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“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?”

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? I would suggest that what most constituted, and constitutes, a useless house is that ostentation and luxury eclipse true beauty and functionality. Centuries later William Morris echoes 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 oeconomica, or household management. Socrates judges the utility and fittingness of things pertaining to the household by whether they serve a truly good life in the household. Do they enhance the virtuous living-together, and the personal relationships, of the household members? A house can and should be a place where beauty of architecture and decor reflects the inner and higher beauty of a well-ordered household life. What then does today’s ‘useless house’ look like? Perhaps like a mcmansion; perhaps like any house whose body and innards are not 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.

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