LIVES OF THE EMINENT PHILOSOPHERS: DIOGENES LAERTIUS

Translated by Pamela Mensch, edited by James Miller

OUP (2018) h/b 676pp £29.99 (ISBN 9780190862176)

This breeze-block of a book, on gloss paper and weighing in at 2kg (over 4lb in old money), would probably have cost up to ten times as much if published by OUP UK. But OUP America did the honours. Snap it up, therefore, before Trump gets to hear of it.

A luxury edition, then, at a bargain price, of Diogenes Laertius’ ten-book Lives of 82 philosophers, from Thales (7th C BC) to Sextus Empiricus (3rd C AD). All the big names are here—Thales, Pythagoras, Anaxagoras, Heraclitus, Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Epicurus and so on—all exemplifying the three branches of ancient philosophy as Diogenes Laertius (henceforth DL) explains it: ‘ … physics, ethics and dialectic. Physics is the part concerned with the world and its contents; ethics is concerned with life and the matters that affect us; dialectic is the part that cultivates the processes of reasoning employed by both’. Each branch developed different ‘schools’—Cynics, Sceptics, Stoics, etc. They all feature in DL’s pot-pourri.

Mensch’s accurate and very readable translation (she generously acknowledges R.D. Hicks’ 1925 Loeb version) is based on the text established from the 40 surviving Greek MSS (and a 15th C Latin version) by Tiziano Dorandi (Cambridge, 2013, £184). It is richly footnoted and delightfully illustrated in full colour throughout (nearly 200 figures). James Miller provides an excellent introduction to prepare the reader for what is to come. The translation is followed by sixteen essays by fine scholars on a wide range of related topics; a guide to further reading, a glossary of ancient sources (both extensive); and an admirably full index. So this is not only a luxurious but also a very scholarly bargain.

‘Scholarly’, however, is hardly a term one would apply to DL himself, author as he is (as James Miller makes clear) of a slightly deranged and contradictory combination of biography, everyday life, scandal, anecdote, puns, maxims, passing remarks, and lists of works (DL names 153 by Aristotle, but also quotes from works absent from this list!), alongside key philosophical doctrines. But one cannot deny DL’s commitment to the task: one scholar has calculated that his work contains ‘1186 explicit references to 365 books by c. 250 authors as well as more than 350 anonymous references.’ In the process, he provides a great deal of important information occurring nowhere else. Perhaps we must assume he died before he could put all this into some sort of shape (the conclusion in Most’s essay: interestingly, we have no idea when he lived except that it must have been after c. AD 250). Still, Nietzsche eventually came to appreciate DL, though he had earlier been infuriated by him: he found the lives of philosophers much more persuasive than their philosophy. It certainly casts these great thinkers in a very different light

Here, to get a sense of DL and the translation, is a typical example of DL’s love of passing comments, referring to Aristotle:

Lyco is reported to have said that Aristotle bathed in a tub of warm oil and sold the oil. Some say that he placed a bag of warm oil on his stomach, and that, when he went to sleep, a bronze ball was placed in his hand, with a vessel lying under it, so that when the ball fell into the vessel he might be awakened by the sound.’ 

The following delightful sayings are attributed to him. When asked what people gain by telling lies, he replied, ‘That when they tell the truth they are not believed.’ Reproached one day because he gave alms to a good-for-nothing, he said, ‘It was the man that I pitied, not his conduct.’ He was constantly saying to his friends and students, whenever and wherever he happened to be lecturing, that the eyes receive light from the surrounding air, while the soul receives it from mathematics. He declared often and vehemently that the Athenians had discovered wheat and laws; and that they made use of the wheat, but not the laws. 

He said of education that its roots are bitter, but its fruit sweet. When asked what ages quickly, he replied, ‘Gratitude.’ When asked to define hope, he said, ‘It is a waking dream.’ … He said that three things are necessary for education: natural ability, study, and practice. On hearing that someone had reviled him, he said, ‘As long as I’m not in his presence, let him flog me as well.’ Beauty, he used to say, was more effective than any letter of introduction. Others, however, attribute this maxim to Diogenes, and say that Aristotle called good looks a gift <of god> while Socrates called them a short-lived tyranny; Plato, a superiority of nature; Theophrastus, a mute deception; Theocritus, a scourge set in ivory; and Carneades, a monarchy without a bodyguard. 

When asked how the educated differ from the uneducated, he said, ‘as much as the living from the dead.’ He used to say that education was an adornment in prosperity, and a refuge in adversity. Those parents who educate children deserve to be honored more than those who only engender them: for parents make them live, but teachers make them live well … 

When asked what benefit he had ever derived from philosophy, he said, ‘That I do without being ordered what some are forced to do by their fear of the law.’ When asked how students could make progress, he said, ‘By pursuing the front-runners and not waiting for those who lag behind.’ To a talkative fellow, who poured out a torrent of words and then said, ‘Let’s hope I haven’t been boring you with my chatter!’ he replied, ‘No, by Zeus, I haven’t been listening.’ … He defined justice as a virtue of the soul that distributes according to merit. The best provision for old age, he said, was education. Favorinus, in the second book of his Reminiscences, says that Aristotle was always saying, ‘He who has friends has no true friend.’ This is also found in the seventