Xenophon’s Perfect Country Gentleman in the Oeconomicus

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.

The Peloponnesian War, Book IV: Armistice and Mounting Losses

Book IV of Thucydides’s History of the Peloponnesian War opens with yet another revolt from allies of the Athenians, this time in the city of Messana. Syracuse encourages the revolt to prevent Athens from a clear path to Sicily. Additionally, Athens is again invaded by the Spartans under King Agis, son of Archidamus.

Meanwhile an Athenian fleet builds a fort as an outpost in the Peloponnesus (Pylos), under Demosthenes. This sends Athenian forces back to Spartan territory. Demosthenes rallies his troops in defense of their outpost, ironically Athenians defend their occupied Spartan land while the Spartans attack from the sea. It is a reversal of expertise: Athens as infantrymen and Sparta as naval power. Thucydides makes note of this irony.

The Spartans initiate an armistice, initially framed as a “treaty…to end the war, and offer peace and alliance” (4.19). However, the Athenians are swayed by the demagogue Cleon a powerful speaker who is popular among the multitude. However, the lapse of peace is later lamented. As the war drags on, Cleon is blamed for not accepting the Spartan treaty, but he blames the general Nicias who promptly resigns. Thus Cleon leads an Athenian force with Demosthenes to attack the Spartans. After much fighting, the Spartans take heavy losses and surrender, with Cleon returning to Athens emboldened by his victory.

Brasidas successfully encourages revolt in several Athenian provinces, and Pagondus encourages attacks on Athens. Gains and losses are made by both the Spartans and Athenians. The Athenians retreat from battle with the Boetians who commit a great sacrilege by not returning their dead to their native land. Thucydides notes his personal part in the story at (4.104) in the battle for Amphipolis, an Athenian colony, which eventually falls to the Spartans and causes great dismay for the Athenians due to its strategic importance as a critical timber resource.

In the Spring of 423 BC the Athenians secure a truce, a one year armistice, in order to prevent the loss of any more cities to revolts. Thus concludes Book IV.

For this reading I used the impeccable Landmark edition of Thucydides’s History of the Peloponnesian War by businessman-turned classical scholar Robert B. Strassler.

Aristotle, Oedipus, and Greek Tragedy

There has been a longstanding debate, dating back to Aristotle, regarding the purpose or telos of tragedy, and whether or not the key “tragic” element is the result of a unique or particular character flaw caused by the protagonist. In other words, is Oedipus merely a flawed human being who has brought about the destruction of himself, his family, and his city of Thebes? Is King Lear’s madness, and the subsequent downfall of his kingdom, the result of his own tragic undoing? It is a popular scavenger hunt for modern academics to search through the psyche of King Lear or Oedipus to find some fatal flaw -some poor decision they made as in the case of King Lear and his three daughters: Goneril, Regan, and Cordelia. The purpose of this mode of scholarship is to uncover a convenient and easily digestible moral lesson from the tragedy.

Truly, a case can be made that Sophocles and Shakespeare offer tragedies to educate the polis, though perhaps not by mere moral allegory. Or at least this is not an Aristotelian reading of tragedy, according to Aristotle’s Poetics.

In the Poetics, Aristotle claims that all art is mimesis (imitation) and that all forms of tragedy are imitations of “actions and life” and not of “people” (1453-1454b). A tragedy is an imitation of one whole action, not a person. What is key to a story like Oedipus Tyrannus, is the changing of opposing and unpredictable events, such as when the old Corinthian messenger appears at Thebes to ease Oedipus’s mind, but his story actually does the opposite and sends Oedipus’s life into a tailspin. The action has already been complete. Oedipus merely realizes the tragedy of his life. This scene is composed of reversal, discovery, and suffering. In this way, tragedy imitates “fear and pity” (1452b). Everything Oedipus believes is reversed, and the oracle is proved right.

