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Lovers of Wisdom

De Agostini Picture Library/G. Dagli Orti/Bridgeman Images
Plato, Pythagoras, and Solon; fresco in St. George’s Church, Suceava, Romania, sixteenth century

Poor Diogenes Laertius. He gets no respect. A “perfect ass”—“asinus germanus”—one nineteenth-century scholar called him. “Dim-witted,” said Nietzsche. An “ignoramus,” declared the twentieth-century classicist Werner Jaeger. In his lyric moods he wrote “perhaps the worst verses ever published,” an anthologist pronounced. And he had “no talent for philosophical exposition,” declares The Oxford Companion to Philosophy.

Then why waste time on him? For this excellent reason: Diogenes Laertius compiled the sole extant work from antiquity that gives anything like a comprehensive picture of Greek and Hellenistic philosophy. He may have been a flaming mediocrity. He may have been credulous and intellectually shallow. He may have produced a scissors-and-paste job cribbed from other ancient sources. But those other sources are lost, which makes what Diogenes Laertius left behind, to quote the Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, “truly priceless.” Eighty percent of success is showing up, Woody Allen supposedly said. Well, Lives of the Eminent Philosophers showed up. And by dint of that, its author has become what Nietzsche called “the night watchman of the history of Greek philosophy: no one can enter into it unless he has given him the key.”

What made this fellow so lucky? It’s not hard to explain why certain works survive. We still have Plato’s dialogues because they were diligently preserved by the Academy. Aristotle too founded a school, and his treatises were widely copied and studied. (Still, the nineteen or so dialogues Aristotle composed—esteemed for their literary quality by Cicero as “a river of flowing gold”—were somehow mislaid by Western civilization.) But Diogenes Laertius didn’t have a school, as far as anyone knows. In fact, almost nothing is known about the man. Even his slightly absurd Greco-Roman name is a puzzle—was “Laertius” some kind of nickname? Judging from the historical references in Lives (which stop just short of the Neoplatonists), he probably lived early in the third century CE. There is a hint in his text that he might have been a native of the eastern city of Nicea. Beyond that he is a cipher. That his work should endure, when the vast majority of the philosophical writings he drew on perished, may simply have been a “quirk of fate”—so guesses James Miller, the editor of this welcome new translation.

If so, it was not an altogether unhappy quirk. Despite the ridicule to which he has been subjected, Diogenes Laertius has some undeniable virtues. It is true that he shows little interest in, and scant understanding of, actual philosophical reasoning. But he is keenly attuned to the philosopher as a social type, and an eccentric one at that. Philosophy to him was not a mere body of propositions; it was a way of life, one that pretended to be superior to conventional modes of human existence. He treats his subjects as public exemplars, for good or ill, of the precepts they advanced. The tension between logos and bios—between doctrine and life—keeps his heap of often dubious biographical reportage from sinking into tedium. So too do his flickers of irony: his philosophers are often “eminent” in the same sense that Lytton Strachey’s Victorians were. The life of reason, though noble on the whole, is seen to be hedged about by hypocrisy and absurdity. Even Nietzsche, who as a young philologist cast scorn on Diogenes Laertius for his mindlessly slipshod ways, came to prefer his work to “the soporific fumes” of more scholarly sources, because in it “there lives at least the spirit of the ancient philosophers.”

Lives of the Eminent Philosophers is organized into ten “books,” each of which is devoted to one or more philosophical schools and their founders. Plato gets his own book (the third); so does Epicurus (the tenth and final). Other figures afforded ample space include Zeno (the Stoic) of Citium, golden-thighed Pythagoras, Pyrrho the Skeptic, Aristotle, and Socrates. On the other hand, important figures like Parmenides and Anaximander get short shrift, and the entry for Cebes, a disciple of Socrates, reads in its entirety: “Cebes was a Theban. Three of his dialogues survive: The Tablet, The Seventh Day, Phrynichus.” (These dialogues are now lost.) An especially complete portrait is given of Diogenes of Sinope, the most prominent of the Cynics. And this is not the only Diogenes in play. There is also an entry for the less famous Diogenes of Apollonia, whom Diogenes Laertius, in an embarrassment of Diogeneses, manages to confuse with Diogenes of Smyrna. (It should be noted that Diogenes Laertius lived five or six centuries later than the multiple Diogeneses he writes about.)

