Oeconomicus, by Xenophon


It chanced, one day I saw him seated in the portico of Zeus Eleutherios,117 and as he appeared to be at leisure, I went up to him and, sitting down by his side, accosted him: How is this, Ischomachus? you seated here, you who are so little wont to be at leisure? As a rule, when I see you, you are doing something, or at any rate not sitting idle in the market-place.

Nor would you see me now so sitting, Socrates (he answered), but that I promised to meet some strangers, friends of mine,118 at this place.

And when you have no such business on hand (I said) where in heaven’s name do you spend your time and how do you employ yourself? I will not conceal from you how anxious I am to learn from your lips by what conduct you have earned for yourself the title “beautiful and good.”119 It is not by spending your days indoors at home, I am sure; the whole habit of your body bears witness to a different sort of life.

Then Ischomachus, smiling at my question, but also, as it seemed to me, a little pleased to be asked what he had done to earn the title “beautiful and good,” made answer: Whether that is the title by which folk call me when they talk to you about me, I cannot say; all I know is, when they challenge me to exchange properties,120 or else to perform some service to the state instead of them, the fitting out of a trireme, or the training of a chorus, nobody thinks of asking for the beautiful and good gentleman, but it is plain Ischomachus, the son of So-and-so,121 on whom the summons is served. But to answer your question, Socrates (he proceeded), I certainly do not spend my days indoors, if for no other reason, because my wife is quite capable of managing our domestic affairs without my aid.

Ah! (said I), Ischomachus, that is just what I should like particularly to learn from you. Did you yourself educate your wife to be all that a wife should be, or when you received her from her father and mother was she already a proficient well skilled to discharge the duties appropriate to a wife?

Well skilled! (he replied). What proficiency was she likely to bring with her, when she was not quite fifteen122 at the time she wedded me, and during the whole prior period of her life had been most carefully brought up123 to see and hear as little as possible, and to ask124 the fewest questions? or do you not think one should be satisfied, if at marriage her whole experience consisted in knowing how to take the wool and make a dress, and seeing how her mother’s handmaidens had their daily spinning-tasks assigned them? For (he added), as regards control of appetite and self-indulgence,125 she had received the soundest education, and that I take to be the most important matter in the bringing-up of man or woman.

Then all else (said I) you taught your wife yourself, Ischomachus, until you had made her capable of attending carefully to her appointed duties?

That did I not (replied he) until I had offered sacrifice, and prayed that I might teach and she might learn all that could conduce to the happiness of us twain.

Soc. And did your wife join in sacrifice and prayer to that effect?

Isch. Most certainly, with many a vow registered to heaven to become all she ought to be; and her whole manner showed that she would not be neglectful of what was taught her.126

Soc. Pray narrate to me, Ischomachus, I beg of you, what you first essayed to teach her. To hear that story would please me more than any description of the most splendid gymnastic contest or horse-race you could give me.

Why, Socrates (he answered), when after a time she had become accustomed to my hand, that is, was tamed127 sufficiently to play her part in a discussion, I put to her this question: “Did it ever strike you to consider, dear wife,128 what led me to choose you as my wife among all women, and your parents to entrust you to me of all men? It was certainly not from any difficulty that might beset either of us to find another bedfellow. That I am sure is evident to you. No! it was with deliberate intent to discover, I for myself and your parents in behalf of you, the best partner of house and children we could find, that I sought you out, and your parents, acting to the best of their ability, made choice of me. If at some future time God grant us to have children born to us, we will take counsel together how best to bring them up, for that too will be a common interest,129 and a common blessing if haply they shall live to fight our battles and we find in them hereafter support and succour when ourselves are old.130 But at present there is our house here, which belongs like to both. It is common property, for all that I possess goes by my will into the common fund, and in the same way all that you deposited131 was placed by you to the common fund.132 We need not stop to calculate in figures which of us contributed most, but rather let us lay to heart this fact that whichever of us proves the better partner, he or she at once contributes what is most worth having.”

Thus I addressed her, Socrates, and thus my wife made answer: “But how can I assist you? what is my ability? Nay, everything depends on you. My business, my mother told me, was to be sober-minded!”133

“Most true, my wife,” I replied, “and that is what my father said to me. But what is the proof of sober-mindedness in man or woman? Is it not so to behave that what they have of good may ever be at its best, and that new treasures from the same source of beauty and righteousness may be most amply added?”