Oedipus and Antigone by Charles Jalabert (1842)

Tragedies, according to Aristotle, ought not to show men going from good to bad fortune as this is “repellent” and is not pitiable, and also not the converse for this is un-tragic. Therefore, Aristotle famously claims that a tragedy must beautifully show men “not surpassing in virtue and justice” so that they do not fall on account of some character flaw,  for they are imperfect by nature, but rather “on account of some missing of the mark” (1453b10). What does he mean by missing the mark? He uses this language elsewhere in the Politics as well as the Rhetoric. For Aristotle, there is a certain “mark” or “telos” in all things: nature, politics, art, and so on. The aim of human life is excellence or virtue understood as happiness by contemplation, the aim of the city is happiness and harmony in parallel to human happiness, the aim of poetics is catharsis.

In order to clarify, Aristotle uses Oedipus as an example to show how the spectator experiences katharsis – perhaps a purging of pent up primal desires, or also a kind of cleansing. This word, now written as catharsis, is meant to convey what he says in the Nicomachean Ethics, which is that all virtues of character are directed at an action that is beautiful, in itself, and this is the good. Therefore, the tragic action befalls an ignorant person who comes to realize the highest purpose of his life is no longer possible: his happiness in life is made impossible. He has “missed the mark.” The tragic hero must be relatable in his complexity, and the tragic elements cannot merely be the result of petty character flaws. In a word, the downfall of Oedipus is not a fault of his own, nor susceptible to modern psychoanalysis (for Aristotle had no notion of anger or spiritedness –thumos– as being a kind of character flaw as defined in the Nicomachean Ethics) but rather the destruction of Oedipus and his family is terrifying, just as the suffering in his life is pitiable. This is the teaching of Oedipus: that people in the audience are elevated (katharsis) when reminded that they, noble and pious people, can see a tragic fate, despite all their best efforts to appease the gods and do what is right. Amor fati is the teaching par excellence.

For this reading I used Joe Sachs’s masterful translation of Aristotle’s Poetics.

Heroism and Tragedy in The Sun Also Rises

“Robert Cohn was once middleweight boxing champion of Princeton.”

In Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises, we encounter a series of vignettes that, together, tell the story of a group of expatriate Americans as they roam around postwar Europe. In a certain light, it is a tale of two cities: Paris and Pamplona, two cities of celebration divided only by an Arcadian excursion to the Pyrenees (in England The Sun Also Rises was published as Fiesta, an early working title).


The novel is told in the past-tense as a recollection. Our hero, Jake Barnes, is a former World War I soldier with a terrible injury leaving him (presumably) impotent. The novel is a fading memory from Barnes about his infatuation for Lady Brett Ashley. She is his unrelenting love interest who engages in numerous love affairs with different men in the group including Barnes’s boorish associate, Robert Cohn. Cohn is based on the person of Harold Loeb, a Princeton boxer and wrestler who descended from two upper-crust New York families. Lady Brett Ashley is based on Lady Duff Twysden, a British expat who came to Paris to weather the storm of a nasty divorce (and thus lose her title). Both of whom were friends with Hemingway during his years in France and Spain.

The Sun Also Rises explores questions of courage, virtue, and heroism by using the imagery of boxing, fishing, and, above all, bullfighting. Each sport tests a man’s courage and resilience. The vitalizing competitions are also juxtaposed with impotence, war, and infidelity. With boxing, fishing, and bullfighting there are natural rules of behavior, or codes of virtue, in contrast to the machinery of modern warfare which has eliminated all semblance of natural decorum. As in Don Quixote, the old chivalrous mores of courage and virtue struggle to find their footing in a rapidly changing world that has been traumatized by modern warfare. There are no more knight errants -and maybe they never truly existed except in chivalrous romances. Yet, heroically and perhaps tragically, Jake Barnes trudges onward, limited by his inability to be intimate with a woman and driven by his respect and admiration for the delicate, graceful art of Spanish matadors. Barnes longs for the old chivalric code of Western Civilization, yet the malaise of the world around him bears no respect for the old values. Unlike the Homeric war heroes, Odysseus or Achilles, the modern war hero is wounded and impotent, yet he is also dedicated and brave. He knows that he is living in a New World, but he cannot keep from clinging to the Old World. European culture had been decimated by the Great War, yet natural law still remains and the ‘earth abideth forever.’ Barnes and Lady Brett are both ambiguous -Barnes in his sexuality and Brett in her almost masculine appearance- while Romero the matador is unequivocally unambiguous: he wants a feminine woman.

