Oeconomicus, by Xenophon


At this point in the conversation I remarked: Tell me, Ischomachus, if the details of the art of husbandry are thus easy to learn, and all alike know what needs to be done, how does it happen that all farmers do not fare like, but some live in affluence owning more than they can possibly enjoy, while others of them fail to obtain the barest necessities and actually run into debt?

I will tell you, Socrates (Ischomachus replied). It is neither knowledge nor lack of knowledge in these husbandmen which causes some to be well off, while others are in difficulties; nor will you ever hear such tales afloat as that this or that estate has gone to ruin because the sower failed to sow evenly, or that the planter failed to plant straight rows of plants, or that such an one,411 being ignorant what soil was best suited to bear vines, had set his plants in sterile ground, or that another412 was in ignorance that fallow must be broken up for purposes of sowing, or that a third413 was not aware that it is good to mix manure in with the soil. No, you are much more likely to hear said of So-and-so: No wonder the man gets in no wheat from his farm, when he takes no pains to have it sown or properly manured. Or of some other that he grows no wine: Of course not, when he takes no pains either to plant new vines or to make those he has bear fruit. A third has neither figs nor olives; and again the self-same reason: He too is careless, and takes no steps whatever to succeed in growing either one or other. These are the distinctions which make all the difference to prosperity in farming, far more than the reputed discovery of any clever agricultural method or machine.414

You will find the principle applies elsewhere. There are points of strategic conduct in which generals differ from each other for the better or the worse, not because they differ in respect of wit or judgment, but of carefulness undoubtedly. I speak of things within the cognisance of every general, and indeed of almost every private soldier, which some commanders are careful to perform and others not. Who does not know, for instance, that in marching through a hostile territory an army ought to march in the order best adapted to deliver battle with effect should need arise?415 — a golden rule which, punctually obeyed by some, is disobeyed by others. Again, as all the world knows, it is better to place day and night pickets416 in front of an encampment. Yet even that is a procedure which, carefully observed at times, is at times as carelessly neglected. Once more: not one man in ten thousand,417 I suppose, but knows that when a force is marching through a narrow defile, the safer method is to occupy beforehand certain points of vantage.418 Yet this precaution also has been known to be neglected.

Similarly, every one will tell you that manure is the best thing in the world for agriculture, and every one can see how naturally it is produced. Still, though the method of production is accurately known, though there is every facility to get it in abundance, the fact remains that, while one man takes pains to have manure collected, another is entirely neglectful. And yet God sends us rain from heaven, and every hollow place becomes a standing pool, while earth supplies materials of every kind; the sower, too, about to sow must cleanse the soil, and what he takes as refuse from it needs only to be thrown into water and time itself will do the rest, shaping all to gladden earth.419 For matter in every shape, nay earth itself,420 in stagnant water turns to fine manure.

So, again, as touching the various ways in which the earth itself needs treatment, either as being too moist for sowing, or too salt421 for planting, these and the processes of cure are known to all men: how in one case the superfluous water is drawn off by trenches, and in the other the salt corrected by being mixed with various non-salt bodies, moist or dry. Yet here again, in spite of knowledge, some are careful of these matters, others negligent.

salsa autem tellus, et quae perhibetur amara frugibus infelix.

But even if a man were altogether ignorant what earth can yield, were he debarred from seeing any fruit or plant, prevented hearing from the lips of any one the truth about this earth: even so, I put it to you, it would be easier far for any living soul to make experiments on a piece of land,422 than on a horse, for instance, or on his fellow-man. For there is nought which earth displays with intent to deceive, but in clear and simple language stamped with the seal of truth she informs us what she can and cannot do.423 Thus it has ever seemed to me that earth is the best discoverer of true honesty,424 in that she offers all her stores of knowledge in a shape accessible to the learner, so that he who runs may read. Here it is not open to the sluggard, as in other arts, to put forward the plea of ignorance or lack of knowledge, for all men know that earth, if kindly treated, will repay in kind. No! there is no witness425 against a coward soul so clear as that of husbandry;426 since no man ever yet persuaded himself that he could live without the staff of life. He therefore that is unskilled in other money-making arts and will not dig, shows plainly he is minded to make his living by picking and stealing, or by begging alms, or else he writes himself down a very fool.427