“But what is there that I can do,” my wife inquired, “which will help to increase our joint estate?”

“Assuredly,” I answered, “you may strive to do as well as possible what Heaven has given you a natural gift for and which the law approves.”

“And what may these things be?” she asked.

“To my mind they are not the things of least importance,” I replied, “unless the things which the queen bee in her hive presides over are of slight importance to the bee community; for the gods” (so Ischomachus assured me, he continued), “the gods, my wife, would seem to have exercised much care and judgment in compacting that twin system which goes by the name of male and female, so as to secure the greatest possible advantage134 to the pair. Since no doubt the underlying principle of the bond is first and foremost to perpetuate through procreation the races of living creatures;135 and next, as the outcome of this bond, for human beings at any rate, a provision is made by which they may have sons and daughters to support them in old age.

“And again, the way of life of human beings, not being maintained like that of cattle136 in the open air, obviously demands roofed homesteads. But if these same human beings are to have anything to bring in under cover, some one to carry out these labours of the field under high heaven137 must be found them, since such operations as the breaking up of fallow with the plough, the sowing of seed, the planting of trees, the pasturing and herding of flocks, are one and all open-air employments on which the supply of products necessary to life depends.

“As soon as these products of the field are safely housed and under cover, new needs arise. There must be some one to guard the store and some one to perform such necessary operations as imply the need of shelter.138 Shelter, for instance, is needed for the rearing of infant children; shelter is needed for the various processes of converting the fruits of earth into food, and in like manner for the fabrication of clothing out of wool.

“But whereas both of these, the indoor and the outdoor occupations alike, demand new toil and new attention, to meet the case,” I added, “God made provision139 from the first by shaping, as it seems to me, the woman’s nature for indoor and the man’s for outdoor occupations. Man’s body and soul He furnished with a greater capacity for enduring heat and cold, wayfaring and military marches; or, to repeat, He laid upon his shoulders the outdoor works.

“While in creating the body of woman with less capacity for these things,” I continued, “God would seem to have imposed on her the indoor works; and knowing that He had implanted in the woman and imposed upon her the nurture of new-born babies, He endowed her with a larger share of affection for the new-born child than He bestowed upon man.140 And since He imposed on woman the guardianship of the things imported from without, God, in His wisdom, perceiving that a fearful spirit was no detriment to guardianship,141 endowed the woman with a larger measure of timidity than He bestowed on man. Knowing further that he to whom the outdoor works belonged would need to defend them against malign attack, He endowed the man in turn with a larger share of courage.

“And seeing that both alike feel the need of giving and receiving, He set down memory and carefulness between them for their common use,142 so that you would find it hard to determine which of the two, the male or the female, has the larger share of these. So, too, God set down between them for their common use the gift of self-control, where needed, adding only to that one of the twain, whether man or woman, which should prove the better, the power to be rewarded with a larger share of this perfection. And for the very reason that their natures are not alike adapted to like ends, they stand in greater need of one another; and the married couple is made more useful to itself, the one fulfilling what the other lacks.143

“Now, being well aware of this, my wife,” I added, “and knowing well what things are laid upon us twain by God Himself, must we not strive to perform, each in the best way possible, our respective duties? Law, too, gives her consent — law and the usage of mankind, by sanctioning the wedlock of man and wife; and just as God ordained them to be partners in their children, so the law establishes their common ownership of house and estate. Custom, moreover, proclaims as beautiful those excellences of man and woman with which God gifted them at birth.144 Thus for a woman to bide tranquilly at home rather than roam aborad is no dishonour; but for a man to remain indoors, instead of devoting himself to outdoor pursuits, is a thing discreditable. But if a man does things contrary to the nature given him by God, the chances are,145 such insubordination escapes not the eye of Heaven: he pays the penalty, whether of neglecting his own works, or of performing those appropriate to woman.”146

I added: “Just such works, if I mistake not, that same queen-bee we spoke of labours hard to perform, like yours, my wife, enjoined upon her by God Himself.”

“And what sort of works are these?” she asked; “what has the queen-bee to do that she seems so like myself, or I like her in what I have to do?”

