On Diogenes Laertius’s Biography of Socrates

Diogenes Laertius says that Socrates was the son of a stone mason and a midwife (Socrates later associated himself with midwifery in Plato’s Theaetetus as a metaphor for his eristic activities). Diogenes says Socrates was a student of Archelaus, the first man to bring philosophy westward from Miletus in Ionia to Athens. Rumors suggest Socrates was also Archelaus’s beloved, and that Socrates may have studied under Anaxagoras prior to the latter’s banishment, as well.

Socrates was perhaps initially a stone mason before turning toward philosophy (in particular, ethics). He became a formidable teacher of rhetoric and he may have assisted Euripides with some of his plays, the details on this claim seem a bit hazy. Socrates was a brave military man who remained calm in times of duress -it was said he rescued both Xenophon and Alcibiades on different occasions in battle (Socrates also fought at Potidaea). Socrates had two wives during his lifetime: Xanthippe (with whom he had Lamprocles) and Myrto (with whom he had Sophroniscus and Menexenus).

Socrates was a moderate man who was nevertheless tried by the Thirty Tyrants of Athens, including Critias a cousin of Plato and former follower of Socrates. He was commanded to arrest a political enemy of the Thirty but he refused. In later life he took up playing the lyre and dancing because he believed it was a robust, healthy activity for the body (as portrayed in Xenophon’s Memorabilia).

Diogenes lists a variety of disconnected anecdotes about Socrates (inn a way they are reminiscent in style to Confucius in the Analects). Socrates drew envy and resentment when the Pythia named him the wisest man of all. She claimed he was wise despite Socrates routinely demonstrating the foolishness of wise men (i.e. ridiculing them), like Anytus who roused his circle, including Aristophanes and Meletus who lodged a complaint against Socrates for impiety and corrupting the youth.

Socrates was famously tried, found guilty, and sentenced to death by drinking hemlock as depicted by Plato and Xenophon. Diogenes offers no opinion or perspective on the death of Socrates. Apparently, Meletus’s charge was still available in the Melotoon in Athens during Diogenes Laertius’s day.

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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