The Proverb Behind Silenus’ Wisdom

According to Plutarch, this conversation is taken from a lost dialogue ascribed to Aristotle, entitled, On the Soul. This passage also shows up in Nietzsche’s Birth of Tragedy chapter 3.

Plutarch Consolation to Apollonius [Moralia, 115a-c]

“There is also the saying you know has been passed around the mouth of many humans over the years.” “what is that?” he asked. The other one, interrupted, “that it is best of all not to exist and then second it is better to die than to live. This has been demonstrated by many examples from the divine.

For certainly they say this concerning Midas after the hunt when he caught Silenus and was asking him and finding out from him what is best for mortals and what should be most preferred. But Silenus was willing to say nothing, but remained stubbornly silent.

After he tried nearly every kind of approach, he persuaded him to provide some answer—so compelled, he said, “brief-lived offspring of a laboring god and harsh fate, why do you force me to tell you what it is better not to know? A life lived in ignorance of your most intimate griefs is the least painful.

But for humans it is not at all possible to have the best thing of all or to have any share of the best nature—since the best thing for all men and women is not to be born. But the second best thing after this and the first available to mortals, is to die as soon as possible after being born.” It is clear that he said this because the way that exists in death is better than the one in life.”

τὸ διὰ στόματος ὂν τοῖς ἀνθρώποις ὁρᾷς ὡς ἐκ πολλῶν ἐτῶν περιφέρεται θρυλούμενον.” “τί τοῦτ᾿;” ἔφη. κἀκεῖνος ὑπολαβών “ὡς ἄρα μὴ γενέσθαι μέν,” ἔφη, “ἄριστον πάντων, τὸ δὲ τεθνάναι τοῦ ζῆν ἐστι κρεῖττον. καὶ πολλοῖς οὕτω παρὰ τοῦ δαιμονίου μεμαρτύρηται. τοῦτο μὲν ἐκείνῳ τῷ Μίδᾳ λέγουσι δήπου μετὰ τὴν θήραν ὡς ἔλαβε τὸν Σειληνὸν διερωτῶντι καὶ πυνθανομένῳ τί ποτ᾿ ἐστὶ τὸ βέλτιστοντοῖς ἀνθρώποις καὶ τί τὸ πάντων αἱρετώτατον, τὸ μὲν πρῶτον οὐδὲν ἐθέλειν εἰπεῖν ἀλλὰ σιωπᾶν ἀρρήτως· ἐπειδὴ δέ ποτε μόγις πᾶσαν μηχανὴν μηχανώμενος προσηγάγετο φθέγξασθαί τι πρὸς αὐτόν, οὕτως ἀναγκαζόμενον εἰπεῖν, ‘δαίμονος ἐπιπόνου καὶ τύχης χαλεπῆς ἐφήμερον σπέρμα, τί με βιάζεσθε λέγειν ἃ ὑμῖν ἄρειον μὴ γνῶναι; μετ᾿ ἀγνοίας γὰρ τῶν οἰκείων κακῶν ἀλυπότατος ὁ βίος. ἀνθρώποις δὲ πάμπαν οὐκ ἔστι γενέσθαι τὸ πάντων ἄριστον οὐδὲ μετασχεῖν τῆς τοῦ βελτίστου φύσεως (ἄριστον γὰρ πᾶσι καὶ πάσαις τὸ μὴ γενέσθαι)· τὸ μέντοι μετὰ τοῦτο καὶ πρῶτον τῶν ἀνθρώπῳ ἀνυστῶν, δεύτερον δέ, τὸ γενομένους ἀποθανεῖν ὡς τάχιστα.’ δῆλον οὖν ὡς οὔσης κρείττονος τῆς ἐν τῷ τεθνάναι διαγωγῆς ἢ τῆς ἐν τῷ ζῆν, οὕτως ἀπεφήνατο.”

This comment seems proverbial–split in similar attributions in hexameter and elegiac poetry.

