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Oeconomicus (A.1 & A.2.1-5)
A Discussion on Estate Management

Translated by R.C. Marchant (1929)

Dramatis Personae


Known to history primarily as a general, Xenophon (Ξενοφῶν) (430± - 354 BC) was also an essayist and historian, admired in antiquity both for his sound opinions and for his simple, elegant written style. Born in Athens, he spent much of his life in Sparta. He was about 40 years younger than Socrates, but was a close friend and admirer, and in his youth was Socrates’ student. His remembrances of Socrates, although written long after Socrates’ death and less famous and less extensive than those of Plato, are our other major source for understanding Socratic philosophy. (Actually, several other ancient writers also described Socrates. Plato and Xenophon are merely the most important.)

The present text is a discussion between Socrates and his wealthy friend Crito of Alopece, whom he has known since childhood and calls by the affectionate diminutive name Critobulus. The (ostensible) subject is making money through agriculture. The work is traditionally titled with the Latinized spelling “Oeconomicus” (Οικονόμικος), a word that is cognate with the English word “economics,” but the subject is really estate management, which rapidly swells over into one of Socrates’ favorite themes: being frugal, which Crito clearly is not.

Unlike some of Socrates’ other interlocutors, Crito is not intimidated by him and holds his own reasonably well in the conversation. However we still see Socrates trying to get him to define his terms, and then manipulating him into contradicting himself as they tangle with such topics as whether an enemy can be a form of wealth. (Can it?)

For present purposes only the beginning of the work is presented, arranged liked a play. The goal is to provide an example of the way in which Socratic discussion approached intellectual questions. In the course of the full text, Socrates eventually recounts countless other conversations, which include details about ancient agriculture, like the following:

… I know for certain that if you want the weeds to lie on the surface and wither in the heat, and the land to be baked by the sun, the surest way is to plough it up at midday in mid-summer. … (XVI.14)

Many modern scholars doubt that the Socrates into whose mouth this material is put has much to do with the real philosopher. It is easy to suspect Xenophon of making him up at least some of the time, until he seems to morph into a mere literary device in the course of the work. By Roman times the “Oeconomicus” was consulted not so much for its dose of Socratic philosophy and moralizing, or for Xenophon’s elegant prose, as for practical advice about agriculture.

(This passage is designed to be read in connection with a selection from Xenophon’s Memorabilia.)

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Xenophon (to the reader): I once heard him discuss the subject of estate management in the following manner.

Socrates: Tell me, Critobulus, is estate management the name of a branch of knowledge, like medicine, smithing and carpentry?

Critobulus: I think so.

Socrates: And can we say what the function of estate management is, just as we can say what is the function of each of these arts?

Critobulus: Well, I suppose that the business of a good estate manager is to manage his own estate well.

Socrates: Yes, and in case he were put in charge of another man’s estate, could he not, if he chose, manage it as well as he manages his own? Anyone who understands carpentry can do for another exactly the same work as he does for himself ; and so, I presume, can a good estate manager.

Critobulus: I think so, Socrates.

Socrates: Is it possible, then, for one who understands this art, even if he has no property of his own, to earn money by managing another man’s estate, just as he might do by building him a house?

Critobulus: Yes, of course ; and he would get a good salary if, after taking over an estate, he continued to pay all outgoings, and to increase the estate by showing a balance.

Socrates: But what do we mean now by an estate? Is it the same thing as a house, or is all property that one possesses outside the house also part of the estate?

Critobulus: Well, I think that even if the property is situated in different cities, everything a man possesses is part of his estate.

Socrates: Do not some men possess enemies?

Critobulus: Of course ; some in fact possess many.

Socrates: Shall we include their enemies in their possessions?

Critobulus: It would be ridiculous, surely, if one actually received a salary for increasing the number of a man’s enemies!

Socrates: Because, you know, we supposed a man’s estate to be the same as his property.

Critobulus: To be sure —meaning thereby the good things that he possesses. No, of course I don’t call any bad thing that he may possess property.

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Socrates: You seem to use the word property of whatever is profitable to its owner.

Critobulus: Certainly ; but what is harmful I regard as loss rather than wealth.

Socrates: Yes, and consequently if a man buys a horse and doesn’t know how to manage it, and so keeps on getting thrown and injuring himself by trying to ride it, the horse is not wealth to him, I presume?

Critobulus: No, if we assume that wealth is a good thing.

Socrates: It follows that land is not wealth either to a man who works it in such a way that his work results in loss.

Critobulus: To be sure. Even land is not wealth if it makes us starve instead of supporting us.

Socrates: And the same will hold good of sheep, will it not? if a man loses through ignorance of sheep farming, his sheep too will not be wealth to him?

Critobulus: I think not.

Socrates: It seems, then, that your view is this: what is profitable is wealth, what is harmful is not wealth.

Critobulus: Quite so.

Socrates: That is to say, the same things are wealth and not wealth, according as one understands or does not understand how to use them. A flute, for example, is wealth to one who is competent to play it, but to an incompetent person it is no better than useless stones.

Critobulus: True —unless he sells it.

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Socrates: We now see that to persons who don’t understand its use, a flute is wealth if they sell it, but not wealth if they keep it instead of selling.

Critobulus: Yes, Socrates, and our argument runs consistently, since we have said that what is profitable is wealth. For a flute, if not put up for sale, is not wealth, because it is useless; if put up for sale it becomes wealth.

Socrates: Yes, provided he knows how to sell ; but again, in case he sells it for something he doesn’t know how to use, even then the sale doesn’t convert it into wealth, according to you.

