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Xenophon Oeconomicus: A Social and Historical Commentary.

Most economists are aware that the name for their discipline dates back to a 4th century B.C. Greek text by Xenophon, but few have bothered to read it. It has been represented as dealing with household economics, but once when I gave it to a top quality business administration student to read, he came back shaking his head, "you know, its all there - personnel management and organization science - you don't need much more!"

Pomeroy has given us an introduction that includes a biographical sketch of Xenophon, the history of the document itself, and a discussion of its influence in European education, particularly its support of equal education for women. The text is presented with the Greek and English on opposing pages, with 134 pages of commentary that ties the material into the latest scholarship on the subject matter in the classics and economic history. This translation is distinguished from others, even recent ones, by the serious scholarly content of the commentary and the insight of the introduction.

Although all 19th century economists had classical educations and many, Sidgwick, Jowet, Wicksteed, Ingram, had a foot in both camps, by the turn of the century, things changed. The theologically, ethically or philosophically oriented classical scholars began to defend their shrinking turf. One thing became quite clear; they did not want the purity of their discipline sullied by the grubby science of economics. The Greek heritage in ethics, politics, historiography, and mathematics was heralded, but not economics. The epitome of this attitude was M. I. Finley's adamant denial of any relevant economic ideas in the writings of Aristotle or Xenophon in his classic 1970 essay, "Aristotle and Economic Analysis," in Past & Present [no. 47, pp. 3-25]. He drew on Schumpeter's failure to find antecedents to his perception of economic analysis and on a narrow price-theory definition of the total discipline of economics. As the ranking economic historian of antiquity, he stifled communication between the disciplines with both economists and classicists trusting his judgment in the other field.

Pomeroy challenges Finley's anachronistic obstinacy in refusing to grasp the relation of Xenophon's concept of the division of labor to the market [p. 43], and for failing to appreciate the significance of the accounting practices of the day [p. 56]. We should go further, however, and point out that Xenophon's discussion of use value and exchange value is worth Xeroxing and circulating to introductory economics students. After all, the Oeconomicus was an instructional piece and presents its basic ideas quite vividly. Value is subjectively defined and exchange value is approached as a skill that would enable an individual to take advantage of the general social capacity to use an item, such as a horse, that may not only not be a value to its owner, but even a hazard. According to Xenophon, responsibility and efficiency were enhanced more by praise, incentives, and rewards than by penalties while good leadership could double productivity. Historically, the concept of organization and finely tuned interaction was the primary conceptual legacy of the Oeconomicus but it vested in the late 19th century in the new discipline of ecology, moved to ecosystems and returned to management science as systems analysis and linear programming - yes, Xenophon does touch on programming in his Ways and Means.

Economists should not forget that economic science is a system of analysis that applies to the economic system of the culture being studied. During the heyday of ancient Greek culture, the family agricultural estate was the basic production/consumption structure of the society. No more than about 15% of the population were ever supported in commerce, handicrafts, the military or government administration until the 18th century. The oikos by that or other names was the real economic unit throwing off some surplus grain and textiles for trade and taxes. We pay too little attention to the breakthrough in agricultural productivity in 18th century England when abstracting the character of capitalism and its applicability to less developed countries.

Of parallel interest to historians of economic thought should be the section on estate management in Yassine Essid's recent book, A Critique of the Origins of Islamic Economic Thought [2]. The Muslims followed a Greek text by a neo-Pythagorean, Bryson, who had written a text paralleling Xenophon's Oeconomicus in many respects. Also, the chapter on the Cistercian monasteries in Louis Baeck's The Mediterranean Tradition in Economic Thought [1] brings home the crucial significance of agricultural organization in earlier economies.

The interdisciplinary door is being gradually opened, but Pomeroy's analysis would have been strengthened by a more perceptive emphasis on an analysis of Xenophon's focus on human capital in the form of training and organized interaction. Also, his treatment of the importance of information and administration could have been rounded out in terms more accessible to modern practitioners of management science. You would have hoped to see the name of a prominent historian of economic thought listed in her acknowledgments of those who read her manuscript. Economists do have something to contribute in understanding both the retrospective significance of the classics and the technical importance of classical writings in their own time and place. For example, not only is subjective value elaborated in great detail in classical literature, but the hedonic calculus and ordinal utility are clearly developed. There are also some striking bits of formal analysis that must have been constantly surfacing over the ages. I refer specifically to the closing lines of Xenophon's Banquet or Symposium where Socrates is formally challenged to justify his reputation as a thinker by some demonstration of profundity. A classical scholar could not be expected to appreciate Socrates' reply, but to an economist, it is a clear statement that profitability is maximized by reducing marginal costs that do not contribute to marginal revenue! [Xen. Banquet, VII. 1-5; 3, 75, 81]. At a minimum, this passage can be associated with the use of cost/benefit analysis in the administrative policies of 18th century French engineers.

S. Todd Lowry Washington and Lee University


1. Baeck, L. The Mediterranean Tradition in Economic Thought. New York and London: Routledge, 1994.

2. Essid, M. Y. A Critique of the Origins of lslamic Economic Thought. New York and Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1995.

3. Lowry, S. T. The Archaeology of Economic Ideas: The Classical Greek Tradition. Durham: Duke University Press, 1987.
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Author:Lowry, S. Todd
Publication:Southern Economic Journal
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jan 1, 1997
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