The Science of the Mean in Xenophon's Oeconomicus
and Plato's

Alexander Alderman

Brown University

In his Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle describes phronêsis as epistêmê tou metrou, the knowledge, or science, of the mean.  But before Aristotle, there were two authors who attempted to understand phronêsis as such a science. 

In Plato's Politicus, the Eleatic stranger proposes a series of objects for politikê, the science of statesmanship.  First, this science is thought to be concerned with kairos, the appropriate time; later it is thought to be the knowledge of to prepon, that which is fitting.  Finally, the stranger declares politikê to be the science of the mean, just as Aristotle would later declare phronêsis to be.  Since the science of statesmanship which the Eleatic stranger proposes is by no means sufficient for caring for the good of the state, it seems fair to say that Plato was not genuinely interested in politics in this dialogue.  Rather, Plato has merely used statesmanship as an image for phronêsis generally, idealizing its operations more and more until his account of statesmanship better describes phronêsis than it does politikê.

More remarkably, Xenophon appears to conduct a similar exercise with a different science in his Oeconomicus.  Therein, Xenophon depicts Socrates asking an Athenian gentleman named Ischomachus to explain to him the principles of good household management (oikonomia).  Interestingly, Ischomachus' account makes knowledge of timeliness, the fitting, and the mean paramount in the maintenance of a good household.  Furthermore, Socrates conducts an inquiry into the meaning of the term household management and judges that this discipline does not merely govern the use of one's home and family but extends to the appropriate use of all the goods in human life, including one's friends and enemies.  From what Socrates says, it appears that oikonomia in the Oeconomicus has the same universal dimensions as politikê in the Politicus.

A curious similarity between both dialogues is the critical part discursive knowledge plays in the proper functioning of both sciences, as Xenophon shows in Ischomachus' advice on creating an orderly household and Plato treats in the myth of the divinely tended universe.  Both elaborate on a relationship between dialectic and sôphrosunê alternative to the one presented in Plato's Charmides, and perhaps in line with what Xenophon in the Memorabilia suggests Socrates believed.

There are even enough thematic connections between the Oeconomicus and the Politicus to argue that one dialogue is building on or responding to the other.  Considering the stylometric evidence linking the Politicus to Plato's later works, I suggest that Plato is in this case responding to Xenophon as he also responds to Xenophon's Cyropaedia in his Laws.  In turn, Xenophon seems to have written the Cyropaedia in response to Plato's Republic, and the Oeconomicus in response to Plato's Meno, especially in a passage which parodies the doctrine of anamnesis.

Regardless of the compositional relationship, both works form part of a Socratic discourse on phronêsis which prepared the way for Aristotle's later analysis.

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