In all, over eighty individual figures get entries—including one apparently rather clever “lady-philosopher,” Hipparchia the Cynic. (A couple of female students of Plato are also mentioned, one of whom is reported “to have worn men’s clothes.”) The author typically says something about the philosopher’s family origins and his teachers, then moves on to anecdotes about his life and apothegms expressing his opinions. We are furnished with details of his sex life, the more scandalous the better. Letters (some spurious) and wills are quoted, and the philosopher’s written works are listed. These stacks of titles, sometimes extending over several pages, are extremely valuable, since the works in question (like the aforementioned dialogues of Aristotle) have generally vanished. Finally, we are given an account, or several alternative accounts, of the philosopher’s death, often with an ironizing comment by the author in what he calls “my own playful verses.”

The principle of selection for these biographical materials is simple: cram in everything, without regard to plausibility or philosophical relevance. Physical details are abundant, if not always consistent. We are told of Zeno the Stoic, for example, that “he was lean, longish, and swarthy,” but also that he was “thick-legged, flabby, and weak”; also that “he delighted…in green figs and sunbathing.” Plato is “weak-voiced” but mocked for his “long-windedness.” Aristotle had thin calves and small eyes, wore fine clothes and lots of rings, and “spoke with a lisp.”

If the principle of selection for Lives is “anything goes,” its principle of organization is more definite—and not what we are used to today. Recent histories of Greek philosophy proceed both by chronology and filiation of ideas, falling into three broad chapters. First come the pre-Socratics, who were concerned with questions about the world’s origins and basic makeup—that is, with natural philosophy. Then comes the pivotal figure of Socrates, who turned philosophy in an ethical direction by asking the question “How to live?,” followed by Plato and Aristotle, who expanded its scope to take in not just ethics and natural philosophy, but also metaphysics, epistemology, and logic. Finally come the Hellenistic schools—Cynics, Stoics, Skeptics, and Epicureans—who narrowed the scope again by making philosophy primarily an ethical inquiry: an attempt to find the formula for the good life.

That is the scheme followed by, for example, Bertrand Russell in his History of Western Philosophy. Diogenes Laertius employs a very different one. He is what is called a doxographer. His concern is to catalog the opinions (doxai in Greek) of each famous philosopher, without much regard to how they might have arisen in reaction against the proposals of earlier speculative thinkers. Instead of viewing Greek philosophy as an evolving conceptual inquiry—with an inflection point at Socrates—he takes it to be a cluster of institutional schools. And he organizes these schools not chronologically, but by geography. There is an eastern or “Ionian” succession, originating in the city of Miletus (on the coast of present-day Turkey), and a western or “Italian” succession, originating in Greek colonies in Italy (notably Elea) and Sicily.

Diogenes Laertius treats these as two parallel traditions, with Athens as the convergent point. He devotes the first seven books to the “Ionians,” who range from Thales to Aristotle and beyond; and the last three books to the “Italians,” who range from Pythagoras to Epicurus. This jumbles not only chronology but also lines of influence. For example, Zeno of Elea, who flourished well before Plato and Aristotle, and whose ingenious paradoxes stimulated them both, counts as an “Italian,” so he is presented well after they are. Confusingly, he is also presented well after the other famous Zeno, Zeno of Citium, the much later founder of Stoicism.

Lives of the Eminent Philosophers proved highly influential when it was printed in Latin during the Renaissance. Montaigne stuffed his essays with anecdotes drawn from it, declaring that he was “equally curious to know the lives and fortunes of these great instructors of the world as to know the diversity of their doctrines.” Well into the modern era, historians were still following Diogenes’s doxagraphic model: dividing philosophers into institutional “schools” and collecting their sayings.

But around the turn of the nineteenth century that began to change. German historians, vigorously debating the nature of history, sought to trace a longer conceptual arc in the unfolding of philosophy, one transcending schools and geography. The most powerful advocate of this new approach was Hegel. In his Lectures on the History of Philosophy, Hegel judged the work of Diogenes Laertius harshly. “A philosophic spirit cannot be ascribed to it,” he declared; “it rambles about amongst bad anecdotes extraneous to the matter in hand.” What is important, Hegel argued, is not that a philosopher lived in such-and-such a way and said this or that; rather, it is how the philosopher fits into the evolution of human consciousness toward truth.

