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Bion of Borysthenes

Diogenes Laertius, Book 4 §46-58

46. 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?

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.

47. 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.

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.” 48. 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.” 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. 49. 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?”

50. 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 a fortune; the fortune has acquired him.” Misers, he said, took care of property as if it belonged to them, but derived no more benefit from it than if it belonged to others. “When we are young,” said he, “we are courageous, but it is only in old age that prudence is at its height.” 51. Prudence, he said, excels the other virtues as much as sight excels the other senses. He used to say that we ought not to heap reproaches on old age, seeing that, as he said, we all hope to reach it. To a slanderer who showed a grave face his words were, “I don't know whether you have met with ill luck, or your neighbour with good.” He used to say that low birth made a bad partner for free speech, for –

It cows a man, however bold his heart.

We ought, he remarked, to watch our friends and see what manner of men they are, in order that we may not be thought to associate with the bad or to decline the friendship of the good.

Bion at the outset used to deprecate the Academic doctrines, even at the time when he was a pupil of Crates. Then he adopted the Cynic discipline, donning cloak and wallet.

52. For little else was needed to convert him to the doctrine of entire insensibility. Next he went over to Theodorean views, after he had heard the lectures of Theodorus the Atheist, who used every kind of sophistical argument. And after Theodorus he attended the lectures of Theophrastus the Peripatetic. He was fond of display and great at cutting up anything with a jest, using vulgar names for things. Because he employed every style of speech in combination, Eratosthenes, we hear, said of him that he was the first to deck philosophy with bright-flowered robes. He was clever also at parody. Here is a specimen of his style:

O gentle Archytas, musician-born, blessed in thine own conceit, most skilled of men to stir the bass of strife.

53. And in general he made sport of music and geometry. He lived extravagantly, and for this reason he would move from one city to another, sometimes contriving to make a great show. Thus at Rhodes he persuaded the sailors to put on students' garb and follow in his train. And when, attended by them, he made his way into the gymnasium, all eyes were fixed on him. It was his custom also to adopt certain young men for the gratification of his appetite and in order that he might be protected by their goodwill. He was extremely selfish and insisted strongly on the maxim that “friends share in common.” And hence it came about that he is not credited with a single disciple, out of all the crowds who attended his lectures. And yet there were some who followed his lead in shamelessness.

54. For instance, Betion, one of his intimates, is said once to have addressed Menedemus in these words: “For my part, Menedemus, I pass the night with Bion, and I don't think I am any the worse for it.” In his familiar talk he would often vehemently assail belief in the gods, a taste which he had derived from Theodorus. Afterwards, when he fell ill (so it was said by the people of Chalcis where he died), he was persuaded to wear an amulet and to repent of his offences against religion. And even for want of nurses he was in a sad plight, until Antigonus sent him two servants. And it is stated by Favorinus in his Miscellaneous History that the king himself followed in a litter.

Even so he died, and in these lines I have taken him to task:

55. We hear that Bion, to whom the Scythian land of Borysthenes gave birth, denied that the gods really exist. Had he persisted in holding this opinion, it would have been right to say, “He thinks as he pleases: wrongly, to be sure, but still he does think so.” But in fact, when he fell ill of a lingering disease and feared death, he who denied the existence of the gods, and would not even look at a temple, 56. who often mocked at mortals for sacrificing to deities, not only over hearth and high altars and table, with sweet savour and fat and incense did he gladden the nostrils of the gods; nor was he content to say “I have sinned, forgive the past,” 57. but he cheerfully allowed an old woman to put a charm round his neck, and in full faith bound his arms with leather and placed the rhamnus and the laurel-branch over the door, being ready to submit to anything sooner than die. Fool for wishing that the divine favour might be purchased at a certain price, as if the gods existed just when Bion chose to recognize them! It was then with vain wisdom that, when the driveller was all ashes, he stretched out his hand and said “Hail, Pluto, hail!”

58. Ten men have borne the name of Bion: (1) the contemporary of Pherecydes of Syria, to whom are assigned two books in the Ionic dialect; he was of Proconnesus; (2) a Syracusan, who wrote rhetorical handbooks; (3) our philosopher; (4) a follower of Democritus and mathematician of Abdera, who wrote both in Attic and in Ionic: he was the first to affirm that there are places where the night lasts for six months and the day for six months; (5) a native of Soli, who wrote a work on Aethiopia; (6) a rhetorician, the author of nine books called after the Muses; (7) a lyric poet; (8) a Milesian sculptor, mentioned by Polemo; (9) a tragic poet, one of the poets of Tarsus, as they are called; (10) a sculptor of Clazomenae or Chios, mentioned by Hipponax.

Diogenes Laertius, Book 2 §77

On the other accepting the invitation, Aristippus inquired, “Why, then, did you find fault? For you appear to blame the cost and not the entertainment.” When his servant was carrying money and found the load too heavy – the story is told by Bion in his Lectures – Aristippus cried, “Pour away the greater part, and carry no more than you can manage.” Being once on a voyage, as soon as he discovered the vessel to be manned by pirates, he took out his money and began to count it, and then, as if by inadvertence, he let the money fall into the sea, and naturally broke out into lamentation. Another version of the story attributes to him the further remark that it was better for the money to perish on account of Aristippus than for Aristippus to perish on account of the money. Dionysius once asked him what he was come for, and he said it was to impart what he had and obtain what he had not.

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