A Leader’s First Duty

Plutarch, Theseus and Romulus 2

“A ruler’s first duty is to save the state itself. This is saved no less in refraining from what is not fitting than from pursuing what is fitting. But the one who shirks or overreaches is no longer a king or a ruler, but in fact becomes a demagogue or a despot. He fills the subjects with hatred and contempt. While the first problem seems to come from being too lenient or a concern for humanity, the second comes from self-regard and harshness.”

δεῖ γὰρ τὸν ἄρχοντα σώζειν πρῶτον αὐτὴν τὴν ἀρχήν· σώζεται δ᾿ οὐχ ἧττον ἀπεχομένη τοῦ μὴ προσήκοντος ἢ περιεχομένη τοῦ προσήκοντος. ὁ δ᾿ ἐνδιδοὺς ἢ ἐπιτείνων οὐ μένει βασιλεὺς οὐδὲ ἄρχων, ἀλλ᾿ ἢ δημαγωγὸς ἢ δεσπότης γιγνόμενος, ἐμποιεῖ τὸ μισεῖν ἢ καταφρονεῖν τοῖς ἀρχομένοις. οὐ μὴν ἀλλ᾿ ἐκεῖνο μὲν ἐπιεικείας δοκεῖ καὶ φιλανθρωπίας εἶναι, τοῦτο δὲ φιλαυτίας ἁμάρτημα καὶ χαλεπότητος.

Theseus Minotaur BM Vase E84.jpg
Tondo of an Attic red-figured kylix, ca. 440-430 BC BM E84

A Sweet Evil: Schadenfreude in Ancient Greek

From the Suda

Epikhairekakía: is pleasure at someone else’s troubles”

ἐπιχαιρεκακία δὲ ἡδονὴ ἐπ’ ἀλλοτρίοις κακοῖς

Diogenes Laertius, Vita Philosophorum 7. 114

“Pleasure is irrational excitement at gaining what seems to be needed. As a subset of pleasure, are elation, pleasure at someone else’s pain (epikhairekakía) and delight, which is similar to turning (trepsis), a mind’s inclination to weakness. The embrace of pleasure is the surrender of virtue.”

῾Ηδονὴ δέ ἐστιν ἄλογος ἔπαρσις ἐφ’ αἱρετῷ δοκοῦντι ὑπάρχειν, ὑφ’ ἣν τάττεται κήλησις, ἐπιχαιρεκακία, τέρψις, διάχυσις. κήλησις μὲν οὖν ἐστιν ἡδονὴ δι’ ὤτων κατακηλοῦσα· ἐπιχαιρεκακία δὲ ἡδονὴ ἐπ’ ἀλλοτρίοις κακοῖς· τέρψις δέ, οἷον τρέψις, προτροπή τις ψυχῆς ἐπὶ τὸ ἀνειμένον· διάχυσις δ’ ἀνάλυσις ἀρετῆς.

Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics 1107a 8-11

“There are some vices whose names are cloaked with evil, for instance, pleasure at evils [epikhairekakía], shamelessness, and envy; and there are deeds too: adultery, theft, and manslaughter. All these things and those of this sort are called evil on their own, it is not an indulgence in them or an improper use that is wrong.”

ἔνια γὰρ εὐθὺς ὠνόμασται συνειλημμένα μετὰ τῆς φαυλότητος, οἷον ἐπιχαιρεκακία
ἀναισχυντία φθόνος, καὶ ἐπὶ τῶν πράξεων μοιχεία κλοπὴ ἀνδροφονία· πάντα γὰρ ταῦτα καὶ τὰ τοιαῦτα λέγεται τῷ αὐτὰ φαῦλα εἶναι, ἀλλ’ οὐχ αἱ ὑπερβολαὶ αὐτῶν οὐδ’ αἱ ἐλλείψεις.

Image result for Ancient Greek Vase party

Two kinds of Loneliness

The Good News According to Mark. 5:1-5:5.

And they came to the other side of the sea,
to the region of the Gerasenes.
And when he stepped from the boat, straight up to him,
from among the tombs, there came a man
with an impure spirit whose home was the tombs.

No one could restrain him then, even with chains.
He had been shackled and chained many times,
but he snapped the chains and crushed the shackles.
No one was strong enough to subdue him.
Night and day, among the tombs and in the hills,
he screamed and mutilated himself with stones.

