Dialogue concerning the Exchequer

Very neat:

Just as those who walk in darkness and grope with their hands frequently stumble, so many sit there who seeing do not perceive, and hearing do not understand.

and I know there’s a few economics writers that should take this advice:

“Of those things which thou demandest it is impossible to speak except in common discourse and in ordinary words.”

“But,” said he, as if aroused to ire, — for to a mind filled with desire nothing goes quickly enough, — “writers on arts, lest they might seem to know too little about many things, and in order that art might less easily become known, have sought to appropriate many things, and have concealed them under unknown words: but thou dost not undertake to write about an art, but about certain customs and laws of the exchequer; and since these ought to be common, common words must necessarily be employed, so that style may have relation to the things of which we are speaking. Moreover, although it is very often allowable to invent new words, I beg, nevertheless, if it please thee that thou may’st not be ashamed to use the customary names of the things themselves which readily occur to the mind, so that no new difficulty from using unfamiliar words may arise to disturb us.”

and a commenter at Volokh mentions the similarity between the linked passage and Xenophon’s Oeconomicus. I don’t really see the connection except they’re both old texts and they both talk about economics/finance. The medieval dialog is more a hands on description of the goings on of the treasury and the Socratic dialog is more philosophical. In any case, Oeconomicus is worth reading anyway:

Critobulus: Yes, but we agreed that, however little a man may be blest with wealth himself, a science of economy exists; and that being so, what hinders you from being its professor?

Socrates: Nothing, to be sure, except what would hinder a man from knowing how to play the flute, supposing he had never had a flute of his own and no one had supplied the defect by lending him one to practise on: which is just my case with regard to economy, seeing I never myself possessed the instrument of the science which is wealth, so as to go through the pupil stage, nor hitherto has any one proposed to hand me over his to manage. You, in fact, are the first person to make so generous an offer. You will bear in mind, I hope, that a learner of the harp is apt to break and spoil the instrument; it is therefore probable, if I take in hand to learn the art of economy on your estate, I shall ruin it outright.

Well then, Critobulus (Socrates replied), what if I begin by showing you two sorts of people, the one expending large sums on money in building useless houses, the other at far less cost erecting dwellings replete with all they need; will you admit that I have laid my finger here on one of the essentials of economy?

Critobulus: An essential point most certainly.

Socrates: What, then, if I exhibit to you a third contrast, which bears on the condition of domestic slaves? On the one side you shall see them fettered hard and fast, as I may say, and yet for ever breaking their chains and running away. On the other side the slaves are loosed, and free to move, but for all that, they choose to work, it seems; they are constant to their masters. I think you will admit that I here point out another function of economy worth noting.

Critobulus: I do indeed–a feature most noteworthy.

Socrates: If it goes ill with the sheep we blame the shepherd…

All this I relate to you (continued Socrates) to show you that quite high and mighty people find it hard to hold aloof from agriculture, devotion to which art would seem to be thrice blest, combining as it does a certain sense of luxury with the satisfaction of an improved estate, and such a training of physical energies as shall fit a man to play a free man’s part. Earth, in the first place, freely offers to those that labour all things necessary to the life of man; and, as if that were not enough, makes further contribution of a thousand luxuries. It is she who supplies with sweetest scent and fairest show all things wherewith to adorn the altars and statues of the gods, or deck man’s person. It is to her we owe our many delicacies of flesh or fowl or vegetable growth; since with the tillage of the soil is closely linked the art of breeding sheep and cattle, whereby we mortals may offer sacrifices well pleasing to the gods, and satisfy our personal needs withal.

And albeit she, good cateress, pours out her blessings upon us in abundance, yet she suffers not her gifts to be received effeminately, but inures her pensioners to suffer gladly summer’s heat and winter’s cold. Those that labour with their hands, the actual delvers of the soil, she trains in a wrestling school of her own, adding strength to strength; whilst those others whose devotion is confined to the overseeing eye and to studious thought, she makes more manly, rousing them with cock-crow, and compelling them to be up and doing in many a long day’s march. Since, whether in city or afield, with the shifting seasons each necessary labour has its hour of performance.

