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Discourse 16

This webpage reproduces one of the

Dio Chrysostom

published in the Loeb Classical Library, 1939

The text is in the public domain.

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Discourse 18

(Vol. II) Dio Chrysostom

 p187  The Seventeenth Discourse: On Covetousness

After saying by way of preface that men often know what is right, but still fail to do it and need to be admonished again and again, Dio proceeds to point out the evils that come in the train of covetousness, and the blessings that follow from contentment. In these strictures on covetousness he makes considerable use of that passage in Euripides' Phoenician Women where the poet speaks of the evils of ambition, thus apparently showing that he considered the two vices to be fundamentally one and the same.

 p189  The Seventeenth Discourse:
On Covetousness

The majority of men think that they should speak only on those subjects concerning which the common man has not the true opinion, in order that they may hear and get guidance on the matters whereof they are ignorant; but regarding what is well known and patent to all alike they think it superfluous to instruct. Yet for my own part, if I saw that we were holding to what we believe to be right and were doing nothing out of harmony with the view we already have,​1 I should not myself hold it necessary to insist on matters that are perfectly clear. 2 However, since I observe that it is not our ignorance of the difference between good and evil that hurts us, so much as it is our failure to heed the dictates of reason on these matters and to be true to our personal opinions, I consider it most salutary to remind men of this without ceasing, and to appeal to their reason to give heed and in their acts to observe what is right and proper.

For instance, just as we see physicians and pilots repeating their orders time and again to those under their command, although they were heard the first time — but still they do so when they see them neglect­ful and unattentive — so too in life it is  p191 useful to speak about the same things repeatedly, when the majority know what is their duty, but nevertheless fail to do it. 3 For it is not the main thing that the sick should know what is beneficial to them, but, I suppose, that they should use the treatment; since it is this that will bring them health; nor that men in general should learn what things are helpful and what are injurious to their lives, but that they would make no mistake by their choice between these. For just as one may see persons who are suffering from ophthalmia and know that it hurts to put their hands to their eyes, but still are unwilling to refrain from so doing, so likewise in regard to matters in general, the majority, even though they know perfectly well that it is not advantageous to do a certain thing, none the less fall to doing it. 4 Who, for instance, does not know that intemperance is a great evil to its victims? But for all that you can find thousands that are intemperate. Yes, and idleness everybody must certainly know is not only unable to provide the necessaries of life, but, in addition, is destructive to what one already has; and yet in very truth you can find more idlers than men willing to work. 5 Consequently, in my opinion it devolves upon the more thoughtful on all occasions and continually to speak of these matters, in the hope that it may prove possible to make men change their ways and to force them to the better course. For just as in the Mysteries the initiating priest more than once explains beforehand to those who are being initiated each single thing that they must do, in like manner it is profitable that the words concerning things beneficial be repeated often, or  p193 rather, all the time, just like some sacred admonition. 6 We know, for instance, that inflamed parts of the body do not yield at once to the first fomentation, but that if the treatment is continued, the swelling is softened and relief is given. So in a like manner we must be well content if we are able to assuage the inflammation in the souls of the many by the unceasing use of the word of reason.

So I maintain in regard to covetousness too, that all men do know it is neither expedient nor honourable, but the cause of the greatest evils; and that in spite of all this, not one man refrains from it or is willing to have equality of possessions with his neighbour. 7 And yet you will find that, although idleness, intemperance and, to express it in general terms, all the other vices without exception are injurious to the very men who practice them; and although those who are addicted to any of them do deservedly, in my opinion, meet with admonishment and condemnation, still you certainly will find that they are not hated or regarded as the common enemies of all mankind. But greed is not only the greatest evil to a man himself, but it injures his neighbours as well.​2 And so no one pities, forsooth, the covetous man or cares to instruct him, but all shun him and regard him as their enemy. 8 If, then, each of those here present wishes to know the enormity of this wickedness, let him consider how he himself feels toward  p195 those who attempt to overreach him; for in this way he can get an idea as to how other men must feel toward him if he is that sort of man. And further too, Euripides too, a poet second to none other in reputation, brings Iocasta on the stage addressing Eteocles and urging him to refrain from trying to overreach his brother, in some such words as these:

9 At greed, the worst of deities, my son,

Why graspest thou? Do not; she is Queen of wrong.

Houses many and happy cities enters she,

Nor leaves till ruined are her votaries.

Thou art mad for her! — 'tis best to venerate

Equality, which knitteth friends to friends,

Cities to cities, allies to allies.