“Why,” I answered, “she too stays in the hive and suffers not the other bees to idle. Those whose duty it is to work outside she sends forth to their labours; and all that each of them brings in, she notes and receives and stores against the day of need; but when the season for use has come, she distributes a just share to each. Again, it is she who presides over the fabric of choicely-woven cells within. She looks to it that warp and woof are wrought with speed and beauty. Under her guardian eye the brood of young147 is nursed and reared; but when the days of rearing are past and the young bees are ripe for work, she sends them out as colonists with one of the seed royal148 to be their leader.”

“Shall I then have to do these things?” asked my wife.

“Yes,” I answered, “you will need in the same way to stay indoors, despatching to their toils without those of your domestics whose work lies there. Over those whose appointed tasks are wrought indoors, it will be your duty to preside; yours to receive the stuffs brought in; yours to apportion part for daily use, and yours to make provision for the rest, to guard and garner it so that the outgoings destined for a year may not be expended in a month. It will be your duty, when the wools are introduced, to see that clothing is made for those who need; your duty also to see that the dried corn is rendered fit and serviceable for food.

“There is just one of all these occupations which devolve upon you,” I added, “you may not find so altogether pleasing. Should any one of our household fall sick, it will be your care to see and tend them to the recovery of their health.”

“Nay,” she answered, “that will be my pleasantest of tasks, if careful nursing may touch the springs of gratitude and leave them friendlier than before.”

And I (continued Ischomachus) was struck with admiration at her answer, and replied: “Think you, my wife, it is through some such traits of forethought seen in their mistress-leader that the hearts of bees are won, and they are so loyally affectioned towards her that, if ever she abandon her hive, not one of them will dream of being left behind;149 but one and all must follow her.”

And my wife made answer to me: “It would much astonish me (said she) did not these leader’s works, you speak of, point to you rather than myself. Methinks mine would be a pretty150 guardianship and distribution of things indoors without your provident care to see that the importations from without were duly made.”

“Just so,” I answered, “and mine would be a pretty151 importation if there were no one to guard what I imported. Do you not see,” I added, “how pitiful is the case of those unfortunates who pour water in their sieves for ever, as the story goes,152 and labour but in vain?”

Work without hope draws nectar in a sieve, And hope without an object cannot live.

“Pitiful enough, poor souls,” she answered, “if that is what they do.”

“But there are other cares, you know, and occupations,” I answered, “which are yours by right, and these you will find agreeable. This, for instance, to take some maiden who knows naught of carding wool and to make her proficient in the art, doubling her usefulness; or to receive another quite ignorant of housekeeping or of service, and to render her skilful, loyal, serviceable, till she is worth her weight in gold; or again, when occasion serves, you have it in your power to requite by kindness the well-behaved whose presence is a blessing to your house; or maybe to chasten the bad character, should such an one appear. But the greatest joy of all will be to prove yourself my better; to make me your faithful follower; knowing no dread lest as the years advance you should decline in honour in your household, but rather trusting that, though your hair turn gray, yet, in proportion as you come to be a better helpmate to myself and to the children, a better guardian of our home, so will your honour increase throughout the household as mistress, wife, and mother, daily more dearly prized. Since,” I added, “it is not through excellence of outward form,153 but by reason of the lustre of virtues shed forth upon the life of man, that increase is given to things beautiful and good.”154

That, Socrates, or something like that, as far as I may trust my memory, records the earliest conversation which I held with her.

117 “The god of freedom, or of freed men.” See Plat. “Theag.” 259 A. The scholiast on Aristoph. “Plutus” 1176 identifies the god with Zeus Soter. See Plut. “Dem.” 859 (Clough, v. 30).

118 “Foreign friends.”

119 “The sobriquet of ‘honest gentleman.’”

120 On the antidosis or compulsory exchange of property, see Boeckh, p. 580, Engl. ed.: “In case any man, upon whom a leitourgia was imposed, considered that another was richer than himself, and therefore most justly chargeable with the burden, he might challenge the other to assume the burden, or to make with him an antidosis or exchange of property. Such a challenge, if declined, was converted into a lawsuit, or came before a heliastic court for trial.” Gow, “Companion,” xviii. “Athenian Finance.” See Dem. “Against Midias,” 565, Kennedy, p. 117, and Appendix II. For the various liturgies, Trierarchy, Choregy, etc., see “Pol. Ath.” i. 13 foll.

