Nature and Law, Woman and Man: On Xenophon’s Oeconomicus, Book VII

Socrates discusses part of an encounter with a perfect [noble and good] gentleman in Oeconomicus VII. The gentleman’s name is Ischomachos; Socrates is relating his discussion with him for the sake of moderating the ambitions of the primary interlocutor of the Oeconomicus, Crito’s son Critoboulus. One of Critoboulos’ problems is moderation (cf. Memorabilia I.3.8-10; Symposium IV 10-18; Oeconomicus II 1-9), and Socratic rhetoric in the Oeconomicus ultimately depends on convincing Critoboulos of the good of farming (the word shares a root with phusis – nature). So how philosophic the Oeconomicus is when all is said and done is an open question: nature is literally covered over with earth in this dialogue. Strauss maintains that if Xenophon’s works on Socrates correspond with the Xenophontic division between men’s speeches, deeds, and silent deliberations, then the Oeconomicus is the Socratic speech, while the Symposium is the Socratic deed and the Apology the silent deliberation (“Xenophon’s Socratic Discourse,” 86; Memorabilia I.1.19; thank you to Sharon Loo for pointing this out initially). I’m in no position to argue with Strauss: I cannot claim any sort of expertise on this dialogue like I can attempt to with the Memorabilia: any conclusions you may want to reach about the Socratic manner of speaking from this should probably have some reference to Seth Benardete’s The Rhetoric of Morality and Philosophy, which I have been working through carefully recently but am still very confused by.

The particular problem of this short book of the dialogue is introduced by Ischomachos’ instruction to his wife on her proper role in the household (economics comes from the Greek word for household management). The perfect gentleman tells Socrates that he “never spend[s] time indoors,” as his wife “is quite able by herself to manage the things within the house” (Oeconomicus VII 3).  This is not an innocent claim; Ischomachos is totally dominated by his wife, as evidenced by the fact he only has leisure for the conversation because some clients did not show up (VII 2). More importantly, when Ischomachos relates how he initially “educated” his wife to Socrates, we find him claiming to have said no less than:

“…if you [Ischomachos’ wife] look to be better than I and make me your servant, you will have no need to fear that with advancing age you will be honored any less in the household, and you may trust that as you grow older, the better a partner you prove to be for me, and for the children the better a guardian of the household, by so much more will you be honored in the household. For the fine and good things increase for human beings, not by ripening like fair fruits, but through the exercise of the virtues in life” (VII 42-3).

This sounds beautiful and noble, and it is to a degree, but the consensus among scholars is that Athenian women were treated like dirt. One of the ironies of Athenian women watching tragedy was that tragic figures like Antigone were allowed to do things like leave the house. I am not kidding on how restrictive Athenian law was on this score; Ischomachos himself began his speech to his wife by saying that the gods designed man by nature for the outdoors, and woman for the indoors (VII 18-23). To a degree, he is reaping ironic fruits from that instruction.

The real darkness of Ischomachos’ speech concerns children. The woman loves the child more than the man because of nature (VII 24); children are only necessary because they are “supporters in old age” (VII 19). The beauty and nobility of this speech drops almost entirely away when one considers its overarching purpose:

[Ischomachos:] “…this household is what is common to us. As to myself, everything of mine I declare to be in common, and as for you, everything you’ve brought you have deposited in common. It’s not necessary to calculate which of us has contributed the greater number of things, but it is necessary to know this well, that whichever of us is the better partner will be the one to contribute the things of greater worth.”

To this, Socrates, my wife replied: “What can I do to help you?” she said. “What is my capacity? But everything depends on you: my work, my mother told me, is to be moderate.”

“By Zeus, woman,” I said, “my father told me the same thing. But it’s for moderate people – for man and woman alike – not only to keep their substance in the best condition but also to add as much as possible to it by fine and just means.”

“Then what do you see,” said my wife, “that I might do to help in increasing the household?”

“By Zeus,” I said, “just try to do in the best manner possible what the gods have brought you forth to be capable of and what the law praises.” (VII 13-16, boldface mine)

I think you can see what’s happening here: this is a thoroughly materialistic society that has traditions, and those traditions are merging with the materialism (if they hadn’t done so before) to form a definition of “moderation” that is anything but moderate. (Not far from this is the notion that a society can form an idea of “equality” that is anything but equal, but if you can’t think that far, don’t trouble yourself.) There’s a lot you can do within the law that manages to be very unjust to your fellow citizens, not to mention humanity at large; it is, perhaps, knowing this that Ischomachos insists on a separation of “nature” (the gods’ design) and law (what all man-made laws everywhere insist is good), even while pretty much saying that the law exists  only to give an “honorable” stamp on nature. The fundamental good is acquistion for Ischomachos; one wonders if Socrates is letting him speak so that Critoboulos can see the unwitting results of immoderation.

Again, before I conclude, I need to be clear – this is not meant to be a rehash of the recent thoughts on Euripides’ Hippolytus, despite some strong parallels. There’s a ton going on in this text – in this passage even – for which I don’t have proper insight yet. Ultimately, Xenophon, Plato, and thinkers like Euripides don’t talk about “materialism” because that’s too simplistic/moralistic a concept to benefit thought. If you’re thinking about what goods motivate people and to which are the goods we ought to be directed, and willing to keep the question open, you’re probably already in a more philosophic frame of mind. You may be ready for the deeper themes of why we think the way we do, and how that gets incredibly complicated very quickly.

The most stunning irony here is that the perfect gentleman – one who strives for prosperity, honor and a solid place in public life – is entirely ruled by his private fortune, therefore entirely ruled by his wife. It is not clear Ischomachos could be trusted to rule the city well, or participate in such rule well: his wife is the one, because of her care over the servants and the children, who has to work with human nature and see how people respond so things get done. His wife has to make speeches to others and set up incentives for others. And yet none of that can translate appropriately into rule in the city necessarily, without some more learning, attention and ability. A more honorable notion of the holding of power – that it is for a greater good, a greater future for all – is reduced to preserving what one has and grabbing more, and again, we note that Athenian society had a propensity to blame this on women (cf. Aristophanes, Lysistrata), instead of taking a good hard look at their own values and rhetoric and seeing where the truth really lay. Ischomachos’ private discourse is unwittingly political, and we are at a far remove from philosophy: the erotic is neither present in marriage nor this speech, as Socrates speaks not much at all in Book VII.


Strauss, Leo. Xenophon’s Socratic Discourse: An Interpretation of the Oeconomicus (with a literal translation of the Oeconomicus by Carnes Lord). Cornell: Ithaca, 1970.

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