On Diogenes Laertius’s Biography of Epicurus

Book X, the final chapter of Diogenes Laertius’s Lives, is dedicated entirely to a biography of Epicurus. As a result, many writers throughout the centuries have speculated as to whether or not Diogenes Laertius was an Epicurean. As a narrator, his opinions appear several times to defend Epicurus. Although he is something of a mere documentarian, Diogenes Laertius’s chapter on Epicurus contains some of the only credible links to Epicurus’s original doctrine still in our possession.

Epicurus was an Athenian from the deme Gargettus and he descended from the family of Philaedae (a prominent aristocratic family lineage). He was born about 7 years after the death of Plato. Some have suggested Epicurus was originally from Samos and then may have moved to the Ionian coast with his father after Alexander the Great died and Athens fell (Diogenes refers to Alexander as “Alexander of Macedon”).

Epicurus initially took up philosophy at the age of fourteen when studying the idea of Chaos in Hesiod. He was joined in his efforts by his three brothers. However, Epicurus drew many enemies who slandered him including the Stoics (Diogenes mentions Epictetus). As a result there were many wild rumors circulating about his poor health and feeble mind.

Diogenes Laertius calls Epicurus’s detractors “out of their minds” (Book X.9). He praises Epicurus’s long-lasting school and entrancing doctrine. Among the ancients Epicurus admired Anaxagoras, and he lived a simple life with a stark diet. He founded his school at the age of thirty-two and the Epicurean school flourished. His school was “The Garden.” Epicurus died in either 270 or 271 BC as a result of an illness acquired from after a kidney stone. Diogenes includes a copy of Epicurus’s last will and testament as well as various writings, letters, and Diogenes’s own poetry dedicated to Epicurus. He also lists Epicurus’s 40 chief maxims.

Diogenes offers a summary of Epicurus’s work divided into three parts -canonical, physics, and ethics. The Epicureans held that there were two states of feeling: pleasure and pain. In a particularly remarkable letter cited by Diogenes from Epicurus to Herodotus, Epicurus explains his natural doctrine -the totality of things is unlimited as are the atoms which are through the void (this exposition rings true in Luctretius’s De Rerum Natura). Epicurus suggests people should strive for self-sufficiency and live a life of happiness.

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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