121 Or, “the son of his father,” it being customary at Athens to add the patronymic, e.g. Xenophon son of Gryllus, Thucydides son of Olorus, etc. See Herod. vi. 14, viii. 90. In official acts the name of the deme was added, eg. Demosthenes son of Demosthenes of Paiane; or of the tribe, at times. Cf. Thuc. viii. 69; Plat. “Laws,” vi. p. 753 B.

122 See Aristot. “Pol.” vii. 16. 1335(a). See Newman, op. cit. i. 170 foll.

123 Or, “surveillance.” See “Pol. Lac.” i. 3.

124 Reading eroito; or if with Sauppe after Cobet, eroin, transl. “talk as little as possible.”

125 Al. “in reference to culinary matters.” See Mahaffy, “Social Life in Greece,” p. 276.

126 Or, “giving plain proof that, if the teaching failed, it should not be from want of due attention on her part.” See “Hellenica Essays,” “Xenophon,” p. 356 foll.

127 (The timid, fawn-like creature.) See Lecky, “Hist. of Eur. Morals,” ii. 305. For the metaphor cf. Dem. “Olynth.” iii. 37. 9.

128 Lit. “woman.” Cf. N. T. gunai, St. John ii. 4; xix. 26.

129 Or, “our interests will centre in them; it will be a blessing we share in common to train them that they shall fight our battles, and . . .”

130 Cf. “Mem.” II. ii. 13. Holden cf. Soph. “Ajax.” 567; Eur. “Suppl.” 918.

131 Or reading epenegke with Cobet, “brought with you in the way of dowry.”

132 Or, “to the joint estate.”

133 “Modest and temperate,” and (below) “temperance.”

134 Reading oti, or if with Br. eti . . . auto, “with the further intent it should prove of maximum advantage to itself.”

135 Cf. (Aristot.) “Oecon.” i. 3.

136 “And the beast of the field.”

137 “Sub dis,” “in the open air.”

138 Or, “works which call for shelter.”

139 “Straightway from the moment of birth provided.” Cf. (Aristot.) “Oecon.” i. 3, a work based upon or at any rate following the lines of Xenophon’s treatise.

140 edasato, “Cyrop.” IV. ii. 43.

141 Cf. “Hipparch,” vii. 7; Aristot. “Pol.” iii. 2; “Oecon.” iii.

142 Or, “He bestowed memory and carefulness as the common heritage of both.”

143 Or, “the pair discovers the advantage of duality; the one being strong wherein the other is defective.”

144 Or, “with approving fingers stamps as noble those diverse faculties, those superiorities in either sex which God created in them. Thus for the womean to remain indoors is nobler than to gad about abroad.” ta kala . . .; kallion . . . aiskhion . . . — These words, wich their significant Hellenic connotation, suffer cruelly in translation.

145 Or, “maybe in some respect this violation of the order of things, this lack of discpline on his part.” Cf. “Cyrop.” VII. ii. 6.

146 Or, “the works of his wife.” For the sentiment cf. Soph. “Oed. Col.” 337 foll.; Herod. ii. 35.

147 Or, “the growing progeny is reared to maturity.”

148 Or, “royal lineage,” reading ton epigonon (emend. H. Estienne); or if the vulg. ton epomenon, “with some leader of the host” (lit. of his followers). So Breitenbach.

149 Al. “will suffer her to be forsaken.”

150 Or, “ridiculous.”

151 “As laughable an importation.”

152 Or, “how pitiful their case, condemned, as the saying goes, to pour water into a sieve.” Lit. “filling a bucket bored with holes.” Cf. Aristot. “Oec.” i. 6; and for the Danaids, see Ovid. “Met.” iv. 462; Hor. “Carm.” iii. 11. 25; Lucr. iii. 937; Plaut. “Pseud.” 369. Cp. Coleridge:

153 “By reason of the flower on the damask cheek.”

154 Al. “For growth is added to things ‘beautiful and good,’ not through the bloom of youth but virtuous perfections, an increase coextensive with the life of man.” See Breit. ad loc.


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