Sophocles, Philoctetes 169-175, 183-186.

How I pity him.
He has no one who cares,
No eyes to face his own.
Wretched, always alone,
He’s sick with a savage sickness.
His every need a struggle.
How, how in the world does he hold out?

This man, perhaps second to no one
From an eminent house,
Has no share in common life.
He exists alone, away from others,
Among spotted or hairy beasts.
His hurt and hunger, pitiful.
Unceasing and grave, his worry.

Mark.

Καὶ ἦλθον εἰς τὸ πέραν τῆς θαλάσσης εἰς τὴν χώραν τῶν Γερασηνῶν. Καὶ ἐξελθόντος αὐτοῦ ἐκ τοῦ πλοίου [εὐθὺς] ὑπήντησεν αὐτῷ ἐκ τῶν μνημείων ἄνθρωπος ἐν πνεύματι ἀκαθάρτῳ, ὃς τὴν κατοίκησιν εἶχεν ἐν τοῖς μνήμασιν, καὶ οὐδὲ ἁλύσει οὐκέτι οὐδεὶς ἐδύνατο αὐτὸν δῆσαι διὰ τὸ αὐτὸν πολλάκις πέδαις καὶ ἁλύσεσι δεδέσθαι καὶ διεσπάσθαι ὑπ᾽αὐτοῦ τὰς ἁλύσεις καὶ τὰς πέδας συντετρίφθαι, καὶ οὐδεὶς ἴσχυεν αὐτὸν δαμάσαι: καὶ διὰ παντὸς νυκτὸς καὶ ἡμέρας ἐν τοῖς μνήμασιν καὶ ἐν τοῖς ὄρεσιν ἦν κράζων καὶ κατακόπτων ἑαυτὸν λίθοις.

Sophocles.

οἰκτίρω νιν ἔγωγ᾽, ὅπως,
μή του κηδομένου βροτῶν
μηδὲ ςύντροφον ὄμμ᾽ ἔχων,
δύστανος, μόνος ἀεί,
νοσεῖ μὲν νόσον ἀγρίαν,
ἀλύει δ᾽ ἐπὶ παντί τῳ
χρείας ἱσταμένῳ. πῶς ποτε πῶς δύσμορος ἀντέχει; . . .

οὗτος πρωτογόνων ἴσως
οἴκων οὐδενὸς ὕστερος,
πάντων ἄμμορος ἐν βίῳ
κεῖται μοῦνος ἀπ᾽ ἄλλων,
στικτῶν ἢ λασίων μετὰ
θηρῶν, ἔν τ᾽ ὀδύναις ὁμοῦ
λιμῷ τ᾽ οἰκτρός, ἀνήκεστ᾽ αμεριμνήμτα τ᾽ἔχων βάρη. . .

Semi-abstract painting of an old man playing a classical guitar
Pablo Picasso.
The Old Guitarist.
Art Institute of Chicago.

Larry Benn has a B.A. in English Literature from Harvard College, an M.Phil in English Literature from Oxford University, and a J.D. from Yale Law School. Making amends for a working life misspent in finance, he’s now a hobbyist in ancient languages and blogs at featsofgreek.blogspot.com.

Judging on Aspiration not Failure

Aelius Aristedes, Reply to Plato 259-260

“Some of them certainly corrupted people while others blasphemed the gods; there were those who gave speeches which would have been better unsaid and others who produced more audacity than good sense. But it may not be the best to say that if some people use the excuse of philosophy and become scoundrels who are no better than most people or, by Zeus, even more clever at doing evil, then we should dishonor philosophy, provided that philosophy is not doing these sorts of things. Instead, we must use these things as evidence against them, that they have failed at philosophy.

In the same way, it does not make oratory worse if some people use blandishment or abuse, but we must recognize in this that they are bad at rhetoric just as the other people fail at philosophy, they all use the excuse of the noblest action to furnish themselves with the opportunity to do evil.

It would be odd if we were to judge actions of cobblers and carpenters not from their mistakes but instead from examples where they did as well as humanly possible, but we evaluate oratory not just from its greatest accomplishments, but instead according to those who do the opposite of what oratory intends.”