Presently, Ischomachus proceeded: Now it is of prime importance,428 in reference to the profitableness or unprofitableness of agriculture, even on a large estate where there are numerous429 workfolk,430 whether a man takes any pains at all to see that his labourers are devoted to the work on hand during the appointed time,431 or whether he neglects that duty. Since one man will fairly distance ten432 simply by working at the time, and another may as easily fall short by leaving off before the hour.433 In fact, to let the fellows take things easily the whole day through will make a difference easily of half in the whole work.434

As, on a walking-expedition, it may happen, of two wayfarers, the one will gain in pace upon the other half the distance say in every five-and-twenty miles,435 though both alike are young and hale of body. The one, in fact, is bent on compassing the work on which he started, he steps out gaily and unflinchingly; the other, more slack in spirit, stops to recruit himself and contemplate the view by fountain side and shady nook, as though his object were to court each gentle zephyr. So in farm work; there is a vast difference as regards performance between those who do it not, but seek excuse for idleness and are suffered to be listless. Thus, between good honest work and base neglect there is as great a difference as there is between — what shall I say? — why, work and idleness.436 The gardeners, look, are hoeing vines to keep them clean and free of weeds; but they hoe so sorrily that the loose stuff grows ranker and more plentiful. Can you call that437 anything but idleness?

Such, Socrates, are the ills which cause a house to crumble far more than lack of scientific knowledge, however rude it be.438 For if you will consider; on the one hand, there is a steady outflow439 of expenses from the house, and, on the other, a lack of profitable works outside to meet expenses; need you longer wonder if the field-works create a deficit and not a surplus? In proof, however, that the man who can give the requisite heed, while straining every nerve in the pursuit of agriculture, has speedy440 and effective means of making money, I may cite the instance of my father, who had practised what he preached.441

Now, my father would never suffer me to purchase an estate already under cultivation, but if he chanced upon a plot of land which, owing to the neglect or incapacity of the owner, was neither tilled nor planted,442 nothing would satisfy him but I must purchase it. He had a saying that estates already under cultivation cost a deal of money and allowed of no improvement; and where there is no prospect of improvement, more than half the pleasure to be got from the possession vanishes. The height of happiness was, he maintained, to see your purchase, be it dead chattel or live animal,443 go on improving daily under your own eyes.444 Now, nothing shows a larger increase445 than a piece of land reclaimed from barren waste and bearing fruit a hundredfold. I can assure you, Socrates, many is the farm which my father and I made worth I do not know how many times more than its original value. And then, Socrates, this valuable invention446 is so easy to learn that you who have but heard it know and understand it as well as I myself do, and can go away and teach it to another if you choose. Yet my father did not learn it of another, nor did he discover it by a painful mental process;447 but, as he has often told me, through pure love of husbandry and fondness of toil, he would become enamoured of such a spot as I describe,448 and then nothing would content him but he must own it, in order to have something to do, and at the same time, to derive pleasure along with profit from the purchase. For you must know, Socrates, of all Athenians I have ever heard of, my father, as it seems to me, had the greatest love for agricultural pursuits.

When I heard this, I could not resist asking a question; Ischomachus (I said), did your father retain possession of all the farms he put under cultivation, or did he part with them whenever he was offered a good price?

He parted with them, without a doubt (replied Ischomachus), but then at once he bought another in the place of what he sold, and in every case an untilled farm, in order to gratify his love for owrk.

As you describe him (I proceeded), your father must truly have been formed by nature with a passion for husbandry, not unlike that corn-hunger which merchants suffer from. You know their habits: by reason of this craving after corn,449 whenever they hear that corn is to be got, they go sailing off to find it, even if they must cross the Aegean, or the Euxine, or the Sicilian seas. And when they have got as much as ever they can get, they will not let it out of their sight, but store it in the vessel on which they sail themselves, and off they go across the seas again.450 Whenever they stand in need of money, they will not discharge their precious cargo,451 at least not in haphazard fashion, wherever they may chance to be; but first they find out where corn is at the highest value, and where the inhabitants will set the greatest store by it, and there they take and deliver the dear article. Your father’s fondness for agriculture seems to bear a certain family resemblance to this passion.

To these remarks Ischomachus replied: You jest, Socrates; but still I hold to my belief: that man is fond of bricks and mortar who no sooner has built one house than he must needs sell it and proceed to build another.

To be sure, Ischomachus (I answered), and for my part I assure you, upon oath, I, Socrates, do verily and indeed believe452 you that all men by nature love (or hold they ought to love) those things wherebysoever they believe they will be benefited.

411 “Squire This.”

412 “Squire That.”

413 “Squire T’other.”

