Wednesday Quotes
Useless Houses
October 16, 2013


“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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  1. Could a television in every room or a laptop on every couch or an iphone in every pocket also undermine the order and beauty of a household?

    1. Joseph, You raise a great point. These technologies can pose a real threat to life in a household. I think that how to use these technologies properly, and how to limit their use in the household, is one of the great practical challenges of household life today. I invite you to see my post: Contemporary Challenges to Family Unity, which can be found under the Crisis Magazine Category of this website, where I share some more specific thoughts on this point.

  2. I love Socrates’s point about having nothing in the house that is not both useful and beautiful. Maria Montessori, who most certainly studied Socrates, says the same about the classroom. When I apply this principle to my own life, my soul is able to find freedom. Even in the midst of possessing material objects, the soul is free because the objects become a means to living the good life rather than a useless accumulation of wealth.

    Thanks for your thoughts and inspiration on this subject.

  3. I mentioned you and a talk you gave (a very long time ago) about life within the walls of your home and the Monastic life of the middle ages. I’d love it if you would share about that again, because Pete and I go back to it often when discussing family life.

    1. Thank you Kathryn. I’ll look for an opportunity to write and post something about that. All best to you and your family.

      1. Thank you John, please give our best to Sophia and the kids as well.
        The talk I’m speaking of took place in the Bott’s living room – I think it was a SHELL event but I cannot be sure, it was so long ago. I left a lasting impression though and has gone a long way towards the formation of our home/family life.