Nature gave men the law of equal rights,

And the less, ever marshalled against

The greater, ushers in the dawn of hate.​3

10 I have quoted the iambics in full; for when a thought has been admirably expressed, it marks the man of good sense to use it in that form.4

In this passage, then, are enumerated all the consequences of greed: that it is of advantage neither to the individual nor to the state; but that, on the contrary, it overthrows and destroys the prosperity of families and of states as well; and, in the second place, that the law of men requires us to honour equality, and that this establishes a common bond of friendship and peace for all toward one  p197 another, whereas quarrels, internal strife, and foreign wars are due to nothing else than the desire for more, with the result that each side is deprived even of a sufficiency. 11 For what is more necessary than life, or what do all men hold as of more importance than this? But nevertheless men will destroy even that for money, and some too have caused even their own fatherlands to be laid waste. The same poet then goes on to say that there is no greed among the divine beings, wherefore they remain indestructible and ageless, each single one keeping its own proper position night and day and through all the seasons. For, the poet adds, if they were not so ordered, none of them would be able to survive. When, therefore, greed would bring destruction even to the divine beings, what disastrous effect must we believe this malady causes to human kind? And he aptly mentions measures and weights as having been invented to secure justice and to prevent any man from over-reaching another.5

12 And Hesiod says that the half is even more than the whole,​6 having in mind, I presume, the injuries and losses resulting from greed. For what king or potentate or people has ever attempted to transgress the principle of justice and grasp at the greater share but he has lost all his former felicity  p199 and has suffered great and over­powering disasters, bequeathing to all men thereafter unmistakable examples of folly and wickedness? Or of those who were willing to receive the lesser share and to endure cheerfully the seeming defeat, what man has not gained more than the others many times over, things that accrued to him automatically and without effort on his part, and has gained for the longest time fair prosperity and in the greatest security has enjoyed Fortune's blessings?

13 Illustrations are at hand: Did not the sons of Iocasta,​7 when they became at variance in their desire for more, the one wishing to be sole ruler, and the other seeking by fair means or foul to secure his portion of the kingdom — did they not, though brothers, slay each the other and bring the greatest evils, both of them, upon those who espoused their causes, since the invaders of the land straightway perished, while those who fought to defend it were worsted soon after because they would not allow the corpses to be buried? 14 And again, on account of the greed of one man who carried off Helen and the possessions of Menelaus, the inhabitants of Asia's greatest city perished along with their children and wives, for harbouring one woman and a little property they paid so huge a penalty. Then take the case of Xerxes, the master of the other continent. When he cast covetous eyes upon Greece too, and collected and brought against her so mighty a fleet and so many myriads, he shamefully lost all his armament and with difficulty saved his own person by taking to flight himself; and afterwards  p201 he was forced to endure the ravishing of his country and of his cities on the seacoast. 15 As a further illustration take Polycrates: They say that so long as he was ruler of Samos alone he enjoyed the greatest felicity of any man in the whole world; but that when he wished to meddle somewhat in the affairs of the people of the opposite mainland and sailed across for the purpose of getting money from Orestes, he met with no easy death, but was impaled by that barbarian prince and thus perished.8

These instances, in order that they be warning examples to you, I have taken not only from exceedingly ancient, but also from subsequent times, and as related both in poetry and in narrative prose. 16 Then it is worth your while to call to mind the attitude of the god likewise, that he also by his very nature punishes the covetous. When, for instance, the Spartans consulted his oracle to ask if he gave Arcadia to them, he not only refused them, but rebuked their insatiable greed in the following words:

Arcadia thou askest of me? 'Tis much! Nay, give it I'll not,

but also imposed a penalty upon them and foretold the future, yet in such a way that they did not understand, but marched against Tegea to meet with disasters known of all men. And yet, while plainly denying Arcadia to them, he would not give them Tegea either. For this was the strongest and most important place in Arcadia.​9 But, speaking generally, the majority of mankind are so covetous that they have not even ears to hear, nor do they so much as understand words of warning when spoken.

 p203  17 At another time, when the Athenians asked about the island of Sicily, the oracle answered that they should annex to their city 'Sicily,' this being the name of a hill near the city.​10 But they paid no attention to what was near at hand and before their eyes; so bereft of sense were they on account of their lust for more, that they imagined the god was telling them to enclose without one wall Athens and an island some ten thousand stades distant. As a result they sailed thither, and not only failed to get Sicily, but lost Attica as well, and saw their city itself in the hands of her enemies.​a

18 And if you should wish to enumerate all such examples as these, it is clear that not even in a year's time would you run out of them. Then consider, I beg of you, that most men regard physical strength as one of the blessings of life; yet I believe that in the case of those who have the greatest physical strength and greatly excel in bodily vigour, it is of advantage to sacrifice a part of this; for in my opinion what exceeds the right proportion is very troublesome. In the same manner wealth which may be put to use does not, if it be moderate, injure its possessor, but makes his life easier and certainly frees it from want; but if it becomes excessive, it causes far more worries and troubles than that which passes for pleasure; and many have rued the day when they acquired enormous wealth, while some for this very reason have come to lack even the barest necessities.

