Selling Wheat in a Barley Market: The Wit of Bion the Philosopher

Diogenes Laertius, Lives of the Eminent Philosophers 4.47–49 (On Bion)

“To speak truly concerning other matters, Bion was a shifty guy, a diverse-minded sophist, and someone who gave many avenues of attack to those who wanted to harm philosophy. In some manners, he was puffed up and capable of great arrogance. He left a great many commentaries and sayings which can be very useful. For example, when he was reproached for not hunting after a young man he said “it’s not possible to grab soft cheese with a hook.”

When someone asked who suffers more from worry, he said “whoever wants to prosper the most”. When he was asked if someone should get married—for this story is also reported about Bion—he said if you marry an ugly woman, you will have a burden; if she is pretty, you will have her in common.” He said that old age is a harbor for all evils: at least, they all retreat into the same place. He called fame the mother of virtues, beauty a foreign good, and wealth the tendons of business. To someone who had eaten up his inheritance, he said “The land consumed Amphiarus, but you ate your land.” To be incapable of enduring an evil is a great evil. He used to condemn those who burned men as if they could not feel but cauterize them as if they do.

He always used to say that it was preferable to give favor to another than to take it. For this harms the body and the soul. And he used to slander Socrates, saying that if he had a desire for Alcibiades and resisted, he was stupid. But if he did not desire him, he did nothing impressive. He also used to say that the road to Hades was easy: at least because people get there with their eyes closed. He used to mock Alcibiades by saying that when he was young he separated men husbands from their wives; but when he was older, he stole wives from their husbands.

When the Athenians were obsessed with rhetoric, he taught philosophical subjects in Rhodes. To someone who criticized him for this, he said, “I brought wheat, can I sell barely?”

Καὶ ἦν ὡς ἀληθῶς ὁ Βίων τὰ μὲν ἄλλα πολύτροπος καὶ σοφιστὴς ποικίλος καὶ πλείστας ἀφορμὰς δεδωκὼς τοῖς βουλομένοις καθιππάζεσθαι φιλοσοφίας: ἔν τισι δὲ καὶ πομπικὸς καὶ ἀπολαῦσαι τύφου δυνάμενος. πλεῖστά τε καταλέλοιπεν ὑπομνήματα, ἀλλὰ καὶ ἀποφθέγματα χρειώ δη πραγματείαν περιέχοντα. οἷον ὀνειδιζόμενος ἐπὶ τῷ μὴ θηρᾶσαι μειράκιον, “οὐχ οἷόντε,” εἶπεν, “ἁπαλὸν τυρὸν ἀγκίστρῳ ἐπισπᾶσθαι.”

[48] ἐρωτηθείς ποτε τίς μᾶλλον ἀγωνιᾷ, ἔφη, “ὁ τὰ μέγιστα βουλόμενος εὐημερεῖν.” ἐρωτηθεὶς εἰ γήμαι–ἀναφέρεται γὰρ καὶ εἰς τοῦτον–ἔφη, “ἐὰν μὲν γήμῃς αἰσχράν, ἕξεις ποινήν: ἂν δὲ καλήν, ἕξεις κοινήν.” τὸ γῆρας ἔλεγεν ὅρμον εἶναι τῶν κακῶν: εἰς αὐτὸ γοῦν πάντα καταφεύγειν. τὴν δόξαν <ἀρ>ετῶν μητέρα εἶναι: τὸ κάλλος ἀλλότριον ἀγαθόν: τὸν πλοῦτον νεῦρα πραγμάτων. πρὸς τὸν τὰ χωρία κατεδηδοκότα, “τὸν μὲν Ἀμφιάραον,” ἔφη, “ἡ γῆ κατέπιε, σὺ δὲ τὴν γῆν.” μέγα κακὸν τὸ μὴ δύνασθαι φέρειν κακόν. κατεγίνωσκε δὲ καὶ τῶν τοὺς ἀνθρώπους κατακαόντων μὲν ὡς ἀναισθήτους, παρακαόντων δὲ ὡς αἰσθανομένους. 5

[49] ἔλεγε δὲ συνεχὲς ὅτι αἱρετώτερόν ἐστι τὴν ὥραν ἄλλῳ χαρίζεσθαι ἢ ἀλλοτρίας ἀποδρέπεσθαι: καὶ γὰρ εἰς σῶμα βλάπτεσθαι καὶ εἰς ψυχήν. διέβαλε δὲ καὶ τὸν Σωκράτην, λέγων ὡς εἰ μὲν εἶχεν Ἀλκιβιάδου χρείαν καὶ ἀπείχετο, μάταιος ἦν: εἰ δὲ μὴ εἶχεν, οὐδὲν ἐποίει παράδοξον. εὔκολον ἔφασκε τὴν εἰς ᾄδου ὁδόν: καταμύοντας γοῦν ἀπιέναι. τὸν Ἀλκιβιάδην μεμφόμενος ἔλεγεν ὡς νέος μὲν ὢν τοὺς ἄνδρας ἀπαγάγοι τῶν γυναικῶν, νεανίσκος δὲ γενόμενος τὰς γυναῖκας τῶν ἀνδρῶν. ἐν Ῥόδῳ τὰ ῥητορικὰ διασκούντων τῶν Ἀθηναίων τὰ φιλοσοφούμενα ἐδίδασκε: πρὸς οὖν τὸν αἰτιασάμενον ἔφη, “πυροὺς ἐκόμισα καὶ κριθὰς πιπράσκω;”

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