“Well then, Critobulus,” said Socrates, “what if I demonstrate that, in the first place, some people spend a lot of money on building useless houses, whereas others spend far less and build perfectly adequate houses?”
Xenophon, The Estate Manager
I wonder what features were typical of ‘useless houses’ in Athens. Did they have the ancient equivalent of a state-of-the-art entertainment center dominating the family room, or a master bath big enough to host a luncheon? Was it that size, number, and arrangement of rooms did not reasonably correspond to real human life of the household community?
I suggest that what most constituted, and constitutes, a useless house is that it does not facilitate and adorn the daily life of a family community in all its richness, dignity and simple practicality. In a useless house, ostentation or luxury eclipse true beauty and functionality. Spaces designed around technologies of entertainment and ‘communication’ take precedence over spaces for dignified work and real leisure.
In the nineteenth century William Morris echoed Socrates, succinctly stating, “Have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful.”
What kind of house we build is one aspect of what the Greeks call oeconomia, or the art of household management. In accord with the principles of this great art, Socrates judges the utility and fittingness of things pertaining to the household by whether they serve a truly good life there. Do they enhance virtuous living-together, and the personal relationships of the household members? A house can and should be a place where the architecture and the décor and room arrangements reflect and promote the inner and higher beauty of a well-ordered household life.
This is a matter that concerns all of us, whether our house is home to a young family, to grandparents, to a group of young professionals or to a single person.
What then is the opposite of a useless house? Perhaps it is any house whose body, or at least its innards, are literally shaped by the vibrant life of its soul—the community of persons who make a life together in it.
Xenophon (430-354 B.C.) was a soldier, historian, and philosopher of Athens. Like Plato he wrote dialogues featuring Socrates as a great teacher. Among these dialogues is Oeconomicus, translated as The Estate Manager, in which we get an insight into the structure and principles of the ancient household, and perhaps ours too.
[This post is a rethinking and representation of a piece I wrote some years ago on the same quotation.]
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