Bion Essay - Critical Essays



Bion c. 335 b.c.-c. 245 b.c.

(Bion the Borysthenite) Greek philosopher, satirist, and lecturer.

Credited by Theophrastus as the first to adorn philosophy with bright-flowered robes, Bion is popularly known as the originator of the diatribe. Completely disinterested in theoretical issues, Bion preached his message of freedom, virtue, and happiness in the common language of the day. In his lecture tours he mixed ideas gleaned from diverse schools of thought, skillfully employing humor, erotic tales, vulgar words, anecdotes, proverbs, myth, and poetry to entertain and thereby command the attention of his audience. Because so little of his work is extant, his influence on other philosophers and writers is impossible to determine, although Horace described his own satires and letters as discourses written in the manner of Bion. Bion's quotability is attested to by the appearance of his sayings in the works of Cicero, Plutarch, and Seneca; several of his anecdotes are considered classics that have held up well to present times.

Biographical Information

Bion was born in Olbia, a Greek city next to the Black Sea, near the Borysthenes River, near present-day Odessa. His father traded in fish and his mother was a former prostitute. After Bion's father was caught defrauding the government, he and his family were sold into slavery. A handsome lad, Bion was sold to “a certain rhetorician” for sexual purposes and presumably was educated by him in rhetoric. When his master died, he left all his possessions to Bion, who promptly left for Athens to further his education. He studied several different schools of philosophy, taking whatever he liked from each, combining these parts into a new whole. He studied under Xenocrates at the Academy, followed by a period in which he lived as a Cynic under the tutelage of Crates, then under the atheist Theodorus of the Cyrenaic school, and lastly Theophrastus of the Peripatetic school. Blending the doctrines that most appealed to him, Bion traveled around the Greek world, often lecturing in the vernacular language to ordinary men. It is believed that Bion died in Chalcis.

Major Works

Only fragments of Bion's writings are now extant. Some passages believed to be quotes from Bion are found in fragments of Teles which in turn have been found in extracts made by Theodorus. Numerous sayings of Bion are recorded in Diogenes Laertius's famous Lives and Opinions of Eminent Philosophers (c. 200) and can be found in other assorted collections of witty sayings. It is not known if Bion ever published anything; the common assumption is that his memoirs consisted of loose notes rather than formal works. Among his most memorable sayings are “The way to death is easy and smooth: one goes with eyes shut!” Concerning a miser, he said, “He has not acquired a fortune; the fortune has acquired him.” Concerning the final words of a dying frog, he said, “This may be fun to you, but it is death to me.” He also is credited with having said words to the effect that man is the actor on the stage of the world, and that life is a feast from which one should leave as a gorged and satisfied guest.

Critical Reception

Bion had numerous detractors. Diogenes Laertius calls him shifty, pompous, arrogant, extremely selfish scum; at the same time he credits him with being clever and recounts many examples of his wit. Bion charged for his lectures, a practice criticized all the more so because some claimed that he had nothing new to offer, but was simply rehashing the philosophies of others. Bion's origins and personal lifestyle (including charges of homosexuality) brought him more ill repute, as did his ridicule of religion. Some modern critics maintain that too much emphasis has been placed on the satiric element in Bion. Gilbert Highet calls him a philosophical preacher. Jan Fredrick Kindstrand agrees, finding that Bion's philosophy has often been overlooked by critics more concerned with his rhetoric. This philosophy would include adjusting oneself to life as a sailor does to the winds at sea; and asking how one can feel poor when there are herbs in the street, water in springs, and a bed wherever there are leaves. Many scholars believe that Bion had a major impact on the development of satire, but Kindstrand warns that because so little of Bion's work survives—as well as so little of the work of his predecessors and contemporaries—it is unwise to make extravagant claims concerning Bion's originality of method or his influence.

Principal Works

Bion of Borysthenes: A Collection of the Fragments with Introduction and Commentary, edited by Jan Frederik Kindstrand (philosophy) 1976


Diogenes Laertius (essay date c. 200)

SOURCE: “Bion” in Lives of Eminent Philosopher,. Vol. I. Translated by R. D. Hicks. London: William Heinemann, 1925, pp. 422-35.

[In the following essay, Diogenes furnishes one of the primary sources for Bion's biography. The author negatively portrays Bion's character, and recounts numerous examples of his wit. Diogenes is believed to have written in the early third century.]

Bion was by birth a citizen of Borysthenes [Olbia]; who his parents were, and what his circumstances before he took to philosophy, he himself told Antigonus in plain terms. For, when Antigonus inquired:

Who among men, and whence, are you? What is your city and your parents?1

he, knowing that he had already been maligned to the king, replied, “My father was a freedman, who wiped his nose on his sleeve”—meaning that he was a dealer in salt fish—“a native of Borysthenes, with no face to show, but only the writing on his face, a token of his master's severity. My mother was such as a man like my father would marry, from a brothel. Afterwards my father, who had cheated the revenue in some way, was sold with all his family. And I, then a not ungraceful youngster, was bought by a certain rhetorician, who on his death left me all he had. And I burnt his books, scraped everything together, came to Athens and turned philosopher.

This is the stock and this the blood from which I boast to have sprung.2

Such is my story. It is high time, then, that Persaeus and Philonides left off recounting it. Judge me by myself.”

