Oeconomicus, by Xenophon


All this I relate to you (continued Socrates) to show you that quite high and mighty78 people find it hard to hold aloof from agrictulture, devotion to which art would seem to be thrice blest, combining as it does a certain sense of luxury with the satisfaction of an improved estate, and such a training of physical energies as shall fit a man to play a free man’s part.79 Earth, in the first place, freely offers to those that labour all things necessary to the life of man; and, as if that were not enough, makes further contribution of a thousand luxuries.80 It is she who supplies with sweetest scent and fairest show all things wherewith to adorn the altars and statues of the gods, or deck man’s person. It is to her we owe our many delicacies of flesh or fowl or vegetable growth;81 since with the tillage of the soil is closely linked the art of breeding sheep and cattle, whereby we mortals may offer sacrifices well pleasing to the gods, and satisfy our personal needs withal.

And albeit she, good cateress, pours out her blessings upon us in abundance, yet she suffers not her gifts to be received effeminately, but inures her pensioners to suffer glady summer’s heat and winter’s cold. Those that labour with their hands, the actual delvers of the soil, she trains in a wrestling school of her own, adding strength to strength; whilst those others whose devotion is confined to the overseeing eye and to studious thought, she makes more manly, rousing them with cock-crow, and compelling them to be up and doing in many a long day’s march.82 Since, whether in city or afield, with the shifting seasons each necessary labour has its hour of performance.83

Or to turn to another side. Suppose it to be a man’s ambition to aid his city as a trooper mounted on a charger of his own: why not combine the rearing of horses with other stock? it is the farmer’s chance.84 Or would your citizen serve on foot? It is husbandry that shall give him robustness of body. Or if we turn to the toil-loving fascination of the chase,85 here once more earth adds incitement, as well as furnishing facility of sustenance for the dogs as by nurturing a foster brood of wild animals. And if horses and dogs derive benefit from this art of husbandry, they in turn requite the boon through service rendered to the farm. The horse carries his best of friends, the careful master, betimes to the scene of labour and devotion, and enables him to leave it late. The dog keeps off the depredations of wild animals from fruits and flocks, and creates security in the solitary place.

Earth, too, adds stimulus in war-time to earth’s tillers; she pricks them on to aid the country under arms, and this she does by fostering her fruits in open field, the prize of valour for the mightiest.86 For this also is the art athletic, this of husbandry; as thereby men are fitted to run, and hurl the spear, and leap with the best.87

This, too, is that kindliest of arts which makes requital tenfold in kind for every work of the labourer.88 She is the sweet mistress who, with smile of welcome and outstretched hand, greets the approach of her devoted one, seeming to say, Take from me all thy heart’s desire. She is the generous hostess; she keeps open house for the stranger.89 For where else, save in some happy rural seat of her devising, shall a man more cheerily cherish content in winter, with bubbling bath and blazing fire? or where, save afield, in summer rest more sweetly,lulled by babbling streams, soft airs, and tender shades?90

Her high prerogative it is to offer fitting first-fruits to high heaven, hers to furnish forth the overflowing festal board.91 Hers is a kindly presence in the household. She is the good wife’s favourite, the children long for her, she waves her hand winningly to the master’s friends.

For myself, I marvel greatly if it has ever fallen to the lot of freeborn man to own a choicer possesion, or to discover an occupation more seductive, or of wider usefulness in life than this.

But, furthermore, earth of her own will92 gives lessons in justice and uprightness to all who can understand her meaning, since the nobler the service of devotion rendered, the ampler the riches of her recompense.93 One day, perchance, these pupils of hers, whose conversation in past times was in husbandry,94 shall, by reason of the multitude of invading armies, be ousted from their labours. The work of their hands may indeed be snatched from them, but they were brought up in stout and manly fashion. They stand, each one of them, in body and soul equipped; and, save God himself shall hinder them, they will march into the territory of those their human hinderers, and take from them the wherewithal to support their lives. Since often enough in war it is surer and safer to quest for food with sword and buckler than with all the instruments of husbandry.

