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THE LIVES AND OPINIONS OF THE EMINENT PHILOSOPHERS

BY DIOGENES LAERTIUS, TRANSLATED BY C.D. YONGE

LIFE OF CHILON



I. CHILON was a Lacedaemonian, the son of Damagetus. He composed verses in elegiac metre to the number of two hundred: and it was a saying of his that a foresight of future events, such as could be arrived at by consideration was the virtue of a man. He also said once to his brother, who was indignant at not being an ephor, while he himself was one, "The reason is because I know how to bear injustice: but you do not." And he was made ephor in the fifty-fifth Olympiad; but Pamphila says that it was in the fifty-sixth. And he was made first ephor in the year of the archonship of Euthydemus, as we are told by Sosicrates. Chilon was also the first person who introduced the custom of joining the ephors to the kings as their counsellors: though Satyrus attributes this institution to Lycurgus. He, as Herodotus says in his first book, when Hippocrates was sacrificing at Olympia, and the cauldrons began to boil of their own accord, advised him either to marry, or, if he were married already, to discard his wife, and disown his children.

II. They tell a story, also of his having asked Aesop what Jupiter was doing, and that Aesop replied "He is lowering what is high, and exalting what is low." Being asked in what educated men differed from those who were illiterate, he said, "In good hopes." Having had the question put to him, What was difficult, he said, "To be silent about secrets; to make good use of one's leisure, and to be able to submit to injustice." And besides these three things he added further, "To rule one's tongue, especially at a banquet, and not to speak ill of one's neighbours; for if one does so one is sure to hear what one will not like." He advised, moreover, "To threaten no one; for that is a womanly trick. To be more prompt to go to one's friends in adversity than in prosperity. To make but a moderate display at one's marriage. Not to speak evil of the dead. To honour old age.—To keep a watch upon one's self.—To prefer punishment to disgraceful gain; for the one is painful but once, but the other for one's whole life.—Not to laugh at a person in misfortune.—If one is strong to be also merciful, so that one's neighbours may respect one rather than fear one.—To learn how to regulate one's own house well.—Not to let one's tongue outrun one's sense.—To restrain anger.—Not to dislike divination.—Not to desire what is impossible.—Not to make too much haste on one's road.—When speaking not to gesticulate with the hand; for that is like a madman.—To obey the laws.—To love quiet."

And of all his songs this one was the most approved:

Gold is best tested by a whetstone hard,
Which gives a certain proof of purity;
And gold itself acts as the test of men,
By which we know the temper of their minds.

III. They say, too, that when he was old he said, that he was not conscious of having ever done an unjust action in his life; but that he doubted about one thing. For that once when judging in a friend's cause he had voted himself in accordance with the law, but had persuaded a friend to vote for his acquittal, in order that so he might maintain the law, and yet save his friend.

IV. But he was most especially celebrated among the Greeks for having delivered an early opinion about Cythera, an island belonging to Laconia. For having become acquainted with its nature, he said, "I wish it had never existed, or that, as it does exist, it were sunk at the bottom of the sea." And his foresight was proved afterwards. For when Demaratus was banished by the Lacedaemonians, he advised Xerxes to keep his ships at that island: and Greece would have been subdued, if Xerxes had taken the advice. And afterwards Nicias, having reduced the island at the time of the Peloponnesian war, placed in it a garrison of Athenians, and did a great deal of harm to the Lacedaemonians.

V. He was very brief in his speech. On which account Aristagoras, the Milesian, calls such conciseness, the Chilonean fashion; and says that it was adopted by Branchus, who built the temple among the Branchidae. Chilon was an old man, about the fifty-second Olympiad, when Aesop, the fable writer, flourished. And he died, as Hermippus says, at Pisa, after embracing his son, who had gained the victory in boxing at the Olympic games. The cause of his death was excess of joy, and weakness caused by extreme old age. All the spectators who were present at the games attended his funeral, paying him the highest honours. And we have written the following epigram on him:

I thank you, brightest Pollux, that the son
      Of Chilon wears the wreath of victory;
Nor need we grieve if at the glorious sight
      His father died. May such my last end be!

And the following inscription is engraved on his statue:

The warlike Sparta called this Chilon son,
The wisest man of all the seven sages.

One of his sayings was, "Suretyship, and then destruction." The following letter of his is also extant:


CHILON TO PERIANDER.

You desire me to abandon the expedition against the emigrants, as you yourself will go forth. But I think that a sole governor is in a slippery position at home; and I consider that tyrant a fortunate man who dies a natural death in his own house.









Scanned and edited for Peithô's Web from The Lives and Opinions of Eminent Philosophers, by Diogenes Laertius, Literally translated by C.D. Yonge. London: Henry G. Bohn, 1853. Footnotes have been converted to endnotes. Some, but not all, of Yonge's spellings of ancient names have been updated.

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