The word “economics” comes down to us from the Greek meaning “household management” and the various contingents of the household. Thus the science of the economy is the science of the household or the estate. The title of Xenophon’s seminal but brief dialogue points us to the theme of the text: household management, or more closely as “the economist.”
The form of the text is a dialogue that is recollected by Xenophon. The setting is a conversation between Socrates and Critobulus (recall that Critobulus also appears in Xenophon’s Symposium). The third character in the text is Ischomachus, “a beautiful and good man,” with whom Socrates recollects a conversation for the benefit of Critobulus. Recall that Critobulus in Xenophon’s Symposium boasts about his beauty and the ability to make other men handsome. The Oeconomicus is a dialogue that lasts XXI chapters.
It begins en media res rather abruptly (like the Hellenica) with Socrates asking Critobulus if he considers household (or estate) management to be a science like medicine, smithing, or carpentry. It comes to light that an “economist” is someone who successfully manages wealth and households. Wealth is said to be that which may benefit a man, while mere money in the pocket of a man who does not know how to use it is like poison which can make men like slaves.
Next, Xenophon asks Socrates for advice in managing his own personal estate. Socrates claims to pity Critobulus over his poverty, which makes Critobulus laugh at the state of Socrates’s property versus his own, to which Socrates mentions that he has enough wealth for his own needs while Critobulus has an image and a reputation and a large household to keep up, therefore he is beholden to other men and always in need of more. Socrates compares his own knowledge of wealth to one who has never played the flute trying to speak intimately about playing the flute.
Throughout the dialogue Socrates comes to light as a teacher of household management (unlike generalship). That is to say, he is a teacher of farming. Xenophon’s Socrates praises household management as the highest art.
Now, Socrates is an ironic man. He claims he does not own income producing assets, thus he lives like something of a pauper, or a beggar, but he lives on the sustenance of his friends, wealthy gentlemen who consider it a privilege to come to his aid. Nevertheless, Socrates has explored the question of why some men are rich and others are poor. He claims to offer to Critobulus another example of the best household manager (s). Critobulus begs Socrates for such a teacher.
The first key to household management is building a house. Some spend great amounts of money for a useless house, and others spend little for a useful house. The next is furniture of value, servants, and the art of farming -including raising horses and animals, and lastly the issue of wives. Cyrus is taken by Socrates to be the model oeconomicus or “economist.” Farming is pleasant but only for those who embrace hard work. It also requires piety, for abundance comes from the gods.
Now, as promised Socrates delivers to Critobulus the image of the perfect gentleman: Ischomachos. It should be noted that the dialogue makes an important shift in chapter VI from the question of household management to the image of a perfect gentleman. It should also be noted that this image arises out of a vulgar conversation: of money, not of virtue. We see the perfect gentleman from the lowly perspective of his needs. The bulk of the dialogue is devoted to Socrates’s recollection of when he learned of the perfect gentleman, further diluting Xenophon’s authorship.
Socrates recalls: By pure luck he goes to visit Ischomachos sitting by the colonnade to Zeus. Socrates wants to know how he spends his time and how he came to be called a perfect gentleman. Ischomachos spends very little time indoors (those affairs are handled by his wife), and in contrast spending his time in crowded parts of the city, Ischomachos spends his time on his farm. The perfect gentleman is rarely at leisure. Socrates eagerly listens. Ischomachos’s wife is modestly educated by Ischomachos. He provides a defense of marriage for 1) procreation, 2) children provide support men in old age, and 3) there is need for men to have a shelter and thus a need for indoor and also outdoor work. Socrates and Ischomachos have a lengthy discussion about marriage and the nature of wives.
Eventually, Socrates puts a stop to the discussion of wives, and Ischomachos mentions that a perfect gentleman must be wealthy and they discuss farming at length.
The dialogue concludes with Socrates satisfied that farming is the easiest and best way for the perfect gentleman to live his life. The dialogue is a curiously framed conversation of the wise man (Socrates) educating the young son of a gentleman farmer Critobulus) in the art of perfect gentlemanship and farming, after he had been instructed in both by a perfect gentleman (Ischomachos).
For this reading I used the Agora Edition of Xenophon’s Shorter Socratic Writings as edited by Robert C. Bartlett, a Professor at Boston College, and a translated by Carnes Lord, a Professor at the US Naval War College.