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Socrates Wants You to Tidy Up, Too

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These days, it appears that nobody is immune to Marie Kondo fever.

Kondo, an organization expert who first commanded international attention with her best-selling 2014 book, “The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up,” recently solidified her status as a lifestyle icon thanks to her popular new Netflix show, “Tidying Up with Marie Kondo.”

But while the “KonMari” method, which has resonated with millions of readers and viewers who seek to take control of their lives by taking stock of their possessions, is having a contemporary cultural moment, it is not entirely new. Readers of ancient Greek philosophy may already have encountered aspects of it in the work of Xenophon, an Athenian soldier turned philosopher who was a student of Socrates.

Plato may be the most famous author of Socratic dialogues, but Xenophon, too, wrote several works that depicted this guru thinking out loud. “Oeconomicus,” which takes good estate and household management (“economy”) as its subject, is one of those works. It consists largely of Socrates reporting advice that he picked up from a gentleman-farmer named Ischomachus, and that advice includes tips on how to educate your wife about systematically organizing your home. In other words, Ischomachus sells Socrates on the life-changing magic of tidying up.

Despite the large cultural and temporal gaps that separate the KonMari and Xenophontean tidying methods (let’s think of the latter as PhonMari), the two share some remarkable similarities. That is no more than a coincidence, but approaching Kondo with Xenophon in mind can help us to see some of the ethical principles, and problems, that underlie the KonMari method.

At the beginning of “Oeconomicus,” Socrates puts forward a thesis: True wealth exists only in the form of possessions that are beneficial to their owner. Likewise, Kondo famously tells her clients to keep just the objects that “spark joy.” If you own a flute but don’t know how to play it, both Ischomachus and Kondo would see it as superfluous to........

© The New York Times