The San Fermín festival is a week-long celebration in Pamplona, Spain honoring Saint Fermín, a 3rd century Roman who converted to Christianity, becoming the first Bishop of Pamplona. He was martyred by being dragged to death. The most famous part of the festival is the encierro, or the “running of the bulls” which takes place through the city center each morning, but other traditions include bullfighting and the ‘giant heads’ parade. The festival takes place in early July each year.

Hemingway popularized this festival. He first wrote about it when he attended the festival in 1929, and he visited many more times until 1959.

The bullfighting only begins in the second part of the novel (the novel is divided into three books) when Barnes recounts the groups’ experiences at the San Fermín festival in Pamplona, Spain. Again and again, he praises the ‘grace under pressure’ exhibited by the bullfighters as they face their own death, only narrowly surviving. Barnes sees this activity as a kind of ancient manly virtue that has somehow survived into the modern age, despite the vulgar and repulsive advent of new technologies that prevent men from displaying courage. One is reminded of the scene in Homer’s Iliad in which Hector and Achilles, mortal enemies, exchange armor with one another before doing battle as a demonstration of honor. The Timocratic roots of high society are ever-present in Jake Barnes’s mind as he observes the careful, calculating dance of the bullfighter. Devoid of modern conveniences, the bullfighter stares down the wild, chaos of nature -the untamed, pre-civil creature may strike at any time if the bullfighter is not careful.

Likewise, as a metaphor, each of the men in the American expatriate group represent bullfighters, each needing to display his qualities of honor and virtue. Robert Cohn, the man for whom the opening sentence and chapter are dedicated (“Robert Cohn was once middleweight boxing champion of Princeton”) behaves the most cowardly. He is the least in control of his temperament, like a bull needing to be tamed, and Jake Barnes regularly makes note of it. Together, all of the expats pursue Lady Ashley, however Jake Barnes does not actively pursue her. Instead he waits for her to come to him, preferring to dangle his red garment and wait for her charge. However, she only comes to Barnes when she is broken. While Barnes may be able to win her heart, he can never win her body. His victory is incomplete.

Jake Barnes is a modern tragic hero with an ancient disposition for classical virtue. He is plagued by the apparent meaningless of modern life -a life not governed by old narratives of faith and human greatness in battle. The Sun Also Rises is like a Sisyphean cycle -it opens as Barnes, Lady Brett, and others are roaming around Paris in the evening, seemingly without greater purpose, and the novel closes in a similar fashion – Barnes picks up Lady Brett from her escapade of a failed affair with the matador. Barnes and Lady Brett ride off in a taxi together as the sun is setting. Barnes is with the woman he loves, but can never have her.

“La vara rota” by Arturo Michelena (1892)

Appropriately, the title of the novel alludes to the King James translation of the book of Ecclesiastes -popularly thought to be King Solomon’s Heraclitean despair after the loss of his son. Ecclesiastes, perhaps the most Epicurean book of the Old Testament, explores the tragic and apparent nihilism that haunts the philosophers, as they contemplate the nature of life. It is the same fatalistic sentiment echoed by certain Shakespearean characters. By alluding to Ecclesiastes in the title of the book, Hemingway chooses to highlight the rising sun, not the setting sun. Perhaps the novel is not a work of despair, but rather a work of redemption -a kind of Nietzschean redemption of joy through suffering.

“‘Oh, Jake,’ Brett said, ‘we could have had such a damned good time together.’ Ahead was a mounted policeman in khaki directing traffic. He raised his baton. The car slowed suddenly pressing Brett against me. ‘Yes,’ I said. ‘Isn’t it pretty to think so?’”

Hemingway, Ernest. The Sun Also Rises. Scribner; Hemingway Library ed. edition, February 16, 2016.