But there is yet another lesson to be learnt in the public shool of husbandry95 — the lesson of mutual assistance. “Shoulder to shoulder” must we march to meet the invader;96 “shoulder to shoulder” stand to compass the tillage of the soil. Therefore it is that the husbandman, who means to win in his avocation, must see that he creates enthusiasm in his workpeople and a spirit of ready obedience; which is just what a general attacking an enemy will scheme to bring about, when he deals out gifts to the brave and castigation97 to those who are disorderly.

Nor will there be lacking seasons of exhortation, the general haranguing his troops and the husbandman his labourers; nor because they are slaves do they less than free men need the lure of hope and happy expectation,98 that they may willingly stand to their posts.

It was an excellent saying of his who named husbandry “the mother and nurse of all the arts,” for while agriculture prospers all other arts like are vigorous and strong, but where the land is forced to remain desert,99 the spring that feeds the other arts is dried up; they dwindle, I had almost said, one and all, by land and sea.

These utterances drew from Critobulus a comment:

Socrates (he said), for my part I agree with all you say; only, one must face the fact that in agriculture nine matters out of ten are beyond man’s calculation. Since at one time hailstones and another frost, at another drought or a deluge of rain, or mildew, or other pest, will obliterate all the fair creations and designs of men; or behold, his fleecy flocks most fairly nurtured, then comes murrain, and the end most foul destruction.100

To which Socrates: Nay, I thought, Critobulus, you full surely were aware that the operations of husbandry, no less than those of war, lie in the hands of the gods. I am sure you will have noted the behaviour of men engaged in war; how on the verge of military operations they strive to win the acceptance of the divine powers;101 how eagerly they assail the ears of heaven, and by dint of sacrifices and omens seek to discover what they should and what they should not do. So likewise as regards the processes of husbandry, think you the propitiation of heaven is less needed here? Be well assured (he added) the wise and prudent will pay service to the gods on behalf of moist fruits and dry,102 on behalf of cattle and horses, sheep and goats; nay, on behalf of all their possessions, great and small, without exception.

78 Lit. “Not even the most blessed of mankind can abstain from.” See Plat. “Rep.” 344 B, “The superlatively best and well-to-do.”

79 Lit. “Devotion to it would seem to be at once a kind of luxury, an increase of estate, a training of the bodily parts, so that a man is able to perform all that a free man should.”

80 Al. “and further, to the maintenance of life she adds the sources of pleasure in life.”

81 Lit. “she bears these and rears those.”

82 See “Hellenica Essays,” p. 341.

83 Lit. “each most necessary operation must ever be in season.”

84 Lit. “farming is best adapted to rearing horses along with other produce.”

85 Lit. “to labour willingly and earnestly at hunting earth helps to incite us somewhat.”

86 Cf. “Hipparch,” viii. 8.

87 Cf. “Hunting,” xii. 1 foll.

88 Lit. “What art makes an ampler return for their labour to those who work for her? What art more sweetly welcomes him that is devoted to her?”

89 Lit. “What art welcomes the stranger with greater prodigality?”

90 See “Hellenica Essays,” p. 380; and as still more to the point, Cowley’s Essays: “Of Agriculture,” passim.

91 Or, “to appoint the festal board most bounteously.”

92 Reading thelousa, vulg., or if after Cobet, theos ousa, transl. “by sanction of her divinity.” With thelousa Holden aptly compares Virgil’s “volentia rura,” “Georg.” ii. 500.

93 “That is, her ‘lex talionis.’”

94 “Engaged long time in husbandry.”

95 Lit. “But again, husbandry trains up her scholars side by side in lessons of . . .”

96 sun anthropois, “man with his fellow-man,” is the “mot d’order” (cf. the author’s favourite sun theois); “united human effort.”

97 “Lashes,” “punishment.” Cf. “Anab.” II. vi. 10, of Clearchus.

98 “The lure of happy prospects.” See “Horsmanship,” iii. 1.

99 Or, “lie waste and barren as the blown sea-sand.”

100 See Virg. “Georg.” iii. 441 foll.: “Turpis oves tentat scabies, ubi frigidus imber.”

101 See “Hell.” III. i. 16 foll., of Dercylidas.

102 “Every kind of produce, succulent (like the grape and olive) or dry (like wheat and barley, etc.)”


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