Up to a certain point I fully followed what you said. I understand, according to your theory, how a bailiff must be taught. In other words, I follow your descriptions both as to how you make him kindly disposed towards yourself; and how, again, you make him careful, capable of rule, and upright. But at that point you made the statement that, in order to apply this diligence to tillage rightly, the careful husbandman must further learn what are the different things he has to do, and not alone what things he has to do, but how and when to do them. These are the topics which, in my opinion, have hitherto been somewhat lightly handled in the argument. Let me make my meaning clearer by an instance: it is as if you were to tell me that, in order to be able to take down a speech in writing, or to read a written statement, a man must know his letters. Of course, if not stone deaf, I must have garnered that for a certain object knowledge of letters was important to me, but the bare recognition of the fact, I fear, would not enable me in any deeper sense to know my letters. So, too, at present I am easily persuaded that if I am to direct my care aright in tillage I must have a knowledge of the art of tillage. But the bare recognition of the fact does not one whit provide me with the knowledge how I ought to till. And if I resolved without ado to set about the work of tilling, I imagine, I should soon resemble your physician going on his rounds and visiting his patients without knowing what to prescribe or what to do to ease their sufferings. To save me from the like predicaments, please teach me the actual work and processes of tillage.

And they are surely right in their assertion (I replied); for he who does not know what the soil is capable of bearing, can hardly know, I fancy, what he has to plant or what to sow.

But he has only to look at his neighbour’s land (he answered), at his crops and trees, in order to learn what the soil can bear and what it cannot.

At this point in the conversation I remarked: Tell me, Ischomachus, if the details of the art of husbandry are thus easy to learn, and all alike know what needs to be done, how does it happen that all farmers do not fare like, but some live in affluence owning more than they can possibly enjoy, while others of them fail to obtain the barest necessities and actually run into debt?

I will tell you, Socrates (Ischomachus replied). It is neither knowledge nor lack of knowledge in these husbandmen which causes some to be well off, while others are in difficulties; nor will you ever hear such tales afloat as that this or that estate has gone to ruin because the sower failed to sow evenly, or that the planter failed to plant straight rows of plants, or that such an one, being ignorant what soil was best suited to bear vines, had set his plants in sterile ground, or that another was in ignorance that fallow must be broken up for purposes of sowing, or that a third was not aware that it is good to mix manure in with the soil. No, you are much more likely to hear said of So-and-so: No wonder the man gets in no wheat from his farm, when he takes no pains to have it sown or properly manured. Or of some other that he grows no wine: Of course not, when he takes no pains either to plant new vines or to make those he has bear fruit. A third has neither figs nor olives; and again the self-same reason: He too is careless, and takes no steps whatever to succeed in growing either one or other. These are the distinctions which make all the
difference to prosperity in farming, far more than the reputed discovery of any clever agricultural method or machine.

Such, Socrates, are the ills which cause a house to crumble far more than lack of scientific knowledge, however rude it be.

After a pause, I added: I am turning over in my mind how cleverly you have presented the whole argument to support your thesis: which was, that of all arts the art of husbandry is the easiest to learn. And now, as the result of all that has been stated, I am entirely persuaded that this is so.

Ischomachus: Yes, Socrates, indeed it is. But I, on my side, must in turn admit that as regards that faculty which is common alike to every kind of conduct (tillage, or politics, the art of managing a house, or of conducting war), the power, namely, of command–I do subscribe to your opinion, that on this score one set of people differ largely from another both in point of wit and judgement. On a ship of war, for instance, the ship is on the high seas, and the crew must row whole days together to reach moorings. Now note the difference. Here you may find a captain able by dint of speech and conduct to whet the souls of those he leads, and sharpen them to voluntary toils; and there another so dull of wit and destitute of feeling that it will take his crew just twice the time to finish the same voyage. See them step on shore. The first ship’s company are drenched in sweat; but listen, they are loud in praise of one another, the captain and his merry men alike. And the others? They are come at last; they have not turned a hair, the lazy fellows, but for all that they hate their officer and by him are hated.

For if I rightly understand this blessed gift, this faculty of command over willing followers, by no means is it, in its entirety, a merely human quality, but it is in part divine. It is a gift plainly given to those truly initiated in the mystery of self-command. Whereas despotism over unwilling slaves, the heavenly ones give, as it seems to me, to those whom they deem worthy to live the life of Tantalus in Hades, of whom it is written “he consumes unending days in apprehension of a second death.”


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