(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

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.