19 So far so good! But let us take our own selves: If each element that makes up our being should wish to have the advantage, would it be possible for us to  p205 keep alive for the shortest time? I mean, for example, if the blood should increase a little beyond the proper proportion, or even if something or other in us should increase the pressure of the warm breath beyond its due and proper proportion, do you not know that serious and dangerous illnesses inevitably come on? And in the harmonies of these instruments of our bodies, if any one of the strings should get more than its share of tension, in Heaven's name must not the harmony as a whole be destroyed?11

20 As for me, I wonder greatly how we should have acted if we had not received the shortest span of life from the gods! However, just as if we were making our plans for an endless life, we strive earnestly each to have more than his neighbour. Just as any man, then, who knowing that he has a voyage of only two or three days' duration at the most before him, should nevertheless put enough provisions on board to last a year, will be regarded as a fool; in the same way, any man who, being fully aware that he could not live more than the allotted span of seventy years, should provide himself with substance to last him a thousand years would he not be equally and in the same way insane? Indeed there are some who lay in stores so great that, if they were out at sea, their ship would founder at once. And I swear it does happen to countless numbers.

21 So much for that. Well then, if a man has invited ten or fifteen guests to a banquet and although needing to satisfy only so many, should then go on and make ready food enough for five hundred or a thousand, will he not be thought to be quite out of his  p207 mind? In like manner we also, although we know that the needs of the body are easy enough to count — for clothing, I suppose, and shelter and nourishment we do need — nevertheless strain ourselves to the utmost as if we were gathering supplies for an army and, I swear, there is good reason for our doing so; for the great majority are feeding in their hearts a whole army of desires. As for clothing, nobody wants to have it too large for his body, knowing that it would be inconvenient to wear; but property altogether too large for their needs all men crave, not understanding that this is more objectionable than the other.

22 I think, too, that Croesus the Lydian, when he wanted to expose the insatiable greed of men, did this admirably. He conducted a group of men into his treasure-house and permitted them to take away just as much gold as each man could carry on his person. For we see that most of them not only filled the bosoms of their clothing, but carried away some of the dust upon their heads and in their mouths and that they could scarcely walk, cutting a ridiculous figure, all twisted out of shape as they were.​12 In life also, methinks, certain men walk along in an unseemly posture and cut a ridiculous figure on account of their greed.

The Loeb Editor's Notes:

1 For the interpretation here given to the phrase τῆς ὑπαρχούσης ὑπολήψεως cf. Demosthenes, De Corona 228.

2 Dio here echoes the first line of Menander, Frag. 557 Kock: "In the front ranks of man's woes is grasping greed. For they who are fain to annex their neighbour's holdings frequently are defeated and fail, and to their neighbours' possessions contribute their own in addition." (Allinson in L. C. L. p495):

πλεονεξία μέγιστον ἀνθρώποις κακόν·

οἱ γὰρ θέλοντες προσλαβεῖν τὰ τῶν πέλας

ἀποτυγχάνουσι πολλάκις νικώμενοι

τὰ δ’ ἴδια προστιθέασι τοῖς ἀλλοτρίοις.

3 Euripides, Phoenician Women 531‑540 as modified and adapted from Way in L. C. L. Cf. Plato, Republic 349B ff.

4 And yet Dio alters the poet's text in four places, in order to make the quotation support his argument better. Cf. critical notes on the text.

5 Dio gives a very free interpretation the words of Iocasta, ibid. 541‑546, where her argument is that Equality is the principle which governs the universe, in which

The sightless face of Night, and the Sun's beam

Equally pace along their yearly round,

Nor either envieth that it must give place.

Sun, then, and Night are servants unto men.

Way in L. C. L.

6 Works and Days, v.40.

7 Eteocles and Polyneices.

8 See Herodotus 3.120‑125.

9 Ibid. 1.66.

10 That is, of Athens; see Pausanias 8.11.12.

11 Cf. Plato, Republic 1.349D ff.

12 See Herodotus, 6.125 and compare Discourse 78.32.

Thayer's Note:

a An excellent account of the disastrous Athenian expedition to Sicily, including the demented covetousness that brought it on, is given by Marion Crawford, The Rulers of the South, Vol. I, pp97‑151.

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