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This webpage reproduces one of the
Lives of the Eminent Philosophers

Diogenes Laërtius

published in the Loeb Classical Library, 1925

The text is in the public domain.

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(Vol. I) Diogenes Laërtius
Lives of the Eminent Philosophers

Book I

 p75  Chapter 9
Pittacus (c. 600 B.C.)

[link to original Greek text] 74 Pittacus was the son of Hyrrhadius and a native of Mitylene. Duris calls his father a Thracian. Aided by the brothers of Alcaeus he overthrew  p77 Melanchrus, tyrant of Lesbos; and in the war between Mitylene and Athens for the territory of Achileis he himself had the chief command on the one side, and Phrynon, who had won an Olympic victory in the pancratium, commanded the Athenians. Pittacus agreed to meet him in single combat; with a net which he concealed beneath his shield he entangled Phrynon, killed him, and recovered the territory. Subsequently, as Apollodorus states in his Chronology, Athens and Mitylene referred their claims to arbitration. Periander heard the appeal and gave judgement in favour of Athens.

[link to original Greek text] 75 At the time, however, the people of Mitylene honoured Pittacus extravagantly and entrusted him with the government. He ruled for ten years and brought the constitution into order, and then laid down his office. He lived another ten years after his abdication and received from the people of Mitylene a grant of land, which he dedicated as sacred domain; and it bears his name to this day. Sosicrates relates that he cut off a small portion for himself and pronounced the half to be more than the whole. Furthermore, he declined an offer of money made him by Croesus, saying that he had twice as much as he wanted; for his brother had died without issue and he had inherited his estate.

[link to original Greek text] 76 Pamphila in the second book of her Memorabilia narrates that, as his son Tyrraeus sat in a barber's shop in Cyme, a smith killed him with a blow from an axe. When the people of Cyme sent the murderer to Pittacus, he, on learning the story, set him at liberty and declared that "It is better to pardon now than to repent later." Heraclitus, however, says  p79 that it was Alcaeus whom he set at liberty when he had got him in his power, and that what he said was: "Mercy is better than vengeance."

Among the laws which he made is one providing that for any offence committed in a state of intoxication the penalty should be doubled; his object was to discourage drunkenness, wine being abundant on the island. One of his sayings is, "It is hard to be good," which is cited by Simonides in this form: "Pittacus's maxim, 'Truly to become a virtuous man is hard.' " [link to original Greek text] 77 Plato also cites him in the Protagoras:​1 "Even the gods do not fight against necessity." Again, "Office shows the man." Once, when asked what is the best rule, he replied, "To do well the work in hand." And, when Croesus inquired what is the best rule, he answered, "The rule of the shifting wood," by which he meant the law. He also urged men to win bloodless victories. When the Phocaean said that we must search for a good man, Pittacus rejoined, "If you seek too carefully, you will never find him." He answered various inquiries thus: "What is agreeable?" "Time." "Obscure?" "The future." "Trustworthy?" "The earth." "Untrustworthy?" "The sea." "It is the part of prudent men," he said, "before difficulties arise, to provide against their arising; [link to original Greek text] 78 and of courageous men to deal with them when they have arisen." Do not announce your plans beforehand; for, if they fail, you will be laughed at. Never reproach any one with a misfortune, for fear of Nemesis. Duly restore what has been entrusted to you. Speak no ill of a friend, nor even of an enemy. Practise piety. Love temperance. Cherish truth, fidelity, skill, cleverness, sociability, carefulness.

 p81  Of his songs the most popular is this:

With bow and well-stored quiver

We must march against our foe,

Words of his tongue can no man trust,

For in his heart there is a deceit­ful thought.

[link to original Greek text] 79 He also wrote poems in elegiac metre, some 600 lines, and a prose work On Laws for the use of the citizens.

He was flourishing about the 42nd Olympiad. He died in the archon­ship of Aristomenes, in the third year of the 52nd Olympiad,​2 having lived more than seventy years, to a good old age. The inscription on his monument runs thus:3

Here holy Lesbos, with a mother's woe,

Bewails her Pittacus whom death laid low.

To him belongs the apophthegm, "Know thine opportunity."

There was another Pittacus, a legislator, as is stated by Favorinus in the first book of his Memorabilia, and by Demetrius in his work on Men of the Same Name. He was called the Less.

To return to the Sage: the story goes that a young man took counsel with him about marriage, and received this answer, as given by Callimachus in his Epigrams:4

[link to original Greek text] 80 A stranger of Atarneus thus inquired of Pittacus, the son of Hyrrhadius:

Old sire, two offers of marriage are made to me: the one bride is in wealth and birth my equal;

The other is my superior. Which is the better? Come now and advise me which of the two I shall wed.

 p83  So spake he. But Pittacus, raising his staff, an old man's weapon, said, "See there, yonder boys will tell you the whole tale."

The boys were whipping their tops to make them go fast and spinning them in a wide open space.

"Follow in their track," said he. So he approached near, and the boys were saying, "Keep to your own sphere."

When he heard this, the stranger desisted from aiming at the lordlier match, assenting to the warning of the boys.

And, even as he led home the humble bride, so do you, Dion, keep to your own sphere.

[link to original Greek text] 81 The advice seems to have been prompted by his situation. For he had married a wife superior in birth to himself: she was the sister of Draco, the son of Penthilus, and she treated him with great haughtiness.

Alcaeus nicknamed him σαράπους and σάραπος because he had flat feet and dragged them in walking; also "Chilblains," because he had chapped feet, for which their word was χειράς; and Braggadocio, because he was always swaggering; a Diner-in‑the‑Dark, because he dispensed with a lamp; and the Sloven, because he was untidy and dirty. The exercise he took was grinding cornº, as related by Clearchus the philosopher.

The following short letter is ascribed to him:

Letter of Pittacus to Croesus

"You bid me come to Lydia in order to see your prosperity: but without seeing it I can well believe that the son of Alyattes is the most opulent of kings. There will be no advantage to me in a journey to  p85 Sardis, for I am not in want of money, and my possessions are sufficient for my friends as well as myself. Nevertheless, I will come, to be entertained by you and to make your acquaintance."

The Loeb Editor's Notes:

1 345D.

2 570 B.C.

3 Anth. Plan. II.3.

4 Anth. Pal. VII.89.

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Page updated: 28 Feb 18