Timon (philosopher)

Timon ( _el. Τίμων) of Phlius, (c. 320-c. 230 BC), the son of Timarchus, was a Greek sceptic, a pupil of Pyrrho, and a celebrated writer of satirical poems called "Silloi" ( _el. σίλλοι).


A fairly full account of Timon's life was given by Diogenes Laërtius, from the first book of a work on the "Silloi" by Apollonides of Nicaea; and some particulars are quoted by Diogenes from Antigonus of Carystus, and from Sotion.Diogenes Laërtius, ix.] Being left an orphan while still young, he was at first a dancer in the theatre, but he abandoned this profession for the study of philosophy, and, having moved to Megara, he spent some time with Stilpo, and then he returned home and married. He next went to Elis with his wife, and heard Pyrrho, whose tenets he adopted, so far at least as his restless genius and satirical scepticism permitted him to follow any master. During his residence at Elis, he had children born to him, the eldest of whom, named Xanthus, he instructed in the art of medicine and trained in his philosophical principles. Driven again from Elis by straitened circumstances, he spent some time on the Hellespont and the Propontis, and taught at Chalcedon as a sophist with such success that he made a fortune. He then moved to Athens, where he lived until his death, with the exception of a short residence at Thebes. Among the great men with whom he became personally acquainted in the course of his travels were the kings Antigonus and Ptolemy II Philadelphus. He is said to have assisted Alexander Aetolus and Homerus in the composition of their tragedies, and to have been the teacher of Aratus. [Suda, "Aratos".] He died at an age of almost ninety.


Timon appears to have been endowed by nature with a powerful and active mind, and with a quick perception of the weaknesses of people, which made him a sceptic in philosophy and a satirist in everything. According to Diogenes Laërtius, Timon was a one-eyed man; and he used even to make a jest of his own defect, calling himself Cyclops. Some other examples of his bitter sarcasms are recorded by Diogenes; one of which is worth quoting as a maxim in criticism: being asked by Aratus how to obtain the pure text of Homer, he replied, "If we could find the old copies, and not those with modern emendations." He is also said to have been fond of retirement, and of gardening; but Diogenes introduces this statement and some others in such a way as to suggest a doubt whether they ought to be referred to our Timon or to Timon of Athens, or whether they apply equally to both.


The writings of Timon are represented as very numerous. According to Diogenes Laërtius, he composed "lyric and epic poems, and tragedies and satiric dramas, and thirty comedies, and sixty tragedies and the Silloi and amatory poems."


No remains of his dramas have survived. Of his epic poems little is known, but it may be presumed that they were chiefly ludicrous or satirical poems in the epic form. Possibly his "Python" ( _el. Πύθων), which contained a long account of a conversation with Pyrrho, during a journey to the Delphic oracle, may be referred to this class; unless it was in prose. [Diogenes Laërtius, ix.; Eusebius, "Praeparatio Evangelica", xiv.] It appears probable that his "Funeral Banquet of Arcesilaus" was a satirical poem in epic verse. [Diogenes Laërtius, ix.; Athenaeus, ix.] He also wrote parodies on Homer, and some lines from a scepticism-themed poem in elegiac verse have been preserved, as well as one or two fragments which cannot be with certainty assigned to any of his poems.

The most celebrated of his poems, however, were the satiric compositions called "Silloi" ( _el. σίλλοι), a word of somewhat uncertain etymology, but which undoubtedly describes metrical compositions, of a character at once ludicrous and sarcastic. The invention of this species of poetry is ascribed to Xenophanes of Colophon. The "Silloi" of Timon were in three books, in the first of which he spoke in his own person, and the other two are in the form of a dialogue between the author and Xenophanes, in which Timon proposed questions, to which Xenophanes replied at length. The subject was a sarcastic account of the tenets of all philosophers, living and dead; an unbounded field for scepticism and satire. They were in hexameter verse, and, from the way in which they are mentioned by the ancient writers, as well as from the few fragments of them which have survived, it is evident that they were admirable productions of their kind. [Diogenes Laërtius, ix.; Aristocles ap. Eusebius, "Praeparatio Evangelica", xiv.; Suda, "Sillainei", "Timon"; Athenaeus, "passim"; Aulus Gellius, iii. 17.] Commentaries were written on the Silloi by Apollonides of Nicaea, and also by Sotion of Alexandria. [Athenaeus, viii.] The poem entitled "Images" ( _el. Ἰνδαλμοι) in elegiac verse, appears to have been similar in its subject to the "Silloi". Diogenes Laërtius also mentions Timon's "iamboi", but perhaps the word is here merely used in the sense of satirical poems in general, without reference to the metre. According to Timon, philosophers are "excessively cunning murderers of many wise saws" (v. 96); the only two whom he spares are Xenophanes, "the modest censor of Homer's lies" (v. 29), and Pyrrho, against whom "no other mortal dare contend" (v. 126).


He also wrote in prose, to the quantity, according to Diogenes Laërtius, of twenty thousand lines. These works were no doubt on philosophical subjects, and Diogenes mentions "On Sensations", "On Inquiries", and "Towards Wisdom". Also among his lost works is "Against the Physicists", in which he questioned the legitimacy of making hypotheses. [Sextus Empricus, "Against the Geometers", 2. in "Sextus Empiricus IV: Against the Professors". R.G. Bury (trans.) (Harvard University Press, 1949/2000). p. 244 (Greek); 245 (English) ISBN 0-674-99420-5 ] It has been suggested that Pyrrhoniam scepticism ultimately originated with Timon. [Brunschwig, (1999) p. 249-251.] His work is frequently quoted by Sextus Empiricus, also a follower of Pyrrho. Apart from the fragments of the "Silloi", most of what survives of Timon's work is what Sextus chose to quote.

Cultural references

While Shakespeare's "Timon of Athens" is based on another figure who lived much earlier, Timon of Athens, some of Timon's philosophies influenced Shakespeare's presentation of him.



*Brunschwig, J., "Introduction: the beginnings of Hellenistic epistemology", in Algra, Barnes, Mansfeld and Schofield (eds.), "The Cambridge History of Hellenistic Philosophy" (Cambridge University Press, 1999) p. 229-259.
*Hornblower, Simon, and Anthony Spawforth ed., "The Oxford Classical Dictionary" (Oxford University Press, 2003) ISBN 0-19-866172-X

External links

*sep entry|timon-phlius|Timon of Phlius|Richard Bett

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