ὧν οἱ μὲν διέφθειραν δήπου τινάς, οἱ δ’ ἐβλασφήμησαν περὶ θεούς, οἱ δὲ λόγους ἄλλους τινὰς εἶπον, οὓς οὐκ ἄμεινον ἦν ὅλως, οἱ δὲ αὐθαδείας πλέον ἢ φρονήσεως εἰσηνέγκαντο. ἀλλὰ μὴ οὕτω βέλτιον ᾖ λέγειν, ὅτι οὐκ, εἴ τινες φιλοσοφίας προβλήματι χρώμενοι φαῦλοι καὶ μηδὲν βελτίους τῶν πολλῶν γεγόνασιν, ἢ νὴ Δία καὶ δεινότεροι κακουργεῖν, οὐ διὰ ταῦτα ἀτιμαστέον φιλοσοφίαν, ἕως ἂν φιλοσοφία μὴ τὸ τὰ τοιαῦτα ποιεῖν ᾖ, ἀλλ’ αὐτοῖς τούτοις τεκμηρίοις χρηστέον κατ’ ἐκείνων, ὅτι διημαρτήκασι φιλοσοφίας. οὐδὲ εἴ τινες, οἶμαι, κολακεύουσιν ἢ συκοφαντοῦσιν, χείρω τοῦτο ποιεῖ ῥητορικήν, ἀλλ’ ἡμαρτηκότας αὐτοὺς ῥητορικῆς ταύτῃ γε ταῦτα δεῖ δοκεῖν, ὥσπερ ἐκείνους φιλοσοφίας, ἐπὶ τῷ τοῦ καλλίστου προσχήματι τὴν τοῦ κακουργεῖν ἄδειαν ἑαυτοῖς ἐκπορίζοντας. ἄτοπον δ’ ἂν εἴη, εἰ τὰ μὲν τῶν σκυτοτόμων καὶ τῶν τεκτόνων ἔργα μὴ ἐξ ὧν ἂν διαμάρτωσι κρινοῦμεν, ἀλλ’ ἐξ ὧν ἂν ὡς δυνατὸν μάλιστα τύχωσιν, ῥητορικὴν δ’ οὐ μόνον οὐκ ἐκ τῶν κάλλιστα αὐτὴν ἀποτελεσάντων κρινοῦμεν, ἀλλὰ καὶ ἐκ τῶν αὐτὰ τἀναντία πραττόντων οἷς ἡ ῥητορικὴ βούλεται.

 

Image result for medieval manuscript cobbler
Ott Norlinger (1476) from the Hausbuch of the Mendelschen Zwolfbruderstiftung (Neurenberg, Germany). Folio 96 recto

For the Love of…A Goose?

Everyone has heard about Leda and the swan. But have you heard about Amphilokhos and his gift-giving goose?

Aelian, De Natura Animalium 5.29

“In Aigion, in Akhaia, a goose was in love with a handsome boy, an Ôlenian named Amphilokhos. Theophrastus tells this story. The boy was under guard with the Olenian exiles in Aigion—there, the goose used to bring him gifts. In Khios, too, there was an especially beautiful woman named Glaukê, a harp player, and many men lusted after her—which is nothing big. But a ram and a goose loved her too, as I have heard.”

Ἐν Αἰγίῳ τῆς Ἀχαίας ὡραίου παιδός, Ὠλενίου τὸ γένος, ὄνομα Ἀμφιλόχου, ἤρα χήν. Θεόφραστος λέγει τοῦτο. σὺν τοῖς Ὠλενίων δὲ φυγάσιν ἐφρουρεῖτο ἐν Αἰγίῳ ὁ παῖς. οὐκοῦν ὁ χὴν αὐτῷ δῶρα ἔφερε. καὶ ἐν Χίῳ Γλαύκης τῆς κιθαρῳδοῦ ὡραιοτάτης οὔσης εἰ μὲν ἤρων ἄνθρωποι, μέγα οὐδέπω· ἠράσθησαν δὲ καὶ κριὸς καὶ χήν, ὡς ἀκούω, τῆς αὐτῆς.

