Once when Diogenes was leaving Corinth for Athens, he met an acquaintance on the road and asked whither he was going; not, however, as most persons ask such questions and thereby make a show of interest in their friends' affairs, yet have no sooner heard than off they go; no, but just as physicians ask the sick what they are planning to do, with the idea of giving them counsel and recommending what they should do and what they should avoid, so for the same purpose Diogenes asked the man what he was doing. And the latter replied, “I am on my way to Delphi, Diogenes, to make use of the oracle, but when I was about to pass through Boeotia, my slave, who was with me, ran away, and so I am now bound for Corinth, for perhaps I may find the boy there.” At this Diogenes replied with that characteristic earnestness of his, “And so, you ridiculous fellow, are you attempting to make use of the god when you are incapable of using a slave? Or does not the latter strike you as less difficult and dangerous than the former for those who are incapable of using things properly? Besides, what is your object in hunting for the boy? Was he not a bad slave?” “Yes, he certainly was,” replied the latter, “for although I had done him no wrong and, what is more, had made him my body-servant, he ran away.” “Perhaps he thought you were a bad master, for if he had thought you were a good one, he would never have left you.” “Perhaps, Diogenes, it was because he was bad himself.”
“And so,” continued Diogenes, “because he thought you were bad, he ran off to avoid injury by you, while you are searching for him although you say he is bad, evidently with the desire to be injured by him! Is it not true that bad men are injurious to those who own them or to those who use them, whether they be Phrygians or Athenians, bond or free? And yet no one hunts for a runaway dog that he thinks is no good; nay, some even kick such a dog if he comes back; but when people are rid of a bad man they are not satisfied, but go to a lot of trouble by sending word to their friends, making trips themselves, and spending money to get the fellow back again. Now do you believe that more have been hurt by bad dogs than by bad men? To be sure we hear that one man, Actaeon, was slain by worthless dogs, and mad ones at that; but it is not even possible to say how many private individuals, kings, and whole cities have been destroyed by bad men, some by servants, some by soldiers and bodyguards, others by so-called friends, and yet others by sons and brothers and wives. Is it not, therefore, a great gain when one happens to be rid of a bad man? Should one hunt and chase after him? That would be like hunting after a disease one had got rid of and trying to get it back into one's system again.”
The man replied, “What you say is right enough, Diogenes, but it is hard for a man who has been wronged not to seek redress. That renegade suffered no wrong at my hands, as you see, and yet he dared to desert me. At my house he did none of the work that slaves perform, but was kept inside in idleness with nothing else to do but to accompany me.” “Then were you doing him no wrong,” Diogenes answered, “by keeping him in idleness and ignorance and making him as bad as could be? For idleness and lack of occupation are the best things in the world to ruin the foolish. Therefore he was right in deciding that you were his undoing, and he was justified in running off, evidently so as to get work and not become worse and worse all the time by loafing, sleeping, and eating. But you, perhaps, think that it is a trifling wrong when anyone makes another man worse. And yet is it not right to keep away from such a man above all as the deadliest and most treacherous of enemies?”
“What shall I do then?” he asked, “for I have no other domestic. “Well, what will you do,” said he, “when you have no other shoes and those you have hurt and lacerate your feet? Will you not take them off as soon as you can and go barefoot? If, however, they fall off themselves, do you tie them on again and pinch your feet? Why, sometimes barefooted persons get about more easily than those who are badly shod; and similarly, many live more comfortably and with less annoyance without domestics than those who have many. See what worries the rich have. Some are taking care of their sick slaves and wanting doctors and nurses — for it is usually the way of slaves to neglect themselves and not be careful when sick, partly through lack of self-control, partly because they think that if anything befalls them, it will be their master's loss and not their own — other rich men inflict corporal punishment daily, others put fetters on them, while yet others are pursuing runaways. And so it goes; they can neither get away from home easily whenever they like nor have leisure if they stay at home. And the most absurd thing of all is that they are often worse off for help than are the poor who keep no servants. Their situation reminds one of the centipede — I think you know it — which has innumerable feet and yet it is the slowest of creeping things. Do you not know that nature has made each man's body to be sufficient to serve him? — feet so as to move about, hands to work with and to care for the rest of the body, eyes to see, and ears to hear. Besides, she has made his stomach of a size in keeping, so that man does not require more nourishment than he is able to provide for himself, but this amount represents what is quite adequate for each man and best and most wholesome. Just as a hand is all the weaker for having more fingers than belong there naturally, and such a man is called a sort of cripple when he has an extra finger on the outside and cannot use the other fingers properly; so when a man gets equipped with many additional feet, hands, and stomachs, by heavens, he becomes not a whit more efficient for any task whatever, nor does he obtain what he must obtain any better, but rather, much less well and with greater difficulty.
