Socrates' Lesson for Critobulus: A Reading of Xenophon's Oeconomicus

David M. Johnson

Southern Illinois University, Carbondale

At the beginning of Xenophon's Oeconomicus, Socrates shows his friend Critobulus that one's property, rightly understood, consists only of that one knows how to use to one's advantage.  It is thus knowledge of what true advantage is, and how to get it, that counts, not conventional riches.   But then Socrates recounts to Critobulus his conversation with the gentleman farmer Ischomachus, who taught Socrates how to run a farm so as to produce such riches.  In recent scholarship the trend has been to argue that Ischomachus' conventionality is a reflection of Xenophon's conventionality, and to attempt to minimize the discrepancy with the Socratic opening of the Oeconomicus by pointing to the Socratic features in Ischomachus' conversation with Socrates.  I argue that we should instead read the Ischomachean bulk of the work in light of the Socratic introduction.  Ischomachus' teaching is precisely what Critobulus thinks he needs: advice on how to get a larger income from his estate.  But this is not what Socrates thinks he needs.  Xenophon therefore also reveals Ischomachus' limitations, and by doing so hopes that Critobulus, and readers like him, may better come to understand their own limits. 

After agreeing with Socrates about the importance of knowledge, Critobulus notes that some who know fail to make use of their knowledge.  Socrates says that such men are slaves to their desires, due to their lack of self-control  (egkrateia) and diligence (epimeleia).  But Critobulus says that he is in control of his desires, and that he has heard enough from Socrates about this sort of thing.  What he could use is some advice about how to run his estate, but he doubts that Socrates, given his poverty, can help.  Socrates does not directly contradict Critobulus' self-diagnosis, but does convince Critobulus that he is himself, despite his poverty, far better off than his rich friend, for Critobulus' expenses far outrun his income.  In part Critobulus' problems are those imposed by the Athenian demos on any wealthy man, but he exacerbates them by living the high life, making no effort to increase his wealth, and busying himself with lovers.  Socrates has moderate needs, and his friends, unlike Critobulus' friends, who are always expecting a handout, would be happy to help in any time of need (1.16-2.8). 

Here Socrates does not instruct Critobulus in friendship (as he does in Mem. 2.6)  or in improving himself by ridding himself of unnecessary desires.  Instead, he introduces Ischomachus, who teaches him how to educate his wife and his slaves, and how to farm.  After promising Critobulus Aspasia (3.14), Socrates instead delivers Ischomachus and his wife, who would go on to become the scandalous Chrysilla known to us from Andocides.  The absence of Aspasia is important, for in the Memorabilia Socrates cites her to Critobulus (2.6.36), and the Socratic Aeschines had her give advice to none other than Xenophon and his wife.  The fundamental difference between Ischomachus and Aspasia is that Ischomachus fails to recognize that he must improve himself, not only his wife.  So too here Critobulus fails to realize that his problem is not with his estate or his wife but with himself. 

Critobulus thought that what he needed was better knowledge of how to farm, but Ischomachus' account of farming is meant to prove that farming is the easiest of all arts to learn: it thus clearly reveals whether or not a man possesses diligence (ejpimeleiva 20.2-5, 14-15), a quality Critobulus wrongly thinks he possesses. 

Ischomachus does, however, appear to teach a more important lesson, leadership.  They key to leadership is properly motivating one's followers.  But Ischomachus' fundamental motivation, and the motivation he looks for in his slaves, is the desire for wealth (see 12.15-16; 13), that is, the desire to gain the very sort of wealth that Socrates deconstructed at the outset of the Oeconomicus (cf. 11.3-5, 20.27-29).  Ischomachus does speak in the abstract of using his wealth to serve the gods, the city, and his friends (11.9), and notes that his farm work makes him a better warrior, a point Socrates had emphasized in his own praise of farming (11.12, 17-20; 4.4-25; 5).  But as a matter of fact Ischomachus (like Critobulus) is more worried about defending himself from those who are after his wealth than about using it to adorn the city (7.3, 11.21), and he does not discuss helping his friends; his notion of valor in war rises only to the level of escaping from battle with both his hide and his honor intact. 

Xenophon says that Socrates took different tacks with different interlocutors (Mem. 4.1.3).  With Critobulus we can see that he took different tacks with the same man.  In the Memorabilia Socrates attempts to argue Critobulus into a proper understanding of friendship.  In the Symposium Socrates jokes with him about the meaning of bodily beauty (3.7, 4.10-28, 5).  In the Oeconomicus, he reveals to him the limitations of his way of thinking by giving him a vision of what he would become, were he to follow his conventional inclinations.  Critobulus' friendship for Socrates is an indication that his response to Ischomachus, which Xenophon leaves us to imagine, could not have been entirely positive.

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