Horses, Wealth & Virtue: Xenophon, Oeconomicus 11.3-6

Socrates is speaking to the noble and good (perfect) gentleman Ischomachus, eager to learn, um, something:

“‘As to that,’ said I [Socrates], ‘how could I presume to correct a perfect gentleman, I who am supposed to be a mere chatterer with my head in the air, I who am called — the most senseless of all taunts — a poor beggar? I do assure you, Ischomachus, this last imputation would have driven me to despair, were it not that a day or two ago I came upon the horse of Nicias the foreigner. I saw a crowd walking behind the creature and staring, and heard some of them talking volubly about him. Well, I went up to the groom and asked him if the horse had many possessions. The man looked at me as if I must be mad to ask such a question, and asked me how a horse could own property. At that I recovered, for his answer showed that it is possible even for a poor horse to be a good one, if nature has given him a good spirit. (Oeconomicus 11.3-5)

Socrates’ speech isn’t quite done yet, but there is much to discuss. The accusation against Socrates is that without wealth, he must be begging from others or doing something unjust: he is not earning his keep properly. Moreover, without wealth, how could he lead a happy life or lead anyone to happiness? Aristophanes’ Clouds develops both these ideas and firmly rejects the philosophic life (and, by extension, the natural sciences) as being of any benefit to the city. So after being accused by the Clouds, Socrates sees a horse being talked about as (presumably) virtuous and wondrous, asks if the horse has property, then concludes because the horse doesn’t have wealth he himself does not need wealth to be virtuous.

Strauss says that it isn’t immediately clear whether human beings can lack wealth of any sort and be virtuous. There are a few other curious things hiding here. Look closely at the last sentence above:

At that I recovered, for his answer showed that it is possible even for a poor horse to be a good one, if nature has given him a good spirit [soul]. (Oec. 11.5)

I need to check this with someone, but I suspect that “possible” is colored by the word themiton, which can mean “allowed by the laws of God and men.” I’m just speculating, but it would make perfect sense given Socrates’ comments in Plato’s Apology that the gods have something to do with instruction in nobility & virtue (to go further: “knowledge of ignorance” is what it says it is). “Spirit” isn’t quite the word I’d use; the word is psyche, not some derivative of thumos. Strauss is right. Socrates is conflating animals and people. Nature is the word you’d expect – phusis – if you needed any more confirmation.

So far, we have a Socratic inquiry in full bloom here, one that is directed toward himself. He is going to try and use and an understanding of nature – perhaps a divine understanding, a cosmology – to make himself virtuous:

Assume, therefore, that it is possible for me to be a good man, and give me a complete account of your occupations, that, so far as my understanding allows me, I may endeavour to follow your example from to-morrow morning; for that’s a good day for entering on a course of virtue.’ (Oec. 11.6)

The word for man is aner, “manly man.” Xenophon never describes Socrates as a “manly man;” he is always anthropos, human being. The whole inquiry is in jest. If virtue is so important, why wouldn’t Socrates start asap? (Moreover: Ischomachus himself has a few rather contradictory ideas – that post needs to be revised, but it’ll do for now.)

A human being eager to learn, eager to pursue wisdom, can be very different from one who wants to be recognized for virtue. The difference between “rational” and “animal” is most pronounced. We can and do describe animals as virtuous and good. This doesn’t lead to the absurd idea that non-human animals are moral. Rather, it leads to wondering about rationality: is that exclusively human? It seems to be the province of the gods or those with hubristic claims. Whatever man is, he’s a mix of the rational and animal. In a way, “wealth” – the idea of appropriation, making something your own – ends up making sense of that mix. Socrates in learning is constantly accumulating wealth of sorts. Our wealth is most conventional; we have ways of constantly reinforcing our opinions without even realizing what we’re doing.


  1. Does the term “virtuous” mean something specific here other than in character? Is the question: in order to be virtuous one has to get wealth? I’m thinking virtuous belongs more to being generous with what one already has. Is this correct?

  2. @ Alice: the “virtues” are pretty specific. There are the 4 cardinal ones, justice, courage, temperance, wisdom. There there’s the stuff in Aristotle’s Ethics which includes stuff like generosity and magnanimity.

    You need wealth, or at least, need to try to get wealth. Socrates refuses to make a dime. Does that help at all?

  3. I would just like to throw in for whatever it’s worth that the concept of wealth as it is defined in the final paragraph of this post is in no way unique to humans. Anyone who has ever had multiple pets to whom treats are/were given knows all-too-well that animals are very keenly aware of the concept of property – even to the point of learning to count so as to ensure they get their fair share. Sure, they operate under an entitlement mentality but they are very much aware of the idea of personal (or individual animal) property.

    Enjoyable read. My compliments to the author.

  4. If Socrates refuses to make a dime then he must be taking food, shelter and other such necessities from others unless he lives naked in the woods. That doesn’t seem very virtuous. If he refuses to make a dime what is it that he is being generous with? His philosophy?

    I am still not clear on why you would need to “get” wealth unless you plan to give it away in order to be virtuous. In Pam’s dog story, the doggie is making a wholly self-centered act, survival. I like to think I want money so that I can live better and maybe share some with others, but the word wealth to me means more of those qualities you mention which may come to you once you have earned them. Chasing them down so you can own them doesn’t seem possible. Am I wrong?

  5. Socrates isn’t virtuous or generous. Wisdom isn’t really a virtue (although – if had – it can define virtue). Socratic wealth is something altogether different.

    You’re not wrong, it’s just that “wealth” itself is the issue of “earning.” That’s why wealth is possible: it already hides a notion of justice within it. It isn’t just “money.” At the very least, you have to trust – even as a criminal – that people will back paper money or exchange it for something. Once you get wealth = earning, the Greek position (and our materialism) becomes clearer. Yes, this means wealth is a sort of existential claim.

    And no, we don’t usually say animals have property. They have territory, they are possessive, but property is something else. We consider it tied up with a subject’s identity.

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