Household 101: A Mini-Course on Household according to Aristotle

“Household management attends more to humans than to the acquisition of inanimate things.” Politics I.13

Introduction

While the ancient Greek understanding of household was certainly not perfect, there is much that we can learn about the household from the great philosophers of Athens. Aristotle in particular devoted much attention to the oecos, or household, and oeconomia, or the art of household management. One of the first things that we might learn is that there is an art of running a household; and that the household in which parents do not have and hone this art is likely to be a household marked by disorder, and unhappiness. There are countless books devoted to how to run a business. By contrast there are relatively few devoted to how to run a household.

In the ancient world adult men and women were judged especially by how well they managed their households. Households tended to be centers of life on many levels, including that of business, or we might say ‘economic’ activity. So business and home-life were normally quite intertwined. Today most economic activity tends to be separate from the affairs of home. In this separation it is home life that often receives dramatically diminished attention. People judge themselves and others more by what they do outside the home—especially at work—than by what they do in the home. Indeed, one might even ask: just what do people do inside the home anymore? Our homes have been more and more emptied of real life, and are often reduced to a place where people sleep, consume entertainment, and eat—often not even together with others in the home.

The great Greek philosophers were especially concerned with what they called the ‘good life.’ While in our society this phrase may conjure images of slim young people playing volleyball on the beach, for those philosophers it denotes the virtuous life, a way of living achieved only through the conscious and disciplined effort of community. And it is this way of life alone that fulfills the human heart, bringing true happiness. A household is the primary context where human persons are formed in, and live out this kind of life. In the context of a household young people especially grow in character, through the loving and sustained efforts of adults. And adults are able to form young people in this way precisely because they themselves live a certain kind of life within the context of the household.

The division of this mini-course corresponds to Aristotle’s understanding of the nature and structure of the household. The household community—which is centered in the nuclear family but not necessarily reduced to it—is distinguished from the village community by the kind of activities shared by its members. The household community shares in ‘every day activities,’ while the village community shares in activities that as a rule are not performed every day. Further, there are two kinds of personal relationships that most essentially constitute the household, namely the spousal relationship and the parent-child relationship, and their proper functioning is the first concern of the household. Finally, there are material requirements for the exercise of daily activities: namely, property or wealth.

We thus distinguish three main areas for study in this mini-course:

  1. Basic Household Activities
  2. Personal Relationships in the Household
  3. Property or Wealth in the Household

Certain topics, such as Work, Recreation, and Moral Formation and Education, which are treated very briefly within this course, will be treated at greater length in connected blog posts.