Organizing advice from classical Greeks

More than 2,000 years ago, famous Greek philosopher Socrates and a man named Isomachus were having a discussion about how Isomachus wished his wife would run their home (the conversation is recorded by Xenophon in chapter eight of his writing Oeconomicus). Isomachus told Socrates he had asked his wife to keep house by finding a place for everything and having everything in its place:

My dear, there is nothing so convenient or so good for human beings as order … An army in disorder is a confused mass … And so- my dear, if you do not want this confusion, and wish to know exactly how to manage our goods, and to find with ease whatever is wanted, and to satisfy me by giving me anything I ask for, let us choose the place that each portion should occupy; and, having put the things in their place, let us instruct the maid to take them from it and put them back again. Thus we shall know what is safe and sound and what is not; for the place itself will miss whatever is not in it, and a glance will reveal anything that wants attention, and the knowledge where each thing is will quickly bring it to hand, so that we can use it without trouble.

It’s delightful to read organizing advice that has been with us since Socrates’ day. There are a number of fun bits and pieces throughout the text that read like they could be straight out of an Unclutterer guest post: “even pots and pans may look fair and graceful when arranged in order.”

However, I should point out that the text was clearly written in a different time. The actual purpose of the text was to help men of Athens institute Socrates’ teachings in their homes, mostly by giving advice on what men should tell their wives and servants to do. The conversation above happened after Isomachus and his wife were just married, and Isomachus believed she would win his respect and esteem if she followed his instructions.

The irony in all of this is that Isomachus’ wife did not approve of his manner for keeping house (Isomachus references that she was messy), and Socrates exclaims: “Upon my word, Isomachus, your wife has a truly masculine mind by your showing.” I must admit, this made me laugh, and reminded me a great deal of our recent post addressing “Gender stereotypes and uncluttering.”

Apparently, nothing is new, not even stereotypes about men being messy or 5S Lean advice on a place for everything and everything in its place.

Thanks to reader MRussula for bringing this gem of Greek literature to our attention.

7 Comments for “Organizing advice from classical Greeks”

  1. posted by Gilbert Ross on

    Nice post…made some memories come back of when I was studying the pre-Socratic philosophers in my undergrad years. Cheers 🙂

  2. posted by *pol on

    That’s terrific! I love seeing things that prove “the more things change, the more they stay the same”. Clutter management is part of human nature I suppose.

  3. posted by Jacki Hollywood Brown on

    LOVE this post. Super great!

  4. posted by Charlotte on

    This is fantastic! Some things truly are timeless.

  5. posted by Kimberly on

    It is interesting to note that the particular clutter that this Greek was dealing with is all assumed to be useful clutter. No long term storage issues are implied. The maid is to return everything to it’s place after use, so I assume they only had in their home what is useful.

  6. posted by Sabrina on

    Thanks for the post! Love the fact that we are as common as people who lived thoughts of years ago. There is a comfort in the thought. =)

  7. posted by anonymous on

    If only Mrs. Socrates had kept the hemlock in its proper place, in a clearly and properly labeled bottle, that unfortunate mix-up might not have happened, and Socrates would still be with us today.

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