In truth Bion was in other respects a shifty character, a subtle sophist, and one who had given the enemies of philosophy many an occasion to blaspheme, while in certain respects he was even pompous and able to indulge in arrogance. He left very many memoirs, and also sayings of useful application. For example, when he was reproached for not paying court to a youth, his excuse was, “You can’t get hold of a soft cheese with a hook.” Being once asked who suffers most from anxiety, he replied, “He who is ambitious of the greatest prosperity.” Being consulted by some one as to whether he should marry—for this story is also told of Bion—he made answer, “If the wife you marry be ugly, she will be your bane; if beautiful, you will not keep her to yourself.”3 He called old age the harbour of all ills; at least they all take refuge there. Renown he called the mother of virtues; beauty another's good; wealth the sinews of success. To some one who had devoured his patrimony he said, “The earth swallowed Amphiaraus, but you have swallowed your land.” To be unable to bear an ill is itself a great ill. He used to condemn those who burnt men alive as if they could not feel, and yet cauterized them as if they could. He used repeatedly to say that to grant favours to another was preferable to enjoying the favours of others. For the latter means ruin to both body and soul. He even abused Socrates, declaring that, if he felt desire for Alcibiades and abstained, he was a fool; if he did not, his conduct was in no way remarkable. The road to Hades, he used to say, was easy to travel; at any rate men passed away with their eyes shut. He said in censure of Alcibiades that in his boyhood he drew away the husbands from their wives, and as a young man the wives from their husbands. When the Athenians were absorbed in the practice of rhetoric, he taught philosophy at Rhodes. To some one who found fault with him for this he replied, “How can I sell barley when what I brought to market is wheat?”

He used to say that those in Hades would be more severely punished if the vessels in which they drew water were whole instead of being pierced with holes. To an importunate talker who wanted his help he said, “I will satisfy your demand, if you will only get others to plead your cause and stay away yourself.” On a voyage in bad company he fell in with pirates. When his companions said, “We are lost if we are discovered,” “And I too,” he replied, “unless I am discovered.” Conceit he styled a hindrance to progress. Referring to a wealthy miser he said, “He has not acquired...

(The entire section is 1768 words.)

J. Wight Duff (essay date 1936)

SOURCE: “Greek Precursors of Roman Satire and Ennius” in Roman Satire: Its Outlook on Social Life, University of California Press, 1936, pp. 23-42.

[In the following excerpt, Duff discusses Bion in the context of other Greek writers and satirists.]

                                        Vos exemplaria Graeca
nocturna versate manu, versate diurna

Horace A. P. 268-269

Although satura in the Roman sense of the medley did not exist in Greece, yet there can be no difficulty in discovering what we should call satiric elements among Greek writers of all periods. Aristotle in the Poetics (iv. 7-8) points out how...

(The entire section is 6953 words.)

Gilbert Highet (essay date 1962)

SOURCE: “Diatribe” in The Anatomy of Satire, Princeton University Press, 1962, pp. 24-66.

[In the following excerpt, Highet profiles Bion– whom he calls a philosophical missionary—and his imaginative teaching style.]


Satire as a distinct type of literature with a generic name and a continuous tradition of its own, is usually believed to have started in Rome. The earliest satirist whose work has survived intact for us to read is Horace (65-8 b.c.). He has left us two volumes of verse satire, with ten poems in the first and eight in the second, together with some poetic letters which are not far removed from...

(The entire section is 7536 words.)

C. A. Van Rooy (essay date 1965)

SOURCE: “The Satirical Elements in Greek Literature” in Studies in Classical Satire and Related Literary Theory, E. J. Brill, 1965, pp. 90-116.

[In the following excerpt, Van Rooy argues that it is a common error to regard Bion as a satirist; instead, he should be considered a moralist and a preacher.]

… It is time for me to halt on the long road which, with many byways, leads from the true satire of the Archilochian Iambus through the partial satire of Aristophanic comedy and the semi-satire of the diatribe, the satiric moralising and satiric parody of the Hellenistic period, to the pseudo-satire of Lucian1. But perhaps a few remarks in...

(The entire section is 2003 words.)

Jan Fredrik Kindstrand (essay date 1976)

SOURCE: “Life” in Bion of Borysthenes, TEXTgruppen, 1976, pp. 3-20.

[In the following excerpt, Kindstrand narrates Bion's life from birth to death and explains the popularity of his lectures. He also includes an extensive list of relevant works.]

Bion,1 usually known as the Borysthenite2 in the ancient tradition, was born in the Greek city of Olbia,3 situated on the northern coast of the Black Sea, on the right bank of the river Hypanis and not very far from its confluence with the river Borysthenes.4 The inhabitants of Olbia and also their city were usually named by other Greeks from the latter river.5 Olbia...

(The entire section is 10609 words.)

Further Reading

Dudley, Donald R. “Cynicism in the Third Century b.c.,” pp. 59–94. In A History of Cynicism: From Diogenes to the 6th Century a.d. 1937. Reprint. Gordon Press, 1974.

Examines Bion's life and career, discusses the nature of and the motivations behind te many hostile references to him, and traces his influence on cynicism.

Rich, Audrey N. M. “The Cynic Conception of Aytapkeia.” Mnemosyne, Series IV, Vol. 9, No. 1 (1956): 23-29.

Discusses the concept and impossibility of self-sufficiency, with passing reference to Bion's notion of adapting to changing circumstances.

(The entire section is 85 words.)