File:Ammannati - Leda and the Swan.jpg

Bad Planning and Disasters

Aesop: The Monkey and the Fisherman: ΑΛΙΕΥΣ ΚΑΙ ΠΙΘΗΞ

“Some fisherman was setting is net for fish along the seashore. A monkey was watching him and wanted to copy what he was doing. When the man went into some cave to take a nap and left his net on the beach, the monkey came down, and was trying to fish in the same way. Ignorant of the skill, he was using the net poorly and just wrapped it all around himself. He immediately fell into the sea and drowned. When the fisherman found him already drowning, he said, “fool, your ignorance and bad planning ruined you.”

The moral of the story is that people who try to imitate acts beyond their ability bring disaster upon themselves.”

ἀνήρ τις ἁλιεὺς παρὰ τὴν θάλασσαν ἄγραν ἰχθύων ἐποίει. πίθηξ δέ τις αὐτὸν κατιδὼν ἐκμιμήσασθαι ἠβουλήθη. τοῦ δὲ ἀνδρὸς ἐν σπηλαίῳ τινὶ ἑαυτὸν εἰσελθόντος διαναπαῦσαι καὶ τὸ δίκτυον παρὰ τὸν αἰγιαλὸν καταλιπόντος ἐλθὼν

ὁ πίθηξ καὶ τοῦ δικτύου λαβόμενος ἀγρεῦσαι δῆθεν δι’ αὐτοῦ ἐπεχείρει. ἀγνώστως δὲ τῇ τέχνῃ καὶ ἀσυντάκτως χρώμενος καὶ τῷ δικτύῳ περισχεθεὶς ἐπὶ τῆς θαλάσσης εὐθὺς πέπτωκε καὶ ἀπεπνίγη. ὁ δὲ ἁλιεὺς καταλαβὼν αὐτὸν ἤδη ἀποπνιγέντα ἔφη· „ὦ ἄθλιε, ὤλεσέ σε ἡ ἀφροσύνη καὶ ἡ ματαία ἐπίνοια.”

     ὁ μῦθος δηλοῖ, ὡς οἱ τὰ ὑπὲρ αὐτοὺς μιμεῖσθαι πειρώμενοι ἑαυτοῖς ἐντεῦθεν ἐπάγουσι κινδύνους.

 

An Elephant’s Love for a Child

 

Athenaeus, Deipnosophistae, 13.85, 606F–607A [BNJ 81 F36]

“The same Phylarkhos also reports in his twentieth book how great a love an elephant once had for a child. He writes this: “There was a female elephant which was tended with that elephant, and they used to call her Nikaia. When the wife of the Indian who cared for her was dying, she handed her child who was 30 days old to her.

After she died, the animal’s love for the child was striking. It could not endure the child being separated from her; and whenever she did not see the child, she despaired. When the nurse fed the child milk, she put it in a cradle in the middle of the animal’s feet. If she failed to do this, the elephant would refuse to eat. After this, all day long the elephant would take reeds from the nearby grasses and chase away flies while the child was sleeping. Whenever the child cried, the elephant would move the cradle with her trunk and help him sleep. The male elephant often did the same thing.”

ὁ δὲ αὐτὸς ἱστορεῖ Φύλαρχος διὰ τῆς εἰκοστῆς ὅσην ἐλέφας τὸ ζῶιον φιλοστοργίαν ἔσχεν εἰς παιδίον. γράφει δὲ οὕτως· «τούτωι δὲ τῶι ἐλέφαντι συνετρέφετο θήλεια ἐλέφας, ἣν Νίκαιαν ἐκάλουν· ἧι τελευτῶσα ἡ τοῦ τρέφοντος ᾽Ινδοῦ γυνὴ παιδίον αὑτῆς τριακοσταῖον παρακατέθετο. ἀποθανούσης δὲ τῆς ἀνθρώπου δεινή τις φιλοστοργία γέγονε τοῦ θηρίου πρὸς τὸ παιδίον· οὐτε γὰρ ἀπ᾽ αὐτοῦ χωριζόμενον τὸ βρέφος ὑπέμενεν, τὸ δὲ εἰ μὴ βλέποι τὸ παιδίον ἤσχαλλεν. ὅτ᾽ οὖν ἡ τροφὸς ἐμπλήσειεν αὐτὸ τοῦ γάλακτος, ἀνὰ μέσον τῶν ποδῶν τοῦ θηρίου ἐτίθει αὐτὸ ἐν σκάφηι. εἰ δὲ μὴ τοῦτο πεποιήκοι, τροφὴν οὐκ ἐλάμβανεν ἡ ἐλέφας. καὶ μετὰ ταῦτα δι᾽ ὅλης τῆς ἡμέρας [τοὺς] καλάμους λαμβάνων ἐκ τῶν παρατιθεμένων χορτασμάτων καθεύδοντος τοῦ βρέφους τὰς μυίας ἀπεσόβει· ὅτε δὲ κλαίοι, τῆι προβοσκίδι τὴν σκάφην ἐκίνει καὶ κατεκοίμιζεν αὐτό. τὸ δ᾽ αὐτὸ ἐποίει καὶ ὁ ἄρρην ἐλέφας πολλάκις.»

