What Is The Value of Biography?

In Beyond Good and Evil Nietzsche famously claims that every great philosophy consists of a personal confession, or an unconscious autobiography of moral philosophy. In other words we care about a philosopher’s teaching as well as how he lived his life. However upon reading Diogenes Laertius, the memorable antiquarian and collector of Hellenistic rumors, Nietzsche famously dubbed him “dim-witted.” And in a sense it is hard to disagree. Diogenes Laertius’s Lives is the kind of lifeless documentarian-style text that Nietzsche rails against. The text is filled with scattered notes, quotes, letters, and competing rumors about the philosophers (the latter logoi is reminiscent of Herodotus’s Histories -a rhetorical style which Thucydides argues against). The sole value of Diogenes Laertius is in the rare glimpse he provides of certain surviving documents from the Stoics, Skeptics, and Epicureans. The panorama he offers of Hellenistic philosophers’s lives (rather than their doctrines) is unique albeit lacking.

However, upon recently reading Diogenes Laertius’s Lives, I asked myself: is there any value to reading biography? Why do we care about reading a biography? What makes a good biography?

The word biography comes down to us from the Greek for “Bio” (or “life”) and “Graphia” (“writing”). Some of the great Latin biographies of antiquity include Plutarch’s Parallel Lives as well as Suetonius’s The Twelve Caesars and Arrian’s Life of Alexander. Of course, Plato’s Socratic dialogues are collectively the sublime example of the biographic form as well as the autobiographic form, and similar efforts are also made in the canonical Biblical Gospels of Jesus. In the Christian tradition, for example, hagiography has been an important instrument in the life of the church -the lives of the saints and martyrs have been offered as examples of strength to Christians in times of despair.

In a modern context we care about the life of great writers almost as much as their respective doctrines. For example, how much damage has been done to Heidegger’s reputation as a result of his connection to Nazism? To what extent is our perspective on Kant affected by our knowledge of his clock-like daily walks? We tend to focus on the details of their lives, particularly any moral failings, rather than their writings. By considering a wide array of different people’s lives, one theory posits that the form of biography grants an opportunity to discover people who lived virtuously in attempt to mirror those virtuous lives. In Aristotle’s Rhetoric he observes that in addition to valuing the content of an author/speaker, we also value his life/character in order to wholly judge his speech. In other words we look for context as well as content -the form influences the content. However, an attempt to simply portray form without content is also found insufficient. In this way, Diogenes Laertius’s series of biographies are found lacking because they present nothing organic and are merely an assortment of copies quotes, letters, and notes. Biography devoid of substance offers little of value to us. In order to be successful a biography requires a poetic narrative and at least a vague glimpse at philosophy in order to judge both the Aristotelian causes that filled a person’s life as well as the good and bad things that occurred in it. Therefore biography, as biography, comes to light as a branch of moral philosophy in which a particular perspective on a person’s life is offered for moral consideration, paying particular attention to the ends, as Solon recommends in Herodotus’s Histories.

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