Toward an Understanding of Diogenes Laertius and his Lives of the Eminent Philosophers

Until relatively recently, modern scholarship has mostly scorned Diogenes Laertius as a mere anthologist rather than a serious thinker. He has often been dubbed a petty “gossip columnist.” For example, German classicist Werner Jaeger called him an “ignoramus” and German philologist Hermann Usener labeled him asinus germanus (“a complete ass”). In contrast Renaissance thinkers like Montaigne praised Diogenes’s voluminous biographies and, going back even further, Byzantine scholars were fascinated by Diogenes’s form of hagiography, while modern existentialists like Nietzsche initially found Diogenes to be dimwitted, but later praised Diogenes for being the gatekeeper to classical philosophy (he enjoyed reading the Lives as a testing ground for which philosophies were superior to others based on how they lived their lives). Perhaps there is a link between philosophy and biography.

The only work for which Diogenes Laertius is remembered today is the Lives and Opinions of Eminent Philosophers; however in Latin the title was simply shortened to Vitae Philosophorum. In the text he offers short, simple biographies of the “eminent” philosophers of classical Greece and Rome. By my count there are eighty-two biographies in the text and only two philosophers are given a place of prominence with an entire book devoted to their lives (Plato in Book III and Epicurus in Book X -the final book in the text). The concept of ’eminence’ which appears in the title is worth exploring; it implies a person with a reputation that has superseded his own life and who has therefore become the subject of gossip. Diogenes’s book reinforces the idea of eminence. He offers many varied and sometimes conflicting accounts of the ancient philosophers. Perhaps this is done in a way to merely confirm their legend, their largesse, their fame. Whereas Plutarch, the great biographer of the ancients, profiled mainly great political leaders, Diogenes limits himself to philosophers. Diogenes seems to suggest that by including all manner of odd or amusing anecdotes one can receive a more full glimpse of a philosopher’s teaching rather than simply reading his writings first hand.

Indeed each of the short, terse biographies of the philosophers in the book is coupled with a certain degree of dry humor from Diogenes along with an examination of whether or how the philosophers’s ideas squared with their way of life. His style is a doxography similar in concept to the echoing of opinions found in Herodotus. The book contains some of the only accounts of certain philosophers we possess today.

The text is organized into ten books (along with a prologue at the outset). Each section is based on a historical or philosophical school of thought (interestingly enough in Book I he groups his biographies of Thales and Solon together). Recent scholarship seems to suggest the book may not have been finished by the time of Diogenes’s death hence why it seems somewhat fragmented, almost like someone’s collection of notes. It has been more or less impossible to exactly date the text however the likely story is somewhere in the first half of the third century AD. In addition to the Lives, Diogenes was the author of a work in verse on famous men, in various meters, which he called “Epigrammata” or “Pammetros.” Otherwise we know very little about the man: Diogenes Laertius. In the text, he sometimes uses possessive phrases like “our school…” when referring to the pyrrhonists thus many have concluded that he was likely a pyrrhronian skeptic. He addresses sections of the book to a certain female Platonic patron. His name may be a Roman nickname “Laertius” (perhaps an allusion to the Homeric epithet for Odysseus, thoughh the ancient inscription of his name read: “Laertius Diogenes”). His voice appears in certain notable spots in the text such as to defend the idea of philosophy’s nascence with the Greeks, as well as a defense of the Pyrrhonists (Sextus Empiricus) and the Epicureans (Epicurus). It is beautiful to imagine Diogenes Laertius, a feverish scholar, pouring through records held at the Library of Alexandria, documenting quotations and stories regardless of how odd or salacious their substance.

Some of the earliest references to Diogenes come from Sopater of Apamea (a fourth century scholar) and Stephanus of Byzantium (sixth century). The text only became known to the West much later through a Latin translation of the original Greek by a Christian monk named Ambrogio Traversaari (1386-1439). Henricus Aristippus, the archdeacon of Catania, produced a Latin translation of Diogenes Laertius’s book in southern Italy in the late 1150s, which has since been lost or destroyed. Diogenes’s “rediscovery” mainly took place during the Renaissance.

Some common traits found among the philosophers found in the Lives include: a particular interest in questions regarding the order of the world and the best way to live, absentmindedness, an indifference to hygiene, cryptic or esoteric speaking, and being a stranger to conventional or customary beliefs. The Lives has come down to us via a long, two-thousand year tradition of copying and recopying texts. During the process errors and omissions have been found but the Lives remains an extraordinary document not least because it stands as the sole source for many of Epicurus’s surviving letters.

For this reading I used the ‘Compact Edition’ of the Lives of the Eminent Philosophers by Diogenes Laertes translated by Pamela Mensch and edited by James Miller.

In the preface to the Compact Edition the editors note: “Our common goal has been to make Lives as accessible as possible to English-speaking readers -and at the same time to convey some of the essential strangeness of what philosophy once was, in hopes that readers may wonder anew at what philosophy might yet become” (xiii).

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