Monday, September 26, 2005



The misanthrope par excellence of ancient times was Timon. Plutarch in his Life of Antony (chapter 70, tr. Bernadotte Perrin) gives a brief character sketch:
[1] Now, Timon was an Athenian, and lived about the time of the Peloponnesian War, as may be gathered from the plays of Aristophanes and Plato. For he is represented in their comedies as peevish and misanthropical; but though he avoided and repelled all intercourse with men, he was glad to see Alcibiades, who was then young and headstrong, and showered kisses upon him. And when Apemantus was amazed at this and asked the reason for it, Timon said he loved the youth because he knew that he would be a cause of many ills to Athens.

[2] This Apemantus alone of all men Timon would sometimes admit into his company, since Apemantus was like him and tried sometimes to imitate his mode of life; and once, at the festival of The Pitchers, the two were feasting by themselves, and Apemantus said: "Timon, what a fine symposium ours is!" "It would be," said Timon, "if thou wert not here." We are told also that once when the Athenians were holding an assembly, he ascended the bema, and the strangeness of the thing caused deep silence and great expectancy; then he said:

[3] "I have a small building lot, men of Athens, and a fig-tree is growing in it, from which many of my fellow citizens have already hanged themselves. Accordingly, as I intend to build a house there, I wanted to give public notice to that effect, in order that all of you who desire to do so may hang yourselves before the fig-tree is cut down." After he had died and been buried at Halae near the sea, the shore in front of the tomb slipped away, and the water surrounded it and made it completely inaccessible to man.

[4] The inscription on the tomb was:

"Here, after snapping the thread of a wretched life, I lie.
Ye shall not learn my name, but my curses shall follow you."

This inscription he is said to have composed himself, but that in general circulation is by Callimachus:

"Timon, hater of men, dwells here; so pass along;
Heap many curses on me, if thou wilt, only pass along."
In death as in life Timon wanted nothing to do with his fellow man. Nature conspired to grant his wish, by cutting off his tomb from the mainland and placing it on an island. Cf. John Donne, Meditation XVII:
No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend's or of thine own were. Any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind; and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.

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