Athens: Sometimes You Want to Go Where Nobody Knows Your Name

Valerius Maximus, 8 ext 5: Democritus Unknown in Athens

“Democritus could have been esteemed for his wealth which was so immense that his father was able to provide a feast to all of Xerxes’ army with ease. In order that he might focus a free mind on the study of literature, he donated his wealth to his country keeping only a very small part for himself.

Even though he stayed in Athens for many years and dedicated himself to gathering and using knowledge, he lived unknown in the city, which he attests too in a certain book. My mind is awestruck with admiration of such a work ethic. And now it moves to something else.”

Democritus, cum divitiis censeri posset, quae tantae fuerunt ut pater eius Xerxis exercitui epulum dare ex facili potuerit, quo magis vacuo animo studiis litterarum esset operatus, parva admodum summa retenta patrimonium suum patriae donavit. Athenis autem compluribus annis moratus, omnia temporum momenta ad percipiendam et exercendam doctrinam conferens, ignotus illi urbi vixit, quod ipse quodam volumine testatur. stupet mens admiratione tantae industriae et iam transit alio.

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Fragmentary Friday: Democritus on Listening, Foresight, and Thanks

Fr. 86

“The naysayer and the one who prattles on a lot is ill-formed for learning what is necessary.”

ὁ ἀντιλογεόμενος καὶ πολλὰ λεσχηνευόμενος ἀφυὴς ἐς μάθησιν ὧν χρή

Fr. 87

“Saying everything is combative, so is being willing to hear nothing.”

πλεονεξίη τὸ πάντα λέγειν, μηδὲν δὲ ἐθέλειν ἀκούειν

Fr. 88

“It is necessary to guard against the fool lest he find an opportunity.”

τὸν φαῦλον παραφυλάττειν δεῖ, μὴ καιροῦ λάβηται.

Fr. 89

“The one who envies aggrieves himself as if he were an enemy.”

ὁ φθονέων ἑωυτὸν ὡς ἐχθρὸν λυπέει

Fr. 90

“Your enemy is not one who is doing wrong, but the one who intends to.”

ἐχθρὸς οὐχ ὁ ἀδικέων, ἀλλὰ ὁ βουλόμενος.

Fr. 91

“Hatred of your kin is much harder than that of outsiders”

ἡ τῶν συγγενῶν ἔχθρη τῆς τῶν ὀθνείων χαλεπωτέρη μάλα.

Fr. 92

“Don’t be suspicious of everyone; but be kind and steadfast.”

μὴ ὕποπτος πρὸς ἅπαντας, ἀλλ’ εὐλαβὴς γίνου καὶ ἀσφαλής.

Fr. 93

“It is right that the one who receives thanks expect to give greater thanks in return”

χάριτας δέχεσθαι χρεὼν προσκοπευόμενον κρέσσονας αὐτῶν ἀμοιβὰς ἀποδοῦναι.

Fr. 94

“When you give thanks guard against the one who takes it lest he return evil instead of good because he is wicked.”

χαριζόμενος προσκέπτεο τὸν λαμβάνοντα, μὴ κακὸν ἀντ’ ἀγαθοῦ κίβδηλος ἐὼν ἀποδῶι.

Fr. 95

“Small thanks at the right time are the greatest for those who receive them”

μικραὶ χάριτες ἐν καιρῶι μέγισται τοῖς λαμβάνουσι.

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Fragmentary Friday, Greek: To Not Even Desire to Do Wrong

More Fragments of Democritus

Fr. 55

“It is necessary to envy the deeds of the work of virtue not the words.”

ἔργα καὶ πρήξιας ἀρετῆς, οὐ λόγους, ζηλοῦν χρειών

Fr. 56

“Those who are shaped in relation to them will recognize and envy noble things.”

τὰ καλὰ γνωρίζουσι καὶ ζηλοῦσιν οἱ εὐφυέες πρὸς αὐτά.

Fr. 58

“The hopes of those who think correctly are achievable, those of the fools are impossiblities”

ἐλπίδες αἱ τῶν ὀρθὰ φρονεόντων ἐφικταί, αἱ δὲ τῶν ἀξυνέτων ἀδύνατοι

Fr. 59

“Neither art nor wisdom are achievable unless someone learns.”

24. οὔτε τέχνη οὔτε σοφίη ἐφικτόν, ἢν μὴ μάθηι τις

Fr. 60

“It is better to rebuke familiar faults than foreign ones.”

25. κρέσσον τὰ οἰκήϊα ἐλέγχειν ἁμαρτήματα ἢ τὰ ὀθνεῖα

Fr. 61

“it is not good to not commit injustice, but rather to not desire to.”