In the Contest of Homer and Hesiod

“Son of Meles, Homer who knows the mysteries of the gods,
Tell me foremost what is best for mortals?”
Homer answered:

“First, it is best for mortals to not be born.
If born, to pass through Hades’ gates as soon as possible.”

ἀρ υἱὲ Μέλητος ῞Ομηρε θεῶν ἄπο μήδεα εἰδὼς
εἴπ’ ἄγε μοι πάμπρωτα τί φέρτατόν ἐστι βροτοῖσιν;
῞Ομηρος·
ἀρχὴν μὲν μὴ φῦναι ἐπιχθονίοισιν ἄριστον,
φύντα δ’ ὅμως ὤκιστα πύλας ᾿Αίδαο περῆσαι.

The passage floats around some. Stobaeus (4.52.22) attributes it to Alcidamas’ Mousaion but the most widely cited source is Theognis. It is listed without attribution by the paroemiographer Michael Apostolos, with the explanation that this is a proverb “[attributed] to people living in misfortune”  (ἐπὶ τῶν δυστυχῶς βιούντων, 3.85.3)

Theognis, 425-428

“First, it is best for mortals to not be born.
Not to see the rays of the piercing sun
If born, to pass through Hades’ gates as soon as possible.
And to lie with a great pile of earth heaped above you.

πάντων μὲν μὴ φῦναι ἐπιχθονίοισιν ἄριστον,
μηδ᾿ ἐσιδεῖν αὐγὰς ὀξέος ἠελίου,
φύντα δ᾿ ὅπως ὤκιστα πύλας Ἀΐδαο περῆσαι
καὶ κεῖσθαι πολλὴν γῆν ἐπαμησάμενον.

The Loeb note to this passage suggest that Theognis is merely adding to the hexameter lines, since the pentameter lines add nothing. But I think this is problematic. Consider the similar doublet to the first 2 lines above in Bacchylides.

Bacchylides 5.159–161

“And answering him, he said:
“It is best for mortals not to be born
Nor to see the sun.”

καί νιν ἀμειβόμενος
τᾶδ᾿ ἔφα· ‘θνατοῖσι μὴ φῦναι φέριστον
μηδ᾿ ἀελίου προσιδεῖν

Note how Bacchylides acknowledges the proverbial–or at least ‘other’–status of these lines by putting it into the mouths of one of his characters. Notice the stability of the infinitive construction μὴ φῦναι with the mobility of the dative θνατοῖσι and the lexical variations of θνατοῖσι instead of ἐπιχθονίοισιν and φέριστον instead of ἄριστον.

Sophocles, Oedipus Colonos 1225–1227

“Not being born conquers
every argument. But, then, if someone does emerge,
to return where you came from as fast as possible
is second best by far.”

Μὴ φῦναι τὸν ἅπαντα νι-
κᾷ λόγον· τὸ δ’, ἐπεὶ φανῇ,
βῆναι κεῖθεν ὅθεν περ ἥ-
κει, πολὺ δεύτερον, ὡς τάχιστα.

Sextus Empiricus (Outlines of Pyrrhonism 3.230–231) compares the Theognis passage to this fragment from Euripides (fr. 449)

“We should have a gathering to mourn
Someone when they are born, when they come to so many evils
And when someone has died and found a break from evils,
We should be happy and bless them as we carry them from their homes.”

ἐχρῆν γὰρ ἡμᾶς σύλλογον ποιουμένους
τὸν φύντα θρηνεῖν, εἰς ὅσ᾿ ἔρχεται κακά,
τὸν δ᾿ αὖ θανόντα καὶ κακῶν πεπαυμένον
χαίροντας εὐφημοῦντας ἐκπέμπειν δόμων.

Valerius Maximus claimed that Thracians actually did mourn births and celebrate funerals.

