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THE LIVES AND OPINIONS OF EMINENT PHILOSOPHERS

BY DIOGENES LAERTIUS, TRANSLATED BY C.D. YONGE

LIFE OF PITTACUS



I. PITTACUS was a native of Mitylene, and son of Hyrradius. But Duris says, that his father was a Thracian. He, in union with the brothers of Alcaeus, put down Melanchrus the tyrant of Lesbos. And in the battle which took place between the Athenians and Mitylenaeans on the subject of the district of Achilis, he was the Mitylenaean general; the Athenian commander being Phrynon, a Pancratiast, who had gained the victory at Olympia. Pittacus agreed to meet him in single combat, and having a net under his shield, he entangled Phrynon without his being aware of it beforehand, and so, having killed him, he preserved the district in dispute to his countrymen. But Apollodorus, in his Chronicles, says, that subsequently, the Athenians had a trial with the Mitylenaeans about the district, and that the cause was submitted to Periander, who decided it in favour of the Athenians.

II. In consequence of this victory the Mitylenaeans held Pittacus in the greatest honour, and committed the supreme power into his hands. And he held it for ten years, and then, when he had brought the city and constitution into good order, he resigned the government. And he lived ten years after that, and the Mitylenaeans assigned him an estate which he consecrated to the God, and to this day it is called the Pittacian land. But Sosicrates says that he cut off a small portion of it, saying that half was more than the whole; and when Croesus offered him some money he would not accept it as he said that he had already twice as much as he wanted; for that he had succeeded to the inheritance of his brother, who had died without children.

III. But Pamphila says, in the second book of her Commentaries, that he had a son named Tyrrhaeus, who was killed while sitting in a barber's shop, at Cyma, by a brazier, who threw an axe at him; and that the Cymaeans sent the murderer to Pittacus, who when he had learnt what had been done, dismissed the man, saying, "Pardon is better than repentance." But Heraclitus says that the true story is, that he had got Alcaeus into his power, and that he released him, saying, "Pardon is better than punishment." He was also a law-giver; and he made a law that if a man committed a crime while drunk, he should have double punishment; in the hope of deterring men from getting drunk, as wine was very plentiful in the island.

IV. It was a saying of his that it was a hard thing to be good, and this apophthegm is quoted by Simonides, who says, "It was a saying of Pittacus, that it is a hard thing to be really a good man." Plato also mentions it in his Protagoras. Another of his sayings was, "Even the Gods cannot strive against necessity." Another was, " Power shows the man." Being once asked what was best, he replied, "To do what one is doing at the moment well." When Croesus put the question to him, "What is the greatest power?" "The power," he replied, "of the variegated wood," meaning the wooden tablets of the laws. He used to say too, that there were some victories without bloodshed. He said once to a man of Phocaea, who was saying that we ought to seek out a virtuous man, "But if you seek ever so much you will not find one." Some people once asked him what thing was very grateful? and he replied, "Time."—What was uncertain? "The future."—What was trusty? "The land."—What was treacherous? "The sea" Another saying of his was, that it was the part of wise men, before difficult circumstances arose, to provide for their not arising; but that it was the part of brave men to make the best of existing circumstances. He used to say too, "Do not say before hand what you are going to do; for if you fail, you will be laughed at." "Do not reproach a man with his misfortunes, fearing lest Nemesis may overtake you." "If you have received a deposit, restore it." "Forbear to speak evil not only of your friends, but also of your enemies." "Practise piety, with temperance." "Cultivate truth, good faith, experience, cleverness, sociability, and industry."

V. He wrote also some songs, of which the following is the most celebrated one:

The wise will only face the wicked man,
With bow in hand well bent,
And quiver full of arrows—
For such a tongue as his says nothing true,
Prompted by a wily heart
To utter double speeches.

He also composed six hundred verses in elegiac metre; and he wrote a treatise in prose, on Laws, addressed to his countrymen.

VI. He flourished about the forty-second Olympiad; and he died when Aristomenes was Archon, in the third year of the fifty-second Olympiad; having lived more than seventy years, being a very old man. And on his tomb is this inscription:

Lesbos who bore him here, with tears doth bury
Hyrradius' worthy son, wise Pittacus.

Another saying of his was, "Watch your opportunity."

VII. There was also another Pittacus, a lawgiver, as Favorinus tells us in the first book of his Commentaries; and Demetrius says so too, in his Essay on Men and Things of the same name. And that other Pittacus was called Pittacus the less.

VIII. But it is said that the wise Pittacus once, when a young man consulted him on the subject of marriage, made him the following answer, which is thus given by Callimachus in his Epigrams.

Hyrradius' prudent son, old Pittacus
The pride of Mitylene, once was asked
By an Atarnean stranger; "Tell me, sage,
I have two marriages proposed to me;
One maid my equal is in birth and riches;
The other's far above me; which is best?
Advise me now which shall I take to wife?"
Thus spoke the stranger; but the aged prince,
Raising his old man's staff before his face,
Said, "These will tell you all you want to know;"
And pointed to some boys, who with quick lashes
Were driving whipping tops along the street.
"Follow their steps," said he; so he went near them
And heard them say, "Let each now mind his own."—
So when the stranger heard the boys speak thus,
He pondered on their words, and laid aside
Ambitious thoughts of an unequal marriage.
As then he took to shame the poorer bride,
So too do you, O reader, mind thy own.

And it seems that he may have here spoken from experience, for his own wife was of more noble birth than himself, since she was the sister of Draco, the son of Penthilus; and she gave herself great airs, and tyrannized over him.

IX. Alcaeas calls Pittacus sarapous and sarapos, because he was splay-footed, and used to drag his feet in walking; he also called him cheiropodês, because he had scars on his feet which were called cheirades. And gaurêx, implying that he gave himself airs without reason. And phuskôn and gastrôn, because he was fat. He also called him zophodorpidas, because he had weak eyes, and agasurtos, because he was lazy and dirty. He used to grind corn for the sake of exercise, as Clearchus, the philosopher, relates.

X. There is a letter of his extant, which runs thus:


PITTACUS TO CROESUS.

You invite me to come to Lydia in order that I may see your riches; but I, even without seeing them, do not doubt that the son of Alyattes is the richest of monarchs. But I should get no good by going to Sardis; for I do not want gold myself, but what I have is sufficient for myself and my companions. Still, I will come, in order to become acquainted with you as a hospitable man.









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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