ἀγαθὸν οὐ τὸ μὴ ἀδικεῖν, ἀλλὰ τὸ μηδὲ ἐθέλειν

Fr. 62

“It is good to utter praise for noble works. For it is the work of a charlatan and a deceiver to praise base works.”

εὐλογέειν ἐπὶ καλοῖς ἔργμασι καλόν· τὸ γὰρ ἐπὶ φλαύροισι κιβδήλου καὶ ἀπατεῶνος ἔργον

Fr. 64

“Many who have learned a lot do not have a mind”

πολλοὶ πολυμαθέες νοῦν οὐκ ἔχουσιν

Fr. 65

“It is better to take counsel before actions than to change your mind afterwards”

προβουλεύεσθαι κρεῖσσον πρὸ τῶν πράξεων ἢ μετανοεῖν.

Fr. 66

“Trust those who are right not everyone. One is stupid, the other is the mark of the wise”

μὴ πᾶσιν, ἀλλὰ τοῖς δοκίμοισι πιστεύειν· τὸ μὲν γὰρ εὔηθες, τὸ δὲ σωφρονέοντος.


Fr. 67

“One of esteem and one without it do not only act for different reasons but they desire for different reasons too.”

δόκιμος ἀνὴρ καὶ ἀδόκιμος οὐκ ἐξ ὧν πράσσει μόνον, ἀλλὰ καὶ ἐξ ὧν βούλεται.

Fr. 68

“Truth and goodness are the same for all people. But pleasure varies from one to another.”

ἀνθρώποις πᾶσι τωὐτὸν ἀγαθὸν καὶ ἀληθές· ἡδὺ δὲ ἄλλωι ἄλλο.

Fr. 69

“It is the mark of a child not an adult to desire without measure.”

παιδός, οὐκ ἀνδρὸς τὸ ἀμέτρως ἐπιθυμεῖν.

Fr. 70

“Untimely pleasures give birth to displeasing things.”

ἡδοναὶ ἄκαιροι τίκτουσιν ἀηδίας.

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“Everything is Laughter in The End”: An Epitaph

Anonymous epitaph for Democritus, Greek Anthology 7.56

“This was the source of Democritus’ laughter, as he would say immediately:
‘Did I not say, while laughing, that everything is laughter in the end?
For I too, after my boundless wisdom and ranks of
So many books, lie beneath a tomb as a joke.’ ”

῏Ην ἄρα Δημοκρίτοιο γέλως τόδε, καὶ τάχα λέξει·
„Οὐκ ἔλεγον γελόων· ‚Πάντα πέλουσι γέλως’;
καὶ γὰρ ἐγὼ σοφίην μετ’ ἀπείρονα καὶ στίχα βίβλων
τοσσατίων κεῖμαι νέρθε τάφοιο γέλως.”

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Fragmentary Friday: How Democritus Blinded Himself

From Aulus Gellius’ Attic Nights, 10.17

18: Why and How the Philosopher Democritus blinded himself; and the fine and charming verses Laberius wrote on the subject
“It is recorded among the accomplishments of Greek history that the philosopher Democritus, a man worthy of praise beyond the rest and blessed with ancient authority, deprived himself of eyesight willingly because he believed that his mind’s thoughts and reflections in considering the laws of nature would be clearer and more precise if he freed them from the incitements of sight and the eye’s mistakes.

Laberius the poet has described this deed and the method by which he accomplished his own blindness with a clever device in his farce named the Ropemaker, which describes the affair with just enough verses, written clearly. Laberius, however, created a different cause for the blindness and included it in the tale which he was writing, not inaptly. The character who speaks the following lines in Laberius’ poem is a wealthy but stingy wretch who laments the excessive spending and low behavior of his adolescent son. Here are Laberius’ lines:

“Democritus, the natural philosopher of Adbera
Placed a shield to face Hyperion’s arrival,
So that he might destroy his eyes with blazing bronze,
Thus he ruined his eyes with the rays of the sun,
So that he might not witness wicked citizens faring well.
Just so, I wish to blind the final portion of my years
Through the blaze of shining money
Rather than gazing upon my son’s extravagant prosperity.”

XVII. Quam ob causam et quali modo Democritus philosophus luminibus oculorum sese privaverit; et super ea re versus Laberii pure admodum et venuste facti.

