On Diogenes Laertius’s Biography of Aristotle

Per Diogenes Aristotle was a native of Stagira on the Chalcidice peninsula (the city was destroyed by Philip II in 349 BC during the Macedonian imperial expansion long after Aristotle had left, but the city was later rebuilt perhaps at Aristotle’s request). Aristotle father, Nicomachus, was a physician who was brought to the Macedonian court of Amyntas II (the ruler of Macedon prior to Philip II).

Diogenes cites Hermippus’s On Aristotle and other writers who suggest Aristotle became a most faithful student of Plato at the Academy. Some details he provides about Aristotle include: he spoke with a lisp, had thin legs, small eyes, he wore fine robes and rings, and kept his hair short. Aristotle had a son also named Nicomachus with Herpyllis, Aristotle’s former slave and concubine (the title of Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics is widely believed to refer to his son).

Aristotle left the Academy while Plato was still alive. He spent his time in a walkway of the Lyceum (originally a sanctuary to Apollo) where he would stroll and discourse with his students (or peripatos hence where the “peripatetics” came from meaning “walking about”). Others say the term came from Alexander walking after an illness with Aristotle. Aristotle traveled to several different courts, most notably the court of Macedonia where he is rumored to have instructed Alexander the Great. Aristotle later returned to Athens and taught at the Lyceum for thirteen years until he was accused of impiety. Unlike Socrates, Aristotle left Athens and retired to Chalcis, the chief city on the island of Euboea (also the birthplace of his mother). Here Aristotle is rumored to have died either in his sixties or seventies drinking wolfsbane poison (though others suggest he died of a stomach ailment or perhaps natural causes).

Diogenes includes a full text copy of Aristotle’s will in the Lives, as well as an extensive but inaccurate list of Aristotle’s written corpus. Diogenes offers some brief remarks on his interpretation of Aristotle’s teaching regarding happiness and friendship while praising his astounding works on natural philosophy. Aristotle’s most important student was Theophrastus, the botanist who took over the helm of the Lyceum when Aristotle fled Athens (Diogenes also offers a biography of Theophrastus along with several of his successors).

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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