Red elephant outline at the Jain temple of Sravanabelagola.

Hippocrates’ Cutting Edge Women’s Health for the Supreme Court

Hippocrates, On Girls

“Blood returns only slowly from the heart and mind because the veins there are transverse and the place is really important and is inclined toward madness and anger. Whenever these parts are filled, a wandering shiver moves about with a fever. When the situation is like this, a woman goes into a rage because of the inflammation. She wants to murder because of the rotting. And because of the depression, she is frightened and afraid. The compression around the heart cause them to want to self-harm and because of the evil state of the blood, her mind is sad and sorrowful and longs for evil.

She also names weird and frightening things that push women to leap or to throw themselves in wells or hang themselves. Even when there are no visions, there’s some strange pleasure that makes her long for death as if it is a kind of good thing. When a woman is sensible again, women will dedicate many different things to Artemis, including really expensive women’s cloaks all because they are tricked by prophets.

Relief from this disease comes whenever there is nothing impeding the flow of blood. I tell young women who are suffering this kind of thing to live with a man as soon as possible, since, if they are pregnant, they become healthy. Otherwise, a girl will be overtaken by this disease or another in puberty or a little latter on.  Barren married women sometimes suffer these things.”

ἐκ δὲ τῆς καρδίης καὶ τῶν φρενῶν βραδέως παλιρροεῖ· ἐπικάρσιαι γὰρ αἱ φλέβες καὶ ὁ τόπος ἐπίκαιρος ἔς τε παραφροσύνην καὶ μανίην ἕτοιμος. ὁπόταν γὰρ πληρωθέωσι ταῦτα τὰ μέρεα, καὶ φρίκη ξὺν πυρετῷ ἀναΐσσει πλανήτης. ἐχόντων δὲ τούτων ὧδε, ὑπὸ μὲν τῆς ὀξυφλεγμασίης μαίνεται, ὑπὸ δὲ τῆς σηπεδόνος φονᾷ, ὑπὸ δὲ τοῦ ζοφεροῦ φοβέεται καὶ δέδοικεν, ὑπὸ δὲ τῆς περὶ τὴν καρδίην πιέξιος ἀγχόνας κραίνουσιν, ὑπὸ δὲ τῆς κακίης τοῦ αἵματος ἀλύων καὶ ἀδημονέων ὁ θυμὸς κακὸν ἐφέλκεται.

ἕτερον δὲ καὶ φοβερὰ ὀνομάζει· καὶ κελεύουσιν ἅλλεσθαι καὶ καταπίπτειν ἐς φρέατα ἢ ἄγχεσθαι, ἅτε ἀμείνονά τε ἐόντα καὶ χρείην ἔχοντα παντοίην. ὁκότε δὲ ἄνευ φαντασμάτων, ἡδονή τις ἀφ᾿ ἧς ἐρᾷ τοῦ θανάτου ὥσπερ τινὸς ἀγαθοῦ. φρονεούσης δὲ τῆς ἀνθρώπου, τῇ Ἀρτέμιδι αἱ γυναῖκες ἄλλα τε πολλὰ καὶ τὰ ἱμάτια τὰ πολυτελέστατα καθιεροῦσι τῶν γυναικείων, κελευόντων τῶν μάντεων ἐξαπατεώμεναι. ἡ δὲ τῆσδε ἀπαλλαγή, ὁκόταν μὴ ἐμποδίζῃ τι τοῦ αἵματος τὴν ἀπόρρυσιν. κελεύω δὴ τὰς παρθένους, ὁκόταν τι τοιοῦτο πάσχωσιν, ὡς τάχιστα ξυνοικῆσαι ἀνδράσιν· ἢν γὰρ κυήσωσιν, ὑγιέες γίνονται.  εἰ δὲ μή, ἢ εὐθέως ἅμα τῇ ἥβῃ ἢ ὀλίγον ὕστερον ἁλώσεται, εἴπερ μὴ ἑτέρῃ νούσῳ. τῶν δὲ ἠνδρωμένων γυναικῶν στεῖραι ταῦτα πάσχουσιν.