I. Democritum philosophum in monumentis historiae Graecae scriptum est, virum praeter alios venerandum auctoritateque antiqua praeditum, luminibus oculorum sua sponte se privasse, quia existimaret cogitationes commentationesque animi sui in contemplandis naturae rationibus vegetiores et exactiores fore, si eas videndi inlecebris et oculorum impedimentis liberasset. II. Id factum eius modumque ipsum, quo caecitatem facile sollertia subtilissima conscivit, Laberius poeta in mimo, quem scripsit Restionem, versibus quidem satis munde atque graphice factis descripsit, sed causam voluntariae caecitatis finxit aliam vertitque in eam rem, quam tum agebat, non inconcinniter. III. Est enim persona, quae hoc aput Laberium dicit, divitis avari et parci sumptum plurimum asotiamque adulescentis viri deplorantis. IV. Versus Laberiani sunt:

Democritus Abderites physicus philosophus
clipeum constituit contra exortum Hyperionis,
oculos effodere ut posset splendore aereo.
Ita radiis solis aciem effodit luminis,
malis bene esse ne videret civibus.
Sic ego fulgentis splendorem pecuniae
volo elucificare exitum aetati meae,
ne in re bona videam esse nequam filium.


Decimus Liberius is a Roman playwright from the 1st century BCE

If the New Year Makes You Feel Old, Don’t Read This

Euripides, fr. 25 (Aeolus):

“Alas, the ancient proverb holds well:
We old men are nothing other than a sound
and an image, lurking imitations of dreams.
We have no mind and but we think we know how to think well.”

φεῦ φεῦ, παλαιὸς αἶνος ὡς καλῶς ἔχει·
γέροντες οὐδέν ἐσμεν ἄλλο πλὴν ψόφος
καὶ σχῆμ’, ὀνείρων δ’ ἕρπομεν μιμήματα·
νοῦς δ’ οὐκ ἔνεστιν, οἰόμεσθα δ’ εὖ φρονεῖν.

This is certainly uplifting. Not sure if I prefer to age with Euripides in mind or this:

Democritus, fr. 296

“Old age is the perfect handicap: it has everything and lacks everything.”

γῆρας ὁλόκληρός ἐστι πήρωσις·
πάντ’ ἔχει καὶ πᾶσιν ἐνδεῖ.

If not, maybe we can take some solace in Pindar:

Pindar, Olympian 4.25-27

“Sometimes even young men grow grey hair before the right time of life”

φύονται δὲ καὶ νέοις
ἐν ἀνδράσιν πολιαί
θαμάκι παρὰ τὸν ἁλικίας ἐοικότα χρόνον

But if we get too high on that, we can always rely on Cicero to bring us back to earth:

Sophocles,  fr. 65

“No one loves living as much as a man growing old”

τοῦ ζῆν γὰρ οὐδεὶς ὡς ὁ γηράσκων ἐρᾷ


Cicero, On Old Age 24

“No one is so old that he thinks he could not live another year”

nemo enim est tam senex qui se annum non putet posse vivere

Has Your Cook Read Democritus and Epicurus? (Damoxenus, fr. 1)

This comic fragment is found in Athenaeus’ Deipnosophists. The comic poet Damoxenus is from the 4th century BCE–he is known mostly from Athenaeus and has no Wikipedia page.

A. You see that I am
a disciple of the wise man Epicurus—
in his house in under than two years and ten months
I ‘boiled off’ ten talents.

B. What does this mean? Tell me? A. I ‘dedicated’ them.
That man was a cook as well, dear earth and gods!
B. What kind of a cook? A. Nature is the origin point
Of every kind of craft. B. The ‘origin point’, you scoundrel?

A. ‘There is nothing wiser than work’–
Every task or pursuit is easier when
You keep that saying in mind. Many things come to you!
This is why if you ever meet an uneducated cook,
one who hasn’t read Democritus completely
along with Epicurus’ Canon, rub shit in his face
and kick him out as they do from the academies!
For this is what he needs to know….”

Greek philosophers
Gallery of Culinary Inspiration

᾿Επικούρου δέ με
ὁρᾷς μαθητὴν ὄντα τοῦ σοφοῦ, παρ’ ᾧ
ἐν δύ’ ἔτεσιν καὶ μησὶν οὐχ ὅλοις δέκα
τάλαντ’ ἐγώ σοι κατεπύκνωσα τέτταρα.
Β. τοῦτο δὲ τί ἐστιν; εἰπέ μοι. Α. καθήγισα.
μάγειρος ἦν κἀκεῖνος, ὦ γῆ καὶ θεοί.
Β. ποῖος μάγειρος; Α. ἡ φύσις πάσης τέχνης
ἀρχέγονόν ἐστ’. Β. ἀρχέγονον, ὦλιτήριε;
Α. οὐκ ἔστιν οὐδὲν τοῦ πονεῖν σοφώτερον,
πᾶν εὐχερές τε πρᾶγμα τοῦ λόγου τριβὴν
ἔχοντι τούτου· πολλὰ γὰρ συμβάλλεται.
διόπερ μάγειρον ὅταν ἴδῃς ἀγράμματον
μὴ Δημόκριτόν τε πάντα διανεγνωκότα,
καὶ τὸν ᾿Επικούρου κανόνα, μινθώσας ἄφες
ὡς ἐκ διατριβῆς. τοῦτο δεῖ γὰρ εἰδέναι…