A clearer reflection on the proverb is Euripides fr. 235 (from Bellerophon):

“I agree with the thing reported everywhere,
That it is best for a mortal not to be born.”

ἐγὼ τὸ μὲν δὴ πανταχοῦ θρυλούμενον
κράτιστον εἶναι φημὶ μὴ φῦναι βροτῷ·

Note the different superlative at the beginning of the phrase and the singular βροτῷ. Based on the flexibility of the expression and the riffing on it, I would suggest that this is a broadly dispersed cultural idea that has proverbial status at a very early period. Note how Euripides, in another fragment, toys with the more broadly used phrase:

Euripides, fr. 908

“Not existing is better for mortals than being born.”

Τὸ μὴ γενέσθαι κρεῖσσον ἢ φῦναι βροτοῖς.

Epicurus (Diogenes Laertius, 10.127) thinks that anyone who believes this and says it is a fool since “if he says it because he believes it, how is it he does not just stop living? For this is ready for him to do, if it is completely believed by him.” (εἰ μὲν γὰρ πεποιθὼς τοῦτό φησι, πῶς οὐκ ἀπέρχεται τοῦ ζῆν; ἐν ἑτοίμῳ γὰρ αὐτῷ τοῦτ᾿ ἔστιν, εἴπερ ἦν βεβουλευμένον αὐτῷ βεβαίως).

And there is, of course, the Ancient Near Eastern context to consider!

Statue of Silenus

An Unmarried, Childless Corpse

IC I xxii 58  Crete, 2nd or 2rd Century CE

“Kratinos, the Son of Zôpuros

This dust holds Kratinos the son of Zôpuros, Traveler,
A child who brought the least pain to all mortals
And when he was just 18 years old he was killed
By a strong disease and went to the Hagesilan home.

You left groans and griefs for you mother and will not return,
Nor will they be diminished by your marriage [?]
But Sôsitô mourned while weeping much with her kin
When she saw your unmarried and childless corpse.

O toilsome daughter Aphrodisia, what kind of a child
You raised in your home! Chance did not allot a fate
But he could have lived enough, Zeus, with faith….
Of Zôpuros….”

Κρατῖνος Ζωπύρου.
Ζωπύρου ἅδε Κρατῖνον ἔχει κόνις, ὦ παροδῖτ[α],
παῖδα τὸν ἐν θνατοῖς πᾶσιν ἀλυπότατον
ὀκτὼ καὶ δεχέτης παρεὼν κρατερᾶς ὑπὸ νούσω

ἦλθ’ εἰς Ἁγεσίλα δῶμα βιαζόμενος,
ματρὶ λιπὼν στεναχὰς καὶ πένθεα κοὐκ ἐπανῆλ[θ]ες
οὔτε γάμοισι τεοῖς οἱ τυτθηνάμενοι·
πολλὰ δὲ ὀδυρομένη σὺν ὁμαίμοις ἐστενάχησε
Σωσιτὼ ὡς ἄγαμον κἄτεκνον εἶδε νέκυν.

ὦ θύγατερ πολύμοχθε Ἀφροδισία, οἶον ἔθραψας
παῖδα δόμοις· μοῖρα̣[ν δ’] ο̣[ὐ]κ’ ἐπέ[κλω]σε Τύχη,
ἀλ’ ἱκανῶς γίνοιτο, ὦ Ζεῦ, πίστει εσδ̣․․ε̣․ελλον
Ζωπύρου [— — — — — — — — — — — — — — —]
[— — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — —]

Image result for ancient greek vase hades
Persephone with Hermes

Death at Eighteen Years Old

SEG 54:788 Kos, 2nd/1st Century BCE

Funerary epigram for Stibos. White marble stele with upper molding.

“Stibos, before when you were still among the living
You took pleasure delighting in many valleys in glorious hunts.
But now that you’re dead the dark earth covers over you,
Hades brought death at only eighteen years old.
But you, Kyllenian god…
Take this child at the height of his youth to the reverent dead.”