“You now provide food for one person,” he continued, “but then it was for two; and now, if any illness attacks you, you will have only yourself to treat, but then you had to take care of him, too, when he was ill. Now, when you are in the house all by yourself, you do not worry for fear that you may steal something yourself, nor, when you retire, lest your slave be awake and doing some mischief. All these things you should surely think about. And further, if you have a wife, she would then not have considered it her duty to look after you when she saw a domestic kept in the family, and she would have been likely to annoy you, sometimes by quarrelling with him, at other times by being hard to suit herself; but now she will be less discontented herself and will take better care of you. Then too, wherever there is a servant, the children as they come on are at once spoiled and become lazier and more overbearing as long as there is someone to dance attendance upon them, and as they have somebody whom they look down upon. On the other hand, wherever the children are by themselves, they are much more manly and vigorous and learn to care for their parents from the very start.”
“But, Diogenes, I am a poor man, and if it should not be to my advantage to keep the servant, I shall dispose of him.” “In that case,” he rejoined, “are you not ashamed, in the first place, to deceive the purchaser by selling him a bad slave? For either you will conceal the truth or be unable to sell him. Further, if a man sells a cloak or a utensil that is not what it purports to be, or an animal that is diseased and useless, he must take it back; so, by selling you will be none the better off. And even if you shall be able to deceive somebody and he shall not be aware of the slave's depravity, are you not afraid of the money? For perhaps you will buy another still worse slave if you chance upon a seller who is too shrewd for you. Or perhaps you will use the money received for something that will harm you. For by no means in every case does money help those who have gotten it; but men have suffered many more injuries and many more evils from money than from poverty, particularly when they lacked sense. Are you going to try to secure first, not that other thing, which will enable you to derive profit from everything and to order all your affairs well, but in preference to wisdom are you going to seek riches or lands or teams of horses or ships or houses? You will become their slave and will suffer through them and perform a great deal of useless labour, and will spend all your life worrying over them without getting any benefit whatsoever from them. Consider the beasts yonder and the birds, how much freer from trouble they live than men, and how much more happily also, his much healthier and stronger they are, and how each of them lives the longest life possible, although they have neither hands nor human intelligence. And yet, to counter-balance these and their other limitations, they have one very great blessing — they own no property.”
“Well, Diogenes, I believe I shall let my servant go, that is, unless he happens to come my way.” “Well, I declare,” exclaimed Diogenes, “that would be like your saying that you would not look for a horse that bites or kicks, but that if you came across him, you would go up to him for the fun of being bitten or kicked!”
“Enough of that! But why do you object to my making use of the god?” “What! I object to your making use of the god if you can! That is not what I was saying, but that it is difficult, nay rather impossible, to make use of god or man or one's own self if one does not know how. To make the attempt without knowing how is an extremely harmful thing. Or do you think that the man who is untrained in the use of horses could make use of them?” “I do not.” “And that, if, on the other hand, he should use force, he would get some harm from it rather than good?” “True.” “Now then, will the man ignorant of the use of dogs be able to use them? Or does not the using of anything imply deriving benefit from it?” “I think so.” “No one, therefore, of those injured by a thing really uses the thing by which he is injured, does he?” “Certainly not.” “If, therefore, a man attempts to use dogs without knowing how, will he not receive damage from them?” “Very likely.” “He, therefore, will not be using them either, since use does not properly exist where damage results. And this is true not only in the case of dogs and horses but of oxen and mules also, and — what might surprise you more — not even the using of an ass or a sheep is a matter for inexperienced persons. Or do you not know that from the keeping of sheep and the driving of asses some derive benefit and others injury?” “I do.” “Is it not simply because the inexperienced necessarily receive damage and those who p433know benefit, whether it be a question of asses or swine of geese or any other creature?” “It appears so.”
“Furthermore, can it be that, as regards the use of things, the same reasoning does not hold good, but that one who has no knowledge of music could use a lyre, or would he not be ridiculous for trying, not to speak of his accomplishing nothing and ruining the lyre and breaking the strings? Then again, if one who is not a flautist should wish to use the flute and appear in the theatres and play upon it, would he not be pelted as a punishment and be likely to smash his flute into the bargain? And if a man undertakes to handle a rudder without knowing how to steer, will he not assuredly capsize the boat in short order and cause the death of both himself and his fellow-passengers? Still further, does the use of spear or shield do any good when wielded by timid and inexperienced persons, or rather, would they not by such an attempt at use lose not only their weapons but their own lives as well?”
“I grant it, Diogenes,” he replied; “but you are letting the sun down with your interminable questions.” “And is it not better,” said he, “to let the sun go down if one is listening to useful words than to go on an idle journey?”
“And likewise in almost all cases where practical experience in 'using' is lacking, it is difficult to be zealous, and the damage is likely to be greater where the things concerned are greater. Do you, then, think that the 'use' of an ass is like the 'use' of a horse?” “Of course not.” “Well, then, is the 'use' of a man like the 'use' of a god?” “But that question does not deserve an answer, Diogenes,” said he. “Is there anyone, then, who can make use of himself who does not know himself?” “How could he?” replied the other. “Because the one who does not understand man is unable to 'use' man?” “Yes, because he cannot.” “So he who does not understand himself would not be able to make use of himself, would he?” “I believe not.” “Have you ever heard of the inscription at Delphi: 'Know thyself?” “I have.” “Is it not plain that the god gives this command to all, in the belief that they do not know themselves?' “It would seem so.” “You, therefore, would be included in the 'all'?” “Certainly.” “So then you also do not know yourself?” “I believe not.” “And not knowing yourself, you do not know man; and not knowing man, you are unable to 'use' man; and yet, although you are unable to 'use' a man, you are attempting to 'use' a god, an attempt which we agree is altogether the greater and more difficult of the two.
