“Let’s decide on the appropriate place for everything…. This will enable us to know which of our belongings are safe and sound, and which are not, because the place itself will cry out for anything that’s not there; our eyes will spot anything that needs attention; and knowing where each thing is will make it readily available so that there are no obstacles to our making use of it.”
Ischomachus in Xenophon, The Estate Manager
Spring is often associated with cleaning. It seems the word ‘clean’ can mean two main things, as indicated by two different words that can be its opposite: dirty and messy. In the home, both the dirty and the messy need to be cleaned.
In The Estate Manager, Xenophon devotes two chapters to the notion that everything in a home should have its own proper place. He offers a very helpful illustration, describing a Phoenician sea-going ship. He says, “I observed that all these objects were stored in such a way that they didn’t obstruct one another, didn’t need a search party, and weren’t either so loosely or so tightly packed as to cause a delay when there was an urgent need to find something.” It is in this that the difference between a Phoenician ship and my house—at least as regards my stuff—is most evident.
How much time have I spent looking for a tool wondering where I put it last time when I was finished with it? Indeed, I consistently make the mistake of thinking I don’t have time to de-clutter and organize my stuff, as I continue to suffer from the crippling effects—only one of which is wasting time—of my disorganization.
Cleaning, and here I use the term in its varied richness, is intrinsic to human life in this world. There is both an aesthetic side and a practical side, and neither should be underestimated. Yes, there will always be the danger of cleaning becoming an expression of an obsessive-compulsive disposition. But this danger—which certainly is to be avoided—must not distract us from the intrinsically salutary character of a clean and orderly environment, as well as of the work we do to achieve and maintain it.
Done well, cleaning is a way of loving human persons and fostering a truly human life. Cleaning should be an expression of the human difference. Xenophon marveled at the order in the Phoenician ship. And there is nothing quite like the dignity and pleasingness of a well-ordered house.
My wife has shared with me the notion of ‘spark joy.’ There are surely a good number of helpful plans for organizing our things in our home. I am grateful that Xenophon has clearly illustrated a basic principle of home life, one that grounds and gives inspiration for choosing and exercising such a plan. Our homes will probably never look like a Phoenician ship. But what goes on in our homes is in fact more complex, and more important. And this calls for our doing our best to instill an appropriate order in the material aspects of home life. Perhaps starting this spring.
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.
Image: Carl Larsson (Swedish, 1853-1919)
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