πρὶν μὲν ἐνὶ ζωοῖσιν ἔτ’ ὤν, Στίβε, πολλὰ κατ’ ἄγκη
τέρπεο γαυριόων κυδαλίμοισιν ἄγραις, vacat
νῦν δέ σε τεθνειῶτα μέλαν νέφος ἀμφικαλύπτει·
ὀκτωκαιδεχέτη μοῖραν ἐπερχόμενον vacat
5 <– ⏑ ⏑ –>ν Ἀΐδας· ἀλλ’ <ὦ> Κυλλάνιε δαῖμον, vacat
παῖδα τὸν ἀκρήβην πέμψον ἐπ’ εὐσεβέας.

Related image
A different Epitaph

 

Drunk on Foolishness: An Epitaph

IMT Kyz Kapu Dağ 1731 [=Greek Anthology, 3.14; From Mysia, 4th Century CE?]

“Wrecked and drunk with foolishness, why did you
Violently attack the bed of Zeus’ bride?
He doused you in blood as a consequence and then
Set you rightfully on the ground as as food to the beasts and birds.”

1 μάργε καὶ ἀφροσύνῃ μεμεθυσμένε, τίπτε βιαίως
εἰς εὐνὰς ἐτράπης τᾶς Διὸς εὐνέτιδος;
ὅς σε δὴ αἵματι φῦρσε κατάξια, θηρσὶ δὲ βορρὰν
καὶ πτανοῖς ἐπὶ γᾷ εἴασε νῦν ὁσίως.

Hierapolis colonnade.jpg
Ruins from Hierapolis

Eat and Take the Pleasure that Is Near

In the first passage, Eumaios the Swineherd speaks to Odysseus…

Homer, Odyssey 14.443-445

“Eat, blessed stranger, and take pleasure in these things
Which are near. God will give one thing and pass by another
Whatever he wishes in in his heart. He is capable of everything.”

“ἔσθιε, δαιμόνιε ξείνων, καὶ τέρπεο τοῖσδε,
οἷα πάρεστι· θεὸς δὲ τὸ μὲν δώσει, τὸ δ’ ἐάσει,
ὅττι κεν ᾧ θυμῷ ἐθέλῃ· δύναται γὰρ ἅπαντα.”

Theognis 1069-70ab

“Humans are foolish and dumb because we mourn
The dead but not the wilting flower of youth.
Take some pleasure, my dear heart. For all too soon
there will be other people here. And, dead, I will be dark earth.”

῎Αφρονες ἄνθρωποι καὶ νήπιοι, οἵτε θανόντας
κλαίουσ’, οὐ δ’ ἥβης ἄνθος ἀπολλύμενον.
τέρπεό μοι, φίλε θυμέ· τάχ’ αὖ τινες ἄλλοι ἔσονται
ἄνδρες, ἐγὼ δὲ θανὼν γαῖα μέλαιν’ ἔσομαι.

Image result for medieval manuscript magic healing

Psssst…We Are All Going to Die: An Epitaph

SEG 42:212
[ ]Att. — Rhamnous — 4th c. BC — Forteresse, 69; GV 1250a — BE 1994.35 — SEG 40.212

“Death is life’s shared end for everyone. But you leave
Behind you pity for your age and a longing for your wisdom.
Your parents lost you when you were only twenty years old
And when you died they arranged a funeral for you instead of a marriage.”

1 τέ[ρμα βίο]υ [κοινὸν τὸ] θανεῖν πᾶσιν, σὺ δὲ λε[ίπεις]
ἡλικίας ἔλεον, σωφροσύνης δὲ πόθον.
ἐν δεκάσιν δισσαῖσιν ἐτ[ῶν στέρξαν σε γονῆες]
οἳ τάφον ἀντὶ γάμου τ[εῦξαν ἀποφθιμένωι].

