On Diogenes Laertius’s Biography of Pythagoras

Book 8 of Diogenes Laertius’s Lives represents a new beginning. He has now completed his survey of Ionian Greek philosophy which began with Thales and spread to central Hellas in Athens. Next, he asks us to turn our attention further west to Italy where philosophy begins with Pythagoras.

Apparently there was considerable discrepancy among the ancients regarding who Pythagoras was and where he came from. Perhaps he was the son of a Samian engraver, or maybe he was from a different island. He was a student under the tutelage of Pherecydes of Syros and then Hermodamas before going to Egypt where he learned the lore of their gods. He then returned to Italy where he began writing law and philosophy (none of the books Diogenes Laertius cites survive today). He began teaching future legislators and other influential Hellenes.

Pythagoras married a woman named Theano and had a daughter named Damo and a son named Telauges. He entrusted his estate to Damo, and the only family members with the surviving writings in Diogenes’s time (aside from Pythagoras) was Theano. Telauges was reported to be the future teacher of Empedocles.

Pythagoras founded an egalitarian religious commune. Diogenes lists all manner of odd maxims and idioms to Pythagoras, as well as his prohibitions against eating certain fish, animal hearts, beans, and restrictions haircuts. He wore a white and spotless robe and he was never known to have sexual relations or become drunk. He was known to have not laughed much (he was an austere man). Diogenes offers a variety of interpretations of Pythagoras’s teaching about diet, the soul, mathematics and so on. Some of it appears to read rather dismissively (in a way Diogenes Laertius reminds me of reading Bertrand Russell’s History of Western Philosophy).

Diogenes reiterates an account of Pythagoras’s death: his dwelling was set on fire in the wake of a tyranny and he fled to a nearby beanfield but refused to cross it according to his religious dogma (he regarded beans as sacred). He was soon captured and his throat was slit. Others say he fasted and died at the Temple of the Muses. He died at the age of either eighty or ninety. Diogenes details a letter purported to be from Pythagoras to Anaximenes.

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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