“Tell me, do you think Apollo speaks Attic or Doric? Or that men and gods have the same language? Yet the difference is so great that the Scamander river in Troy is called Xanthus by the gods, and that the bird kymindis is called chalkis, and that a certain spot outside the city which the Trojans called Batieia was called the Sema Myrines by the gods. From this it naturally follows that the oracles are obscure and have already deceived many men. Now for Homer perhaps it was safe to go to Apollo at Delphi, as being bilingual and understanding the dialects — if he really did understand them all and not just a few things, like persons who know two or three Persian, Median, or Assyrian words and thus fool the ignorant.
“But how about you? Have you no fear, lest, when the god says one thing you may understand another? As, for instance, the story of the famous Laïus, the man who became the lover of Chrysippus; when he had gone to Delphi, he asked the god how he might have issue. The god bade him 'not to beget, or, having begotten, to expose.' And Laïus was so foolish as to misunderstand both commands of the god, for he begot a son and did not rear him. Afterwards both he and all his house were destroyed, all because he had undertaken to 'make use of' Apollo when he lacked the ability. For if he had not received that oracle, he would not have exposed Oedipus, and the latter, having been reared at home, would not have slain Laïus, for he would have known that he was his son. Then you have heard the story about Croesus, the Lydian, who, imagining that he was most faithfully carrying out the behests of the god, crossed the river Halys, lost his empire, was bound in chains himself, and barely escaped being burned alive. Or do you, pray, think that you are wiser than Croesus, a man of such wealth, who ruled over so many people and had met Solon and a great many other wise men? As for Orestes, I presume you see him also in tragic performances inveighing against the god in his fits of madness, and accusing him as though he had counselled him to slay his mother. But do not imagine that Apollo ever ordered those that consult him to commit any dreadful or disgraceful act. It is as I said: although men are incapable of 'using' the god, they go ahead, try, and then blame him and not themselves.
“You, then, if you follow my advice, will take heed and aim first to know yourself; afterwards, having found wisdom, you will then, if it be your pleasure, consult the oracle. For I am persuaded that you will have no need of consulting oracles if you have intelligence. Why just consider! If the god bids you to read and write correctly when you have no knowledge of letters, you will not be able to do so; but if you know your letters, you will read and write well enough, even without any command from the god. In the same way, if he advises you to do anything else when you do not know how, you will not be in a condition to obey. You will not be able to live properly, either, if you do not know how, even though you importune Apollo day after day and he gives you all his time. But if possessed of intelligence, you will know of yourself what you ought to do and how to go about it.
“There is one thing, however, that I forgot to say about Oedipus: He did not go to Delphi to consult the oracle but fell in with Teiresias and suffered great calamities from that seer's divination on account of his own ignorance. For he knew that he had consorted with his own mother and that he had children by her; and subsequently, when perhaps he should have concealed this or made it legal in Thebes, in the first place he let everybody know the fact and then became greatly wrought up, lifted up his voice and complained that he was father and brother at once of the same children, and husband and son of the same woman. 30 But domestic fowls do not object to such relationships, nor dogs, nor any ass, nor do the Persians, although they pass for the aristocracy of Asia. And in addition to all this, Oedipus blinded himself and then wandered about blind, as though he could not wander while still keeping his sight.”
The other on hearing this replied, “You, Diogenes, make Oedipus out to be the greatest dullard in the world; but the Greeks believe that, though he was not a fortunate man, he was the most sagacious of all men. At any rate they say that he alone solved the Sphinx's1riddle.” At this Diogenes broke into a laugh and said, “He solve the Sphinx's riddle! Have you not heard that the Sphinx prompted him to give the answer 'man'? As to the meaning of 'man,' however, he neither expressed himself nor knew, but when he said the word 'man' he thought he was answering the question. It was just as if one were asked, 'What is Socrates?' and should give no other answer than the word 'Socrates.' I have heard someone say that the Sphinx stands for stupidity; that this, accordingly, proved the ruin of the Boeotians in the past just as it does now, their stupidity preventing their knowing anything, such utter dullards they are; and that while the others had an inkling of their ignorance, Oedipus, who thought that he was very wise and had escaped the Sphinx, and who had made the other Thebans believe all this, perished most miserably. For any man who in spite of his ignorance deludes himself with the belief that he is wise is in a much sorrier plight than anyone else. And such is the tribe of sophists.”
Source: Discourses by Dio Chrysostom published in the Loeb Classical Library, 1932. The text is in the public domain.