On the Prologue to Diogenes Laertius’s Lives of the Eminent Philosophers

Diogenes begins his Lives with a brief prologue which argues against the commonly held opinion that philosophy initially began with the “barbarians” (i.e. non-Greeks like the Zoroastrian magi of the Persians, or the sages of the Babylonians, Chaldeans, Indians, Egyptians, Celtic Druids and so on). Instead Diogenes argues that this perspective fails to rightfully attribute these accomplishments to the Greeks who were the first to posit theories of the unity of all things, for indeed the very name philosophy is resistant to foreign translation (i.e. the Greek union of “philo” or love of “sophia” wisdom). Notably Diogenes does not define for himself an understanding of philosophy. He attempts to remain neutral.

Diogenes draws a distinction between barbarian wise men who once made claims about the gods in contrast to philosophy as founded by the Greeks. In doing so Diogenes cites numerous texts that are now lost. He claims that the first man to call himself a “philosopher” was Pythagoras, all previous practicers of wisdom were called sages (as in the cases of Thales, Solon, Periander, Cleobulus, Chilon, Bias, and Pittacus -a biography of each can be found in Book I). Pythagoras established the “Italian” school while Anaximander (a student of Thales) established the “Ionian” school. The school eventually passed from Thales through Anaximander, Anaximenes, Anaxagoras, Archelaus, and to Socrates (the first to introduce “moral philosophy”) then to Plato who established the “Old Academy.” From here, Diogenes lists the various philosophers whose biographies comprise the remaining books in the Lives, each according to their beginnings, successions, parts, and schools.

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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