Protagoras of Abdera, Agnostic and Behavioral Economist? (Philostratus, Vita Sophist. 495-6)

“Protagoras of Abdera, the sophist, was also a follower of Democritus at home; and he spent time among the Persian magi as well when Xerxes invaded Greece. His father Maiandros had acquired more wealth than most in Thrace; he entertained Xerxes at his home and used gifts to ensure an audience for his son with the magi. The Persian magi do not teach even Persians unless the king says so.

It seems to me that when Protagoras used to say that he was whether there were gods on not he was borrowing it from the Persian education. For the magi worship the gods in the acts they perform secretly, but they do not confess open belief in the divine because they do not wish to seem to derive power from them. For saying this, Protagoras was exiled from all the lands under Athens’ power, after he was convicted according to some in a trial, but according to others there was a vote without a trial. He moved from shore to shore among the islands, all while watching out for Athenian triremes which were spread in every part of the sea. He drowned while sailing in a small skiff.

He was the first to give a lecture for a fee and as the first to give to the Greeks a practice which should not be criticized, since we pursue those things we paid for more eagerly than we welcome whatever comes free. Plato believed that while Protagoras spoke with dignity, he obscured himself with his dignity and was somewhat more verbose than was fit, and he characterized the type of man he was by using a long myth.”

[The last bit is a reference to Protagoras 349a and Gorgias 530c]

Πρωταγόρας δὲ ὁ ᾿Αβδηρίτης σοφιστὴς καὶ Δημοκρίτου μὲν ἀκροατὴς οἴκοι ἐγένετο, ὡμίλησε δὲ καὶ τοῖς ἐκ Περσῶν μάγοις κατὰ τὴν Ξέρξου ἐπὶ τὴν ῾Ελλάδα ἔλασιν. πατὴρ γὰρ ἦν αὐτῷ Μαίανδρος πλούτῳ κατεσκευασμένος παρὰ πολλοὺς τῶν ἐν τῇ Θρᾴκῃ, δεξάμενος δὲ καὶ τὸν Ξέρξην οἰκίᾳ τε καὶ δώροις τὴν ξυνουσίαν τῶν μάγων τῷ παιδὶ παρ’ αὐτοῦ εὕρετο. οὐ γὰρ παιδεύουσι τοὺς μὴ Πέρσας Πέρσαι μάγοι, ἢν μὴ ὁ βασιλεὺς ἐφῇ. τὸ δὲ ἀπορεῖν φάσκειν, εἴτε εἰσὶ θεοί, εἴτε οὐκ εἰσί, δοκεῖ μοι Πρωταγόρας ἐκ τῆς Περσικῆς παιδεύσεως παρανομῆσαι· μάγοι γὰρ ἐπιθειάζουσι μὲν οἷς ἀφανῶς δρῶσι, τὴν δὲ ἐκ φανεροῦ δόξαν τοῦ θείου καταλύουσιν οὐ βουλόμενοι δοκεῖν παρ’ αὐτοῦ δύνασθαι. διὰ μὲν δὴ τοῦτο πάσης γῆς ὑπὸ ᾿Αθηναίων ἠλάθη, ὡς μέν τινες, κριθείς, ὡς δὲ ἐνίοις δοκεῖ, ψήφου ἐπενεχθείσης μὴ κριθέντι. νήσους δὲ ἐξ ἠπείρων ἀμείβων καὶ τὰς ᾿Αθηναίων τριήρεις φυλαττόμενος πάσαις θαλάτταις ἐνεσπαρμένας κατέδυ πλέων ἐν ἀκατίῳ μικρῷ.

Τὸ δὲ μισθοῦ διαλέγεσθαι πρῶτος εὗρε, πρῶτος δὲ παρέδωκεν ῞Ελλησι πρᾶγμα οὐ μεμπτόν, ἃ γὰρ σὺν δαπάνῃ σπουδάζομεν, μᾶλλον ἀσπαζόμεθα τῶν προῖκα. γνοὺς δὲ τὸν Πρωταγόραν ὁ Πλάτων σεμνῶς μὲν ἑρμηνεύοντα, ἐνυπτιάζοντα δὲ τῇ σεμνότητι καί που καὶ μακρολογώτερον τοῦ συμμέτρου, τὴν ἰδέαν αὐτοῦ μύθῳ μακρῷ ἐχαρακτήρισεν.

