It is one of the earliest works on economics in its original sense of household management, and a significant source for the social and intellectual history of Classical Athens. Beyond the emphasis on household economics, the dialogue treats such topics as the qualities and relationships of men and women, rural vs. urban life, slavery, religion, and education.
Joseph Epstein states that the Oeconomicus can actually be seen as a treatise on success in leading both an army and a state.
Scholars lean towards a relatively late date in Xenophon's life for the composition of the Oeconomicus, perhaps after 362 BC. Cicero translated the Oeconomicus into Latin, and the work gained popularity during the Renaissance in a number of translations.
The opening framing dialogue is between Socrates and Critoboulus, the son of Crito. There Socrates discusses the meaning of wealth and identifies it with usefulness and well-being, not merely possessions. He links moderation and hard work to success in household management. The dramatic date of this part of the work can be no earlier than 401 BC, as the Battle of Cunaxa is referred to at 4.18.
When Critoboulus asks about the practices involved in household management, Socrates pleads ignorance on the subject but relates what he heard of it from an Athenian gentleman-farmer (kaloskagathos) named Ischomachus. In the discussion related by Socrates, Ischomachus describes the methods he used to educate his wife in housekeeping, their practices in ruling and training slaves, and the technology involved in farming. Approximately two thirds of the dialogue concerns the discussion between Socrates and Ischomachus. There is no final reversion to further discussion with Critoboulos.
Commentary and interpretation
Recently the dialogue has received much attention from disparate intellectual traditions.
Michel Foucault devoted a chapter in his The History of Sexuality (1976–1984) to "Ischomachus' Household". He took Xenophon's depiction of the relationship between Ischomachus and his wife as a classical expression of the ancient Greek ideology of power, according to which a man's control of his emotions was externally reflected in his control of his wife, his slaves, and his political subordinates.
Following Foucault, feminist scholars and social historians such as Sarah Pomeroy have explored the Oeconomicus as a source for Greek attitudes to the relationship between men and women, but successive interpretations have differed. Some see Xenophon's attitude toward women as misogynist and patriarchal, while others maintain that he was a proto-feminist in certain ways.
Some have taken Xenophon's use of Ischomachus as a supposed expert in the education of a wife as an instance of anachronistic irony, a device used by Plato in his Socratic dialogues. This ironic line of interpretation sees Ischomachus as a target of satire rather than a stand-in for Xenophon. Some have suggested that the Ischomachus of the dialogue is the same man whose family became the subject of ridicule in Athenian political oratory. After this Ischomachus died, his widow moved in with her daughter and son-in-law Callias and soon became pregnant with the man's child, which eventually led to the daughter's suicide attempt. Callias was frequently parodied in Athenian comedies for his sexual excesses and pseudo-intellectualism.
The import of such irony has also been the subject of much contention: are his wife's actions a sign of a bad education or just the inevitable result of the loss of the controlling influence in her life? How responsible was Ischomachus for his daughter's marriage to a man of such poor character?
Aside from being informative historical sources about Socrates, Xenophon's works are regarded by some scholars today as practically worthless as historical texts, while others like Leo Strauss continue to hold them in high regard.
- T. Brickhouse & N. Smith, 2003. "Socrates", in C. Shields, The Blackwell Guide to Ancient Philosophy, Blackwell p. 57.
- Conversations of Socrates by Xenophon, edited by Robin H. Waterfield, Penguin Classics 1990 ISBN 0-14-044517-X
- Strauss, Leo, Xenophon's Socratic Discourse: An Interpretation of the "Oeconomicus", Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1970 ISBN 1-890318-96-5
- Henry W. Speigel (1987). "Xenophon," The New Palgrave: A Dictionary of Economics, v. 4, pp. 935–36.
- Xenophon, The Shorter Socratic Writings: "Apology of Socrates to the Jury", "Oeconomicus", and "Symposium," trans. and with interpretive essays by Robert C. Bartlett, with Thomas Pangle and Wayne Ambler, Ithaca: Cornell University Press, The Agora Editions, 1996 ISBN 0-8014-7298-9