Oeconomicus (Xenophon)

Oeconomicus (Xenophon)

The "Oeconomicus" by Xenophon is a Socratic dialogue principally about household management and agriculture. It is one of the earliest works on economics and a significant source for the social and intellectual history of classic Athens. Beyond the emphasis on household economics, the dialogue treats such topics as the qualities and relationships of men and women, rural vs. urban life, slavery, religion, and education.

Scholars lean towards a relatively late date in Xenophon's life for the composition of the "Oeconomicus", perhaps after 362 BCE. Cicero translated the "Oeconomicus" into Latin, and the work gained popularity during the Renaissance in a number of translations.


In the external framing dialogue, Socrates discusses the importance of moderation and hard work for success in household management with Critoboulus, the son of Crito. The dramatic date of this part of the work can be no earlier than 401 BC, as the Battle of Cunaxa is referred to at 4.18.

When Critoboulus asks about the practices involved in household management, Socrates pleads ignorance on the subject but relates what he heard of it from an Athenian gentleman-farmer named Ischomachus. In the discussion related by Socrates, Ischomachus describes the methods he used to educate his wife in housekeeping, their practices in ruling and training slaves, and the technology involved in farming.

Themes and criticism

Recently the dialogue has received much attention from two rather disparate intellectual traditions. Michel Foucault devoted a chapter in his "The History of Sexuality" (1976-1984) to "The House of Ischomachus", and Leo Strauss wrote a political-philosophical commentary on the dialogue. Foucault took Xenophon's depiction of the relationship between Ischomachus and his wife as a classical expression of the ancient Greek ideology of power, according to which a man's control of his emotions was externally reflected in his control of his wife, his slaves, and his political subordinates. Strauss took the "Oeconomicus" as a more ironic examination of the nature of the gentleman, virtue, and domestic relationships.

Following Foucault, feminist scholars and social historians have explored the "Oeconomicus" as a source for Greek attitudes on the relationship between men and women, but successive interpretations have differed. Some see Xenophon's attitude toward women as misogynist and patriarchal, while others maintain that he was a proto-feminist in certain ways.

The ironic line of interpretation has treated Ischomachus as a target of satire rather than a stand-in for Xenophon. Many have suggested that the Ischomachus of the dialogue is the same man whose family became the subject of ridicule in Athenian political oratory. After this Ischomachus died, his widow moved in with her daughter and son-in-law Callias and soon became pregnant with the man's child, which eventually led to the daughter's suicide attempt. Callias was frequently parodied in Athenian comedies for his sexual excesses and pseudo-intellectualism.

Some have taken Xenophon's use of Ischomachus as a supposed expert in the education of a wife as an instance of anachronistic irony, a device used by Plato in his Socratic dialogues. The import of such irony has also been the subject of much contention: are his wife's actions a sign of a bad education or just the inevitable result of the loss of the controlling influence in her life? How responsible was Ischomachus for his daughter's marriage to a man of such poor character?

As for being informative historical sources about Socrates, Xenophon's "Oeconomicus" and his "Symposium" are regarded by most scholars today as practically worthless. [p. 57, T. Brickhouse & N. Smith, "Socrates", in C. Shields, "The Blackwell Guide to Ancient Philosophy", Blackwell 2003.]



*"Conversations of Socrates" by Xenophon, edited by Robin H. Waterfield, Penguin Classics 1990 ISBN 0-14-044517-X
* Strauss, Leo, "Xenophon's Socratic Discourse: An Interpretation of the "Oeconomicus", Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1970 ISBN 1-890318-96-5
* Xenophon, "The Shorter Socratic Writings: "Apology of Socrates to the Jury", "Oeconomicus", and "Symposium," trans. and with interpretive essays by Robert C. Bartlett, with Thomas Pangle and Wayne Ambler, Ithaca: Cornell University Press, The Agora Editions, 1996 ISBN 0-8014-7298-9

External links

* [http://www.gutenberg.org/etext/1173 Translation of the "Oeconomicus" by H.G. Dakyns] at Project Gutenberg
* [http://www.infomotions.com/serials/bmcr/bmcr-9503-clark-xenophon.txt Review of a recent edition of the "Oeconomicus"]
* [http://www.apaclassics.org/AnnualMeeting/02mtg/abstracts/dmjohnson.html Note on the ironic interpretation of the "Oeconomicus"]

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