On Diogenes Laertius’s Biography of Heraclitus

Heraclitus “The Weeping Philosopher” was a native Ephesus (in Asia Minor). He was said to disdain Homer, Hesiod, and Pythagoras. Ever a misanthrope, he vocally rejected civic life (he refused to establish laws for Ephesus). He departed the city to live in the mountains where he lived on herbs until he contracted dropsy. He returned to the city for a cure from the doctors but when they failed he retired to a vacant cowshed, buried himself in dung, and died at the age of sixty. As with some of the other biographies in his Lives, Diogenes Laertius copies several verses he wrote for Heraclitus into the text. Apparently Diogenes Laertius was a poetic man as well as a documentarian or perhaps antiquarian.

Heraclitus is remembered as a melancholy man, having been a brilliant boy and a long-suffering adult. He often wrote in aphorisms and parables (only fragments survive today). Diogenes reiterates Heraclitus’s doctrine of fire as the prime metaphysical element -the element most closely akin to logos. Diogenes also makes note of Heraclitus qualified relativism regarding the ever-evolving cosmos. Apparently Darius of Persia was eager to meet Heraclitus (Diogenes Laertius copies an exchange of letters between the two men). Heraclitus’s only known work in antiquity was On Nature, and Darius noted that it was a difficult and cryptic text. In response Heraclitus rejected his invitation to visit the Persia.

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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