Critobulus: You imply, Socrates, that even money isn’t wealth to one who doesn’t know how to use it.

Socrates: And you, I think, agree with me to this extent, that wealth is that from which a man can derive profit. At any rate, if a man uses his money to buy a mistress who makes him worse off in body and soul and estate, how can his money be profitable to him then?

Critobulus: By no means, unless we are ready to maintain that the weed called nightshade, which drives you mad if you eat it, is wealth.

Socrates: Then money is to be kept at a distance, Critobulus, if one doesn’t know how to use it, and not to be included in wealth. But how about friends? If one knows how to make use of them so as to profit by them, what are they to be called?

Critobulus: Wealth, of course, and much more so than cattle, if it be true that they are more profitable than cattle.

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Socrates: Yes, and it follows from what you say that enemies too are wealth to anyone who can derive profit from them.

Critobulus: Well, that is my opinion.

Socrates: Consequently it is the business of a good estate manager to know how to deal with enemies so as to derive profit from them too.

Critobulus: Most decidedly.

Socrates: In fact, Critobulus, you cannot fail to notice that many private persons have been indebted to war for the increase of their estates, and many princes too.

Critobulus: Yes, so far so good, Socrates. But sometimes we come across persons possessed of knowledge and means whereby they can increase their estates if they work, and we find that they are unwilling to do so ; and consequently we see that their knowledge profits them nothing. What are we to make of that? In these cases, surely, neither their knowledge nor their property is wealth?

Socrates: Are you trying to raise a discussion about slaves, Critobulus?

Critobulus: Oh no, not at all. I am referring to persons of whom some, at any rate, are considered men of the highest lineage. I observe that there are persons skilled in the arts of war or peace, as the case may be, who are unwilling to practise them, and the reason, I think, is just this, that they have no master over them.

Socrates: What, no master over them, when, in spite of their prayers for prosperity and their desire to do what will bring them good, they are thwarted in their intentions by the powers that rule them?

Critobulus: And who, pray, may these unseen rulers be?

Socrates: No, not unseen, but open and undisguised, surely! And very vicious rulers they are too, as you yourself must see, if at least you regard idleness and moral cowardice and negligence as vice. Aye, and then there is a set of deceitful mistresses that pretend to be pleasures —such as gambling and consorting with bad companions. Even the victims of their deception find as time goes on that these, after all, are really pains concealed beneath a thin veneer of pleasures, and that they are hindering them from all profitable work by their influence over them.

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Critobulus: But there are other men, Socrates, whose energy is not hindered by these influences, in fact they have an eager desire to work and to make an income. Nevertheless they exhaust their estates and are beset with difficulties.

Socrates: Yes, they too are slaves, and hard indeed are their masters: some are in bondage to gluttony, some to lechery, some to drink, and some to foolish and costly ambitions. And so hard is the rule of these passions over every man who falls into their clutches, that so long as they see that he is strong and capable of work, they force him to pay over all the profits of his toil, and to spend it on their own desires ; but no sooner do they find that he is too old to work, than they leave him to an old age of misery, and try to fasten the yoke on other shoulders. Ah, Critobulus, we must fight for our freedom against these tyrants as persistently as if they were armed men trying to enslave us. Indeed, open enemies may be gentlemen, and when they enslave us, may, by chastening, purge us of our faults and cause us to live better lives in future. But such mistresses as these [gluttony, lechery, &c.] never cease to plague men in body and soul and estate all the time that they have dominion over them.

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Xenophon: The word was now with Critobulus, who continued thus:

Critobulus: Well, I think you have told me quite enough about such passions as these, and when I examine myself I find, I think, that I have them fairly well under control; and therefore, if you will advise me what I should to to increase my estate, I don’t think those mistresses, as you call them are likely to hinder me. So do not hesitate to give me any good advice you can, unless indeed you have made up your mind that we are rich enough already, Socrates, and think we have no need of more money!

Socrates: Oh, if you mean to include me, I certainly think I have no need of more money and am rich enough. But you seem to me to be quite poor, Critobulus, and at times, I assure you, I feel quite sorry for you.

Critobulus (laughing): And how much, pray, would your property fetch at a sale, do you suppose, Socrates, and how much would mine?

Socrates: Well, if I found a good buyer, I think the whole of my goods and chattels, including the house, might readily sell for ive minae [about $100]. Yours, I feel sure, would fetch more than a hundred times that sum.

Critobulus: And in spite of that estimate, you really think you have no need of money and pity me for my poverety?!

Socrates: Yes, because my property is sufficient to satisfy my wants, but I don’t think you would have enough to keepup the style you are living in and to support your reputation, even if your fortune were three times what it is.

Critobulus: How can that be?!

Socrates: Because, in the first place, ….

[Here Socrates launches into a denunciation of Critobulus’ excessive spending. Critobulus takes no offense, having heard all this from Socrates before, apparently. Socrates eventually returns to the theme of possessions being useless to those who lack the knowledge to use them. Finally, at Critobulus’ persistent insistence, it moves back to making money through effective management of an agricultural estate.]

Observation: Socrates was notoriously modest about his physical needs, just as Crito was extravagant. Xenophon explores this theme briefly in his Memorabilia. To read it, also cast as a brief play, click here.

An interactive quiz is available to doublecheck your understanding of this passage and the linked passage from the Memorabilia. (Quiz Link)


Todd, O. J. (ed)
1923 Xenophon in seven volumes: volume IV: Memorabilia and Oeconomicus. Tr. by E.C. Marchant. Cambridge, MA: Harvard U. Press. Pp. 363-375.

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