Oeconomicus, by Xenophon


Soc. But now, suppose, Ischomachus, you have created in the soul of some one a desire for your welfare; have inspired in him not a mere passive interest, but a deep concern to help you to achieve prosperity; further, you have obtained for him a knowledge of the methods needed to give the operations of the field some measure of success; you have, moreover, made him capable of ruling; and, as the crowning point of all your efforts, this same trusty person shows no less delight, than you might take yourself, in laying at your feet313 earth’s products, each in due season richly harvested — I need hardly ask concerning such an one, whether aught else is lacking to him. It is clear to me314 an overseer of this sort would be worth his weight in gold. But now, Ischomachus, I would have you not omit a topic somewhat lightly handled by us in the previous argument.315

What topic, pray, was that? (he asked).

Soc. You said, if I mistake not, that it was most important to learn the methods of conducting the several processes of husbandry; for, you added, unless a man knows what things he has to do and how to do them, all the care and diligence in the world will stand him in no stead.

At this point316 he took me up, observing: So what you now command me is to teach the art itself of tillage, Socrates?

Yes (I replied), for now it looks as if this art were one which made the wise and skilled possessor of it wealthy, whilst the unskilled, in spite of all the pains he takes, must live in indigence.

Isch. Now shall you hear, then,317 Socrates, the generous nature of this human art. For is it not a proof of something noble in it, that being of supreme utility, so sweet a craft to exercise, so rich in beauty, so acceptable alike to gods and men, the art of husbandry may further fairly claim to be the easiest of all the arts to learn? Noble I name it! this, at any rate, the epithet we give to animals which, being beautiful and large and useful, are also gentle towards the race of man.318

Allow me to explain, Ischomachus (I interposed). Up to a certain point I fully followed what you said. I understand, according to your theory, how a bailiff must be taught. In other words, I follow your descriptions both as to how you make him kindly disposed towards yourself; and how, again, you make him careful, capable of rule, and upright. But at that point you made the statement that, in order to apply this diligence to tillage rightly, the careful husbandman must further learn what are the different things he has to do, and not alone what things he has to do, but how and when to do them. These are the topics which, in my opinion, have hitherto been somewhat lightly handled in the argument. Let me make my meaning clearer by an instance: it is as if you were to tell me that, in order to be able to take down a speech in writing,319 or to read a written statement, a man must know his letters. Of course, if not stone deaf, I must have garnered that for a certain object knowledge of letters was important to me, but the bare recognition of the fact, I fear, would not enable me in any deeper sense to know my letters. So, too, at present I am easily persuaded that if I am to direct my care aright in tillage I must have a knowledge of the art of tillage. But the bare recognition of the fact does not one whit provide me with the knowledge how I ought to till. And if I resolved without ado to set about the work of tilling, I imagine, I should soon resemble your physician going on his rounds and visiting his patients without knowing what to prescribe or what to do to ease their sufferings. To save me from the like predicaments, please teach me the actual work and processes of tillage.

Isch. But truly,320 Socrates, it is not with tillage as with the other arts, where the learner must be well-nigh crushed321 beneath a load of study before his prentice-hand can turn out work of worth sufficient merely to support him.322 The art of husbandry, I say, is not so ill to learn and cross-grained; but by watching labourers in the field, by listening to what they say, you will have straightway knowledge enough to teach another, should the humour take you. I imagine, Socrates (he added), that you yourself, albeit quite unconscious of the fact, already know a vast amount about the subject. The fact is, other craftsmen (the race, I mean, in general of artists) are each and all disposed to keep the most important323 features of their several arts concealed: with husbandry it is different. Here the man who has the most skill in planting will take most pleasure in being watched by others; and so too the most skilful sower. Ask any question you may choose about results thus beautifully wrought, and not one feature in the whole performance will the doer of it seek to keep concealed. To such height of nobleness (he added), Socrats, does husbandry appear, like some fair mistress, to conform the soul and disposition of those concerned with it.

The proem324 to the speech is beautiful at any rate (I answered), but hardly calculated to divert the hearer from the previous question. A thing so easy to be learnt, you say? then, if so, do you be all the readier for that reason to explain its details to me. No shame on you who teach, to teach these easy matters; but for me to lack the knowledge of them, and most of all if highly useful to the learner, worse than shame, a scandal.

313 apodeiknuon, i.e. in presenting the inventory of products for the year. Cf. “Hell.” V. iii. 17; “Revenues,” ii. 7.

314 ede, at this stage of the discussion.

315 Or, “that part of the discussion which we ran over in a light and airy fashion,” in reference to xiii. 2.

316 Keeping the vulg. order of SS. 3-9, which many commentators would rearrange in various ways. See Breit. ad loc.; Lincke, op. cit. p. 111 foll.

317 Or, “Listen, then, and whilst I recount to you at once the loving-kindness of this art, to man the friendliest.”

318 Schenkl regards this sentence as an interpolation. For the epithet gennaios applied to the dog see “Cyrop.” I. iv. 15, 21; “Hunting,” iv. 7.

319 Or, “something from dictation.”

320 “Nay, if you will but listen, Socrates, with husbandry it is not the same as with the other arts.”

321 katatribenai, “worn out.” See “Mem.” III. iv. 1; IV. vii. 5. Al. “bored to death.”

322 Or, “before the products of his pupilage are worth his keep.”

323 Or, “critical and crucial.”

324 Or, “the prelude to the piece.”


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