What Is Your House?

When you think about a household what meaning does it have for you? Does the word evoke an image of a specific physical place? Is it a more emotional sense of people, those who make you feel “at home”?

In the Homeric epics the central social unit was the Oikos. Oikos translates roughly as house or household. In more recent times it has also become the brand name of a Greek style yogurt (tastes like homemade I guess?). The social unit most often identified with ancient Greece is the Polis, the city-states like Athens and Sparta. The Homeric Oikos came before that city-state concept, an earlier organization for a less structured society.

In the days of Homer’s poetry there was a sense of being Greek. A common language marked who was part of the Greek world and who was “barbarian”. That was about as far as it went. The Greeks were not a nation as we understand it today. The Oikos was the primary relationship and demanded the first loyalty of the Homeric people we encounter in the poems.

An Oikos consisted of a noble family along with its dependents. The bond between the members of the household is described as being one of love (philia not eros, though one assumes there was plenty of that as well). It was a largely self sufficient unit for agricultural production as well as the tools of daily living. The safety and freedom of the Oikos was maintained by the Agathos and his martial skills. That isn’t to say that the Oikos existed in isolation. It was bound by relationships with other households. Another Agathos might become Xeinos (a foreign guest-friend) through sacred oaths and exchanging of gifts. Houses were bound in a sort of alliance. Their relationship was a matter of Time (honor).

For me, the idea of the Oikos resonates with the need for self-sufficiency that I’ve discussed previously. It is not an original thought on my part to note that we live in an increasingly globalized world. Our lives are determined by institutions of growing size and depersonalization. The individual human can easily become simply a unit of consumption and production.

I don’t wish to overstate the negative effects of “bigness”. I don’t plan on retreating to an isolated wilderness compound in rejection of some New World Order. If I do it will be called a summer home. Globalization has its merits. Personally, I think things like international trade and instant global communications are pretty handy. Still, I firmly believe that balance is needed and is something one has to actively work to maintain. Just because you have a nice house where you live with your family does not mean you have an Oikos. It doesn’t automatically mean you are charting an active course of personal, autonomous Arete as the Agathos at the head of an Oikos.

I suppose at this point I should produce one of those lists like “8 steps to having an Oikos”. I doubt that would work. I think each of us will discover that circumstances dictate the shape of our household. For myself, there are some basic questions I have considered.

First, who really is in your household? The simplest answer is one’s family. But family has become an increasingly fluid term and how far it extends will vary. I live in the burbs of Boston with one woman, two cats and have elderly parents living nearby. That is pretty much my household. I have close friends that are Xeinoi, allies and welcome guests with whom I share bonds of affection and reciprocal honor. You may have friends who live with you and are closer than any blood relations ever were. Your Oikos won’t look like mine.

Can you defend the Oikos? Relax, this isn’t where I tell you to build a bunker. But there is a responsibility to the people who are in your house. You are the Agathos. What does it mean to be able to care for them? The place of the martial and of self-defense as part of Agathos is a whole other post. I plan on writing on that at length. For now, I’ll just invite you to consider whether or not you are truly autonomous if your well-being is entirely dependent on others. Again, it will vary depending on your circumstances.

How can your household be more self-sufficient? Maybe that means growing some of your own food. It may mean choosing voluntary simplicity. Maybe it means building your own business and income stream. Its easier for me to push for economic autonomy because I don’t have kids looking at me for dinner. Not to keep repeating myself, but its going to be individual.

Whatever we choose it matters most that the choices be intentional. The Stoics counsel us to a life that is reasoned, dignified and in harmony with nature. We can choose that for our Oikos. The form is up to each of us as free and rational individuals.

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