A Pre-Socratic Saturday: Xenophanes and Friends on Thinking, Waking, Being and Lust

The collection of luminaries known as the Presocratics are great to quote because their words have already been quoted and excerpted for over 2000 years.  This makes our job easy.

But here are some of our favorites: selections of selections.

On Herakles or Achilles?

Xenophanes, Fragment 2 13-14

“It is unjust to judge strength to be better than good wisdom.”

οὐδὲ δίκαιον / προκρίνειν ῥώμην τῆς ἀγαθῆς σοφίης·

A line stolen from the Rocky Horror Picture Show:

Parmenides, fragment 3.7

“Thinking and being are the same thing.”

… τὸ γὰρ αὐτὸ νοεῖν ἐστίν τε καὶ εἶναι

Wake Up! Inspiration for Plato?

Heraclitus, Fragment 73

“It is not right to act and speak like men who are sleeping”

οὐ δεῖ ὥσπερ καθεύδοντας ποιεῖν καὶ λέγειν·

Money Corrupts, right?

Democritus, Fragment 50

“A man wholly committed to money can never be just.”

ὁ χρημάτων παντελῶς ἥσσων οὐκ ἄν ποτε εἴη δίκαιος.

David Byrne said something like this:

Thales fr. 20 (Hippolytus, Refutation of all Heresies. 1.1.1)

“Water is the beginning and the end of everything.”

[οὕτος ἔφη] ἀρχὴν τοῦ παντὸς εἶναι καὶ τέλος τὸ ὕδωρ

If you thought money was bad…

Prodicus fr. B7 (Stobaeus 4.20.65)

“Desire when doubled is lust; lust doubled is madness.”

ἐπιθυμίαν μὲν διπλασιασθεῖσαν ἔρωτα εἶναι, ἔρωτα δὲ διπλασιασθέντα μανίαν γίγνεσθαι.

But don’t worry, it is all in your head:

Diogenes F6 (from Simplicius Physics152.21-153.13)

And yet all things live, see and hear though the same thing; and they derive every other part of their mind from that very source.

ὅμως δὲ πάντα τῶι αὐτῶι καὶ ζῆι καὶ ὁρᾶι καὶ ἀκούει, καὶ τὴν ἄλλην νόησιν ἔχει ἀπὸ αὐτοῦ πάντα

Innocent as a babe? That’s what some think:

Ion of Chios, fr. 5a 1-2

“All creatures are born to their parents ignorant
but experience teaches them.”

καὶ μὴν ἅπαντα τίκτεται πρῶτον γοναῖς
ἄϊδρα, πειραθέντα δ’ ἐκδιδάσκεται

But we all have to start somewhere. And then work real hard:

Protagoras fr. B10 (Stobaeus 3.29.80)

“[Protagaras said that] skill is nothing without practice and practice is nothing without skill.”

[Πρωταγόρας ἔλεγε] μηδὲν εἶναι μήτε τέχνην ἄνευ μελέτης μήτε μελέτην ἄνευ τεχνης

καὶ μὴν ἅπαντα τίκτεται πρῶτον γοναῖς
ἄϊδρα, πειραθέντα δ’ ἐκδιδάσκεται

If this wasn’t enough for you, search for some Heraclitus, Democritus, and Parmenides. We love quoting these guys. And then read them again, because:

Critias 9 (Stobaeus, Anthology 3.29.11)

“Men become good more from practice than nature.”

ἐκ μελέτης πλείους ἢ φύσεως ἀγαθοί

Critias was an uncle of Plato


Parmenides, fr. 6.16

“The path of all things goes backwards.”

…πάντων δὲ παλίντροπός ἐστι κέλευθος.

Honey and the Healthy Life: Athenaeus, Deipnosophistae 2.46

“Democritus always had a fond partiality for honey. Indeed, when someone asked him how to live a healthy life, Democritus said, ‘Wet your insides with honey and your skin with oil!'”

ἔχαιρε δὲ ὁ Δημόκριτος ἀεὶ τῷ μέλιτι· καὶ πρὸς τὸν πυθόμενον πῶς ἂν ὑγιῶς τις διάγοι ἔφη, εἰ τὰ μὲν ἐντὸς μέλιτι βρέχοι, τὰ δ’ ἐκτὸς ἐλαίῳ.