414 There is something amiss with the text at this point. For emendations see Breit., Schenkl, Holden, Hartman.

415 See Thuc. ii. 81: “The Hellenic troops maintained order on the march and kept a look-out until . . .”— Jowett.

416 See “Cyrop.” I. vi. 43.

417 Lit. “it would be hard to find the man who did not know.”

418 Or, “to seize advantageous positions in advance.” Cf. “Hiero,” x. 5.

419 Lit. “Time itself will make that wherein Earth rejoices.”

420 i.e. “each fallen leaf, each sprig or spray of undergrowth, the very weeds, each clod.” Lit. “what kind of material, what kind of soil does not become manure when thrown into stagnant water?”

421 See Anatol. “Geop.” ii. 10. 9; Theophr. “de Caus.” ii. 5. 4, 16. 8, ap. Holden. Cf. Virg. “Georg.” ii. 238:

422 Or, “this fair earth herself.”

423 Or, “earth our mother reveals her powers and her impotence.”

424 Lit. “of the good and the bad.” Cf. Dem. “adv. Phorm.” 918. 18.

425 Lit. “no accuser of.” Cf. Aesch. “Theb.” 439.

426 Reading, with Sauppe, all’ e georgia, or if, with Jacobs, e en georgia argia, transl. “as that of idleness in husbandry.”

427 Or, “if not, he must be entirely irrational.” Cf. Plat. “Apol.” 37 C.

428 Lit. “it made a great difference, he said, with regard to profit and loss in agriculture.”

429 Or if, after Hertlein, adding kai meionon, transl. “workmen now more, now less, in number.”

430 ergasteron, “poet.” L. & S. cf. “Orph. H.” 65. 4. See above, v. 15; xiii. 10.

431 Cf. Herod. II. ii. 2.

432 Or, “Why! one man in ten makes all the difference by . . .” para = “by comparison with.”

433 Reading as vulg., or if to me pro k.t.l. transl. “by not leaving off, etc.”

434 i.e. “is a difference of fifty per cent on the whole work.”

435 Lit. “per 200 stades.”

436 Or, “wholly to work and wholly to be idle.” Reading as Sauppe, etc., or if with Holden, etc., to de de kalos kai to kakos ergazesthai e epimeleisthai, transl. “between toil and carefulness well or ill expended there lies all the difference; the two things are sundered as wide apart as are the poles of work and play,” etc. A. Jacobs’ emend. ap. Hartm. “An. Xen.” p. 211, to de de kakos ergazesthai e kakos epimeleisthai kei to kalos, seems happy.

437 Or, “such a hoer aught but an idle loon.”

438 Cf. Thuc. v. 7; Plat. “Rep.” 350 A; “Theaet.” 200 B.

439 Or, “the expenses from the house are going on at the full rate,” enteleis. Holden cf. Aristoph. “Knights,” 1367: ton misthon apodoso ‘ntele, “I’ll have the arrears of seamen’s wages paid to a penny” (Frere).

440 anutikotaten. Cf. “Hipparch,” ii. 6.

441 Or, “who merely taught me what he had himself carried out in practice.”

442 i.e. out of cultivation, whether as corn land or for fruit trees, viz. olive, fig, vine, etc.

443 Or, “be it a dead thing or a live pet.” Cf. Plat. “Theaet.” 174 B; “Laws,” 789 B, 790 D, 819 B; “C. I.” 1709.

444 Cf. “Horsem.” iii. 1; and see Cowley’s Essay above referred to.

445 Or, “is susceptible of greater improvement.”

446 Or, “discovery.” See “Anab.” III. v. 12; “Hell.” IV. v. 4; “Hunting,” xiii. 13.

447 Or, “nor did he rack his brains to discover it.” See “Mem.” III. v. 23. Cf. Aristoph. “Clouds,” 102, merimnophrontistai, minute philosophers.

448 “He could not see an estate of the sort described but he must fall over head and ears in love with it at first sight; have it he must.”

449 Lit. “of their excessive love for corn.”

450 Lit. “they carry it across the seas again, and that, too, after having stored it in the hold of the very vessel in which they sail themselves.”

451 Or, “their treasure.” auton throughout, which indeed is the humour of the passage. The love of John Barleycorn is their master passion.

452 Reading e men pisteuein soi phusei (nomizein) philein tauta pantas . . .; and for the “belief” propounded with so much humorous emphasis, see Adam Smith, “Moral Sentiments.” Hartman, “An. Xen.” 180, cf. Plat. “Lysis.”


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