After Hegel, the reputation of Diogenes Laertius suffered a sharp decline among both classicists and historians of philosophy—as witness the abusive quotations I opened with. Yet one abuser, Nietzsche, later turned into a passionate (if ambivalent) defender. As a philologist, Nietzsche had contempt for the sloppy scholarship that went into Lives. But as a philosophical subversive, he had two motives for championing the work. The first was his hatred of Socrates’s moral optimism—a precursor, he thought, to slavish Christian morality—and his preference for what he saw as the darkly “tragic” worldview of the pre-Socratics. From the materials that Diogenes Laertius had preserved on figures like haughty Heraclitus and Etna-leaping Empedocles, Nietzsche hoped to recapture a sense of pre-Socratic tragic grandeur in Greek culture. His second motive for championing Lives was a more general one. Whereas Hegel insisted that the biography of a philosopher was irrelevant to his conceptual contribution, Nietzsche took the opposite view: bios is the ultimate test of logos. He wrote:

The only critique of a philosophy that is possible and that proves anything, namely trying to see whether one can live in accordance with it, has never been taught at universities; all that has ever been taught is a critique of words by means of other words.

Now, one is loath to put oneself in the position of adjudicating between Hegel and Nietzsche. In this case, however, I think it is safe to render a verdict, if a disappointingly bland one: they are both partly right. The philosophers chronicled by Diogenes Laertius fall into two broad categories: those who are primarily interested in the ethical question of how to live and those who aren’t. In treating the former, he does a pretty good job; in treating the latter, he is horrible.

Take Plato. He was interested in the question of how to live. In fact, his entire philosophy can be seen as emerging from an attempt to make sense of Socrates’s good life, and of the Socratic claim that virtue equals knowledge. But Plato’s dialogues—happily preserved—encompass metaphysical and epistemological doctrines that go far beyond ethics. And Diogenes Laertius’s account of those doctrines in his book on Plato can only be deemed inane. Page after page is given over to enumeration (“There are three kinds of friendship…. There are five kinds of medicine…. There are six kinds of rhetoric”), making Plato’s works seem an exercise in trivial taxonomy. Only in the penultimate paragraph is there the merest hint of his most important metaphysical innovation, the Theory of Forms. To say Diogenes Laertius had “no talent for philosophical exposition” is an understatement: he had an anti-talent.

Vatican Museums and Galleries/Tarker/Bridgeman Images
Heraclitus of Ephesus; detail from Raphael’s The School of Athens, circa 1509

And how does Plato’s life, as recounted in Lives, serve as a test of his philosophy? We are told that when Dionysius I of Syracuse angrily said to Plato, “You talk like an old fart,” Plato intrepidly replied, “And you like a tyrant”—the sort of standard anti-tyrant story that, according to the Plato expert Gilbert Ryle, deserves “no credence.” We are told that Plato, a childless bachelor, was a busy seducer of women and boys, and that he addressed verses to a young girl urging her to give up her virginity to him—details lifted from the now lost On the Luxuriousness of the Ancients, by a dodgy scandal-monger called the Pseudo-Aristippus. And we are told that Plato may have died from a lice infestation: a presumably unedifying end for this otherworldly philosopher.

Such a preposterous amalgam of myth and hearsay leaves us siding with Hegel’s dim assessment of Diogenes Laertius. But then consider him on the Hellenistic schools. He is our main source for the lives and doctrines of Diogenes the Cynic, Zeno the Stoic, Pyrrho the Skeptic, and Epicurus. All these figures focused primarily, if not exclusively, on a single ethical question: What is the formula for the good life? The Stoics equated happiness with virtue, the Skeptics equated it with the tranquility that arises from suspending judgment, and so on. Their views on the best mode of life were not so much argued for as dogmatically asserted. And their metaphysical predilections, when they had any, tended to be at the service of their ethics. Epicurus, for instance, favored atomism because its randomness meant we didn’t have to worry about the gods.

These Hellenistic philosophies of life, short on important reasoning but long on practical prescription, are eminently suited to the critique proposed by Nietzsche: How did the lives go of those who propounded them? And here is where Diogenes Laertius doesn’t let us down.

Consider his portrait of Diogenes the Cynic. (It is interesting that Hegel thought the Cynics were too unsystematic to be considered philosophers, whereas Nietzsche aspired to be a modern-day Cynic.) The Cynic philosophy is a tough one to live by, involving as it does a spurning of conventional values and a resolve to live ascetically, by the rudest standards of nature—like a dog. (“Cynic” comes from kyon, the Greek word for dog.) Diogenes fully embodied this ideal, hewing so strongly to his idiosyncratic notion of virtue that Plato reportedly called him a “Socrates gone mad.” He lived in a disused wine tub, subsisted on abandoned scraps, and subjected himself to every hardship. He was contemptuous of power: when Alexander the Great offered to grant him a wish, Diogenes tersely replied, “Stand out of my light.” He outraged standards of decency by openly pleasuring himself in the marketplace and declaring, “If only one could relieve hunger by rubbing one’s belly.” (His recourse to public masturbation rates a double mention in Lives.)

