Oeconomicus, by Xenophon


Soc. Well, then, Ischomachus, supposing the man is now so fit to rule that he can compel obedience,301 is he, I ask once more, your bailiff absolute? or even though possessed of all the qualifications you have named, does he still lack something?302

Most certainly (replied Ischomachus). One thing is still required of him, and that is to hold aloof from property and goods which are his master’s; he must not steal. Consider, this is the very person through whose hands the fruits and produce pass, and he has the audacity to make away with them! perhaps he does not leave enough to cover the expenses of the farming operations! Where would be the use of farming the land by help of such an overseer?

What (I exclaimed), can I believe my ears? You actually undertake to teach them virtue! What really, justice!

Isch. To be sure, I do. but it does not follow therefore that I find all equally apt to lend an ear to my instruction. However, what I do is this. I take a leaf now out of the laws of Draco and again another out of the laws of Solon,303 and so essay to start my household on the path of uprightness. And indeed, if I mistake not (he proceeded), both those legislators enacted many of their laws expressly with a view to teaching this branch of justice.304 It is written, “Let a man be punished for a deed of theft”; “Let whosoever is detected in the act be bound and thrown in prison”; “If he offer violence,305 let him be put to death.” It is clear that the intention of the lawgivers in framing these enactments was to render the sordid love of gain306 devoid of profit to the unjust person. What I do, therefore, is to cull a sample of their precepts, which I supplement with others from the royal code307 where applicable; and so I do my best to shape the members of my household into the likeness of just men concerning that which passes through their hands. And now observe — the laws first mentioned act as penalties, deterrent to transgressors only; whereas the royal code aims higher: by it not only is the malefactor punished, but the righteous and just person is rewarded.308 The result is, that many a man, beholding how the just grow ever wealthier than the unjust, albeit harbouring in his heart some covetous desires, is constant still to virtue. To abstain from unjust dealing is engrained in him.309

Those of my household (he proceeded) whom, in spite of kindly treatment, I perceive to be persistently bent on evil-doing, in the end I treat as desperate cases. Incurable self-seekers,310 plain enough to see, whose aspiration lifts them from earth, so eager are they to be reckoned just men, not by reason only of the gain derivable from justice, but through passionate desire to deserve my praise — these in the end I treat as free-born men. I make them wealthy, and not with riches only, but in honour, as befits their gentle manliness.311 For if, Socrates, there be one point in which the man who thirsts for honour differs from him who thirsts for gain, it is, I think, in willingness to toil, face danger, and abstain from shameful gains — for the sake of honour only and fair fame.312

301 Or, “that discipline flows from him;” al. “he presents you with obedient servants.”

302 Lit. “will he still need something further to complete him?”

303 Cobet, “Pros. Xen.” cf. Plut. “Solon,” xvii. proton men oun tous Drakontos nomous aneile k.t.l. “First, then, he repealed all Draco’s laws, except those concerning homicide, because they were too severe and the punishments too great; for death was appointed for almost all offences, insomuch that those that were convicted of idleness were to die, and those that stole a cabbage or an apple to suffer even as villains that comitted sacrilege or murder” (Clough, i. 184). See Aul. Gell. “N. A.” xi. 13.

304 “The branch of justice which concerns us, viz. righteous dealing between man and man.”

305 For this sense of tous egkheirountas cf. Thuc. iv. 121; “Hell.” IV. v. 16. Al. dedesthai tous egkheirountas kai thanatousthai en tis alo poion (Weiske), “let the attempt be punished with imprisonment”; “let him who is caught in the act be put to death.”

306 Cf. Plat. “Laws,” 754 E.

307 Or, “the royal laws,” i.e. of Persia. Cf. “Anab.” I. ix. 16; “Cyrop.” I. ii. 2, 3. Or possibly = “regal”; cf. Plat. “Minos,” 317 C; to men orthon nomos esti basilikos.

308 Lit. “benefited.”

309 Lit. “Whereby, beholding the just becoming wealthier than the unjust, many albeit covetous at heart themselves most constantly abide by abstinence from evil-doing.”

310 Lit. “Those, on the other hand, whom I discover to be roused” (to honesty — not solely because honesty is the best policy).

311 Or, “men of fair and noble type”; “true gentlemen.” This passage suggests the “silver lining to the cloud” of slavery.

312 Cf. Hom. “Il.” ix. 413, oleto men moi nostos, atar kleos aphthiton estai, “but my fame shall be imperishable.”


Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:02