Hippocrates sticks to this logic elsewhere too.

Joseph Mallord William Turner – Vision of Medea, 1828

Aristippus: Using Beauty in the Way Beauty is Useful

ugh. bad ideas are eternal

Diogenes Laertius on Aristippus (Lives of the Eminent Philosophers, 99)

“He said that the world was his country. That theft, adultery, and sacrilege had their seasons, since none of these are shameful by nature if you take away the opinion against them which has been upheld for the policing of fools.

The wise man, he maintained, would pursue what he loved without examining the context. For example, he use to pose arguments like this: Is a woman grammarian useful because of her skill at grammar? Yes? And a child or adolescent grammarian is useful because of his skill at grammar. Yes?

So, then. A women who is beautiful is useful because of her beauty. Yes? And a child or adolescent who is handsome is useful because of this too? Yes? And this usefulness comes from its enjoyment?

Once this logic was accepted, he would continue by saying that “therefore if someone takes enjoyment of something in the way it is useful he does not do wrong—not even if he uses beauty in the way beauty is useful.” He used to win arguments by saying these kinds of things.”

Εἶναί τε πατρίδα τὸν κόσμον. κλέψειν τε καὶ μοιχεύσειν καὶ ἱεροσυλήσειν ἐν καιρῷ· μηδὲν γὰρ τούτων φύσει αἰσχρὸν εἶναι, τῆς ἐπ᾿ αὐτοῖς δόξης αἰρομένης, ἣ σύγκειται ἕνεκα τῆς τῶν ἀφρόνων συνοχῆς. φανερῶς δὲ τοῖς ἐρωμένοις ἄνευ πάσης ὑφοράσεως χρήσεσθαι τὸν σοφόν. διὸ καὶ τοιούτους λόγους ἠρώτα· “ἆρά γε γυνὴ γραμματικὴ χρήσιμος ἂν εἴη παρ᾿ ὅσον γραμματική ἐστι;” “ναί.” “καὶ παῖς καὶ νεανίσκος γραμματικὸς χρήσιμος ἂν εἴη παρ᾿ ὅσον γραμματικός ἐστι;” “ναί.” “οὐκοῦν καὶ γυνὴ καλὴ χρησίμη ἂν εἴη παρ᾿ ὅσον καλή ἐστι, καὶ παῖς καὶ νεανίσκος καλὸς χρήσιμος ἂν εἴη παρ᾿ ὅσον καλός ἐστι;” “ναί.” “καὶ παῖς ἄρα καὶ νεανίσκος καλὸς πρὸς τοῦτ᾿ ἂν εἴη χρήσιμος πρὸς ὃ καλός ἐστι;” “ναί.” “ἔστι δὲ χρήσιμος πρὸς τὸ πλησιάζειν.” ὧν δεδομένων ἐπῆγεν· “οὐκοῦν εἴ τις πλησιασμῷ χρώμενος παρ᾿ ὅσον χρήσιμός ἐστιν, οὐ διαμαρτάνει· οὐδ᾿ ἄρα εἰ κάλλει χρήσαιτο παρ᾿ ὅσον χρήσιμόν ἐστι, διαμαρτήσεται.” τοιαῦτα ἄττα διερωτῶν ἴσχυε τῷ λόγῳ

Wodewose
Actual image of Aristippus ‘enjoying beauty’. [For real: Ineffectual wodewose wooing from the Taymouth Hours, England, c. 1325–50, Yates Thompson MS 13, ff. 62r–63v]

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!

Sebastiano Ricci, “Sacrifice to Silenus” c. 1723