A different epitaph

Image result for ancient greek epitaph seg
This is from the british museum

The Original Virgin Suicides

Here’s an anecdote that is chilling and a bit upsetting. Warning: it contains misogyny as well as reference to suicide clusters. In general, this reminded me of the suicide clusters in Silicon Valley discussed widely a few years ago. But–and I think this is more important–it also points to groups of suicide as an attempt to wrest agency in response to desperation, a lack of agency, and marginalization.

Aulus Gellius, Varia Historia 15.10

“In his first of the books On the Soul, Plutarch included the following tale when he was commenting on maladies which afflict human minds. He said that there were maiden girls of Milesian families who at a certain time suddenly and without almost any clear reason made a plan to die and that many killed themselves by hanging.

When this became more common in following days and there was no treatment to be found for the spirits of those who were dedicated to dying, The Milesians decreed that all maidens who would die by hanging their bodies would be taken out to burial completely naked except for the rope by which they were hanged. After this was decreed, the maidens did not seek suicide only because they were frightened by the thought of so shameful a funeral.”

Plutarchus in librorum quos περὶ ψυχῆς inscripsit primo cum de morbis dissereret in animos hominum incidentibus, virgines dixit Milesii nominis, fere quot tum in ea civitate erant, repente sine ulla evidenti causa voluntatem cepisse obeundae mortis ac deinde plurimas vitam suspendio amississe. id cum accideret in dies crebrius neque animis earum mori perseverantium medicina adhiberi quiret, decrevisse Milesios ut virgines, quae corporibus suspensis demortuae forent, ut hae omnes nudae cum eodem laqueo quo essent praevinctae efferrentur. post id decretum virgines voluntariam mortem non petisse pudore solo deterritas tam inhonesti funeris.

Suicides of public figures cause disbelief because of our cultural misconceptions about depression and about the importance of material wealth and fame to our well-being. While some clusters of suicide can be understood as a reflex of the “threshold problem”, we fail to see the whole picture if we do not also see that human well-being is connected to a sense of agency and belonging. Galen, in writing about depression, notes that melancholy can make us desire that which we fear.

Galen, De Locis Affectis 8.190-191

“But there are ten thousand other fantasies. The melancholic differ from one another, but even though they all exhibit fear, despair, blaming of life and hatred for people, they do not all want to die. For some, fear of death is the principle source of their depression. Some will seem paradoxical to you because they fear death and desire death at the same time.”

ἄλλα τε μυρία τοιαῦτα φαντασιοῦνται. διαφέρονται δὲ ἀλλήλων οἱ μελαγχολικοὶ, τὸ μὲν φοβεῖσθαι καὶ δυσθυμεῖν καὶ μέμφεσθαι τῇ ζωῇ καὶ μισεῖν τοὺς ἀνθρώπους ἅπαντες ἔχοντες, ἀποθανεῖν δ’ ἐπιθυμοῦντες οὐ πάντες, ἀλλ’ ἔστιν ἐνίοις αὐτῶν αὐτὸ δὴ τοῦτο κεφάλαιον τῆς μελαγχολίας, τὸ περὶ τοῦ θανάτου δέος· ἔνιοι δὲ ἀλλόκοτοί σοι δόξουσιν, ἅμα τε καὶ δεδιέναι τὸν θάνατον καὶ θανατᾷν.

In thinking about the impact of agency and belonging on our sense of well-being and relationship to death, I have been significantly influence by this book:

Sheldon Solomon, Jeff Greenberg and Tom Pyszczynski. The Worm at the Core: On the Role of Death in Life. London: Allen Lane, 2015.

Related image
Picture found here

If you or someone you know feel alone, uncertain, depressed or for any reason cannot find enough joy and hope to think life is worth it, please reach out to someone. The suicide prevention hotline has a website, a phone number (1-800-273-8255), and a chat line. And if we can help you find some tether to the continuity of human experience through the Classics or a word, please don’t hesitate to ask.