37: Socrates on Management – Oeconomicus by Xenophon

with Special Guest Peter Adamson


In a complete departure from the previous episode, where we tackled a contemporary work, Episode 37 takes us to ancient Greece and one of the great practical philosophers, Xenophon (pronounced ZEN-uh-phun). His Oeconomicus may have been one of his “minor” works in the world of philosophy, but it is a fascinating work for those interested in management and organizational studies. We welcome special guest Prof. Peter Adamson from the LMU in Munich and host and founder of the great podcast series History of Philosophy Without Any Gaps. Peter begins this episode with a discussion about where this work fits in the historical context of Greek philosophy. In the discussion, the podcasters found many parallels to modern organizational behavior despite the obvious differences in context and artifacts of ancient Greek culture.

The book is written as a dialogue, with Socrates playing a sort of narrator who engages with a young wealthy man named Critobulus (kri-TAH-bou-lous) who desires help in increasing his riches. Socrates instead encourages him to become more virtuous and recommends that he become learned in agriculture and being master of his own household. When Critobulus invites Socrates to be his personal mentor and join his household, Socrates politely declines as he is not experienced in such matters, and instead asks him to learn from someone more experienced.

This becomes an introduction for the remainder of the book with Socrates relaying an earlier dialogue with another man who is deemed to be virtuous, Ischomachus (is-‘HAM-uh-kuhs). In this Socratic dialogue, Ischomachus explains how he trained his young wife to run a household, how he runs his farm and the workers in it, and what he knows about the art of agriculture. 

What does it mean to be a leader or manager then and now? What did the Greeks value in organization, and how does that compare to today? What can we learn from better understanding how this important ancient society functioned?

You may also download the audio files here:  Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 

Read with us:

Xenophon (n.d.). The Oeconomicus or A Treatise of the Management of a Farm and Household, trans. John Selby Watson (1878). London: George Bell & Sons

To know more:

Bragues, G. (2007) Socrates on Management: An Analysis of Xenophon’s Oeconomicus. Available at: https://ssrn.com/abstract=997057 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.997057

History of Philosophy Without any Gaps (Episode 15) – Socrates without Plato: the accounts of Aristophanes and Xenophon. Available at: https://historyofphilosophy.net/socrates-without-plato