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.)