Yet his cleverness in debate, his witty asperities, and his cussed integrity evidently made him beloved by Athenians. He also has modern appeal—not as a Mr. Natural avant la lettre, but rather as an opponent of all things tribal and provincial. When asked where he came from, he declared (using the Greek term cosmopolites), “I’m a citizen of the world.” When asked what he found most beautiful, he said, “Freedom of speech.” As a model of his philosophy, which emphasized praxis over abstract theorizing, he made a strong impression on his biographer, who concludes, “Such were his views and he clearly acted in accordance with them.”

Therein lies the value, admittedly curate’s-eggish, of Lives. But why a new translation? The old Loeb Library version by R.D. Hicks, first published in 1925, served well enough for almost a century. But this one by Pamela Mensch, a distinguished translator of ancient Greek, is superior in three respects. First, it is based on a more accurate edition of the Greek text, made by Tiziano Dorandi in 2013. Second, Mensch avoids the bowdlerization that the Hicks translation was often guilty of. Here is one example, from the life of the Academic philosopher Arcesilaus, involving a sodomitic jest:

Hicks: Again, when some one of immodest life denied that one thing seemed to him greater than another, he [Arcesilaus] rejoined, “Then six inches and ten inches are all the same to you?”

Mensch: To a man who let himself be penetrated and who recalled to him the doctrine that one thing is not greater than another, Arcesilaus asked whether a ten-incher did not seem to him greater than a six-incher.

Until I read the new version, I thought I was the one with the dirty mind.

Third, the Mensch translation is furnished with a weighty apparatus of footnotes that are delightfully revealing of Greek history and folkways. For example, an otherwise puzzling reference by Diogenes Laertius to a radish is cleared up by a footnote informing us that one Athenian punishment for adultery “involved inserting a radish in the rectum of the guilty man.” Other virtues of this new edition of Lives include the hundreds of philosophy-inspired artworks with which the editor has chosen to adorn the text (a de Chirico, a Daumier, a Francesco Clemente…) and sixteen superb essays by such scholars as Anthony Grafton, Ingrid Rowland, and Glenn W. Most. (I am particularly indebted to André Laks’s essay, “Diogenes Laertius and the Pre-Socratics.”)

From time to time while making my way through Lives, I was moved to ponder what some future Diogenes Laertius might make of the present philosophical era. Which figures would strike him as models for living? Whose dramatic public gestures, whose devastating coruscations would he record? Who would strike him as a “philosopher” in the original Pythagorean sense: a lover of wisdom?

The Columbia philosopher Arthur Danto, in a somewhat acidulated “Letter to Posterity,” published shortly before his death in 2013, wrote, “Never, in my entire experience, have I encountered a philosopher I thought of as wise.” Most of his professional peers, he went on to say, were “shallow, vain, silly” compared with the best of humanity. Surely, though, we can think of a few philosophers from the last century who were as existentially impressive as those in Lives of the Eminent Philosophers. Ludwig Wittgenstein comes to mind; so does Simone Weil; perhaps Iris Murdoch, with her amatory adventurousness and devotion to a Platonic ideal of the Good; also Derek Parfit, who burned with a hard gem-like flame in pursuit of philosophical truth.

I think a future Diogenes Laertius might be especially attracted to a lesser-known figure of our era, the Columbia philosopher Sidney Morgenbesser, who upon his death in 2004 was justly memorialized in The New York Times Magazine as “one of the rare philosophers who lived a genuinely philosophical life.”* Morgenbesser was revered for his dialectical cleverness, his anticonventional ways, his willingness to suffer for philosophy, and especially his rapier-like flashes of humor. Like Diogenes the Cynic, he embodied the spoudogeloios (seriocomic) ideal even in extreme circumstances. During the 1968 student uprising at Columbia, Morgenbesser joined a human chain of protesters and got clubbed by the police. When later asked about the beating, he pronounced it “unjust but not unfair”: “It was unjust because they hit me over the head, but it was not unfair because they hit everyone else too.”

  1. *

    See James Ryerson, “Sidewalk Socrates,” The New York Times Magazine, December 26, 2004.