachus, a brave and masculine intelligence the lady has, as you describe her.

(To which Ischomachus) Yes, Socrates, and I would fain narrate some other instances of like large-mindedness on her part: shown in the readiness with which she listened to my words and carried out my wishes.

What sort of thing? (I answered). Do, pray, tell me, since I would far more gladly learn about a living woman’s virtues than that Zeuxis218 should show me the portrait of the loveliest woman he has painted.

Whereupon Ischomachus proceeded to narrate as follows: I must tell you, Socrates, I one day noticed she was much enamelled with white lead,219 no doubt to enhance the natural whitenes of her skin; she had rouged herself with alkanet220 profusely, doubtless to give more colour to her cheeks than truth would warrant; she was wearing high-heeled shoes, in order to seem taller than she was by nature.221

Accordingly I put to her this question:222 “Tell me, my wife, would you esteem me a less lovable co-partner in our wealth, were I to show you how our fortune stands exactly, without boasting of unreal possessions or concealing what we really have? Or would you prefer that I should try to cheat you with exaggeration, exhibiting false money to you, or sham223 necklaces, or flaunting purples224 which will lose their colour, stating they are genuine the while?”

She caught me up at once: “Hush, hush!” she said, “talk not such talk. May heaven forfend that you should ever be like that. I could not love you with my whole heart were you really of that sort.”

“And are we two not come together,” I continued, “for a closer partnership, being each a sharer in the other’s body?”

“That, at any rate, is what folk say,” she answered.

“Then as regards this bodily relation,” I proceeded, “should you regard me as more lovable or less did I present myself, my one endeavour and my sole care being that my body should be hale and strong and thereby well complexioned, or would you have me first anoint myself with pigments,225 smear my eyes with patches226 of ‘true flesh colour,’227 and so seek your embrace, like a cheating consort presenting to his mistress’s sight and touch vermillion paste instead of his own flesh?”

“Frankly,” she answered, “it would not please me better to touch paste than your true self. Rather would I see your own ‘true flesh colour’ than any pigment of that name; would liefer look into your eyes and see them radiant with health than washed with any wash, or dyed with any ointment there may be.”

“Believe the same, my wife, of me then,” Ischomachus continued (so he told me); “believe that I too am not better pleased with white enamel or with alkanet than with your own natural hue; but as the gods have fashioned horses to delight in horses, cattle in cattle, sheep in their fellow sheep, so to human beings the human body pure and undefiled is sweetest;228 and as to these deceits, though they may serve to cheat the outside world without detection, yet if intimates try to deceive each other, they must one day be caught; in rising from their beds, before they make their toilet; by a drop of sweat they stand convicted; tears are an ordeal they cannot pass; the bath reveals them as they truly are.”

What answer (said I) did she make, in Heaven’s name, to what you said?

What, indeed (replied the husband), save only, that thenceforward she never once indulged in any practice of the sort, but has striven to display the natural beauty of her person in its purity. She did, however, put to me a question: Could I advise her how she might become not in false show but really fair to look upon?

This, then, was the counsel which I gave her, Socrates: Not to be for ever seated like a slave;229 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 fair230 and more beautifully adorned, has an attractive charm,231 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.

And, Socrates, I would have you know that still today, my wife is living in a style as simple as that I taught her then, and now recount to you.

218 See “Mem.” I. iv. 3.

219 Cf. Aristoph. “Eccl.” 878; ib. 929, egkhousa mallon kai to son psimuthion: ib. 1072; “Plut.” 1064.

220 Lit. “enamelled or painted with anchusa or alkanet,” a plant, the wild bugloss, whose root yields a red dye. Cf. Aristoph. “Lys.” 48; Theophr. “H. Pl.” vii. 8. 3.

221 See Becker, op. cit. p. 452; Breit. cf. “Anab.” III. ii. 25; “Mem.” II. i. 22; Aristot. “Eth. Nic.” iv. 3, 5, “True beauty requires a great body.”

222 Lit. “So I said to her, ‘Tell me, my wife, after which fashion would you find me the more delectable partner in our joint estate — were I to . . .? or were I to . . .?’”

223 Lit. “only wood coated with gold.”

224 See Becker, op. cit. p. 434 f; Holden cf. Athen. ix. 374, xii. 525; Ael. “V. H.” xii. 32; Aristoph. “Plut.” 533.

225 “Red lead.”

226 Cf. Aristoph. “Ach.” 1029.

227 andreikelon. Cf. Plat. “Rep.” 501 B, “the human complexion”; “Crat.” 424 E.

228 See “Mem.” II. i. 22.

229 See Becker, p. 491. Breit., etc., cf. Nicostr. ap. Stob. “Tit.” lxxiv. 61.

230 Lit. “more spotles”; “like a diamond of purest water.” Cf. Shakesp. “Lucr.” 394, “whose perfect white Showed like an April daisy in the grass.”

231 Or, “is wondrous wooing, and all the more with this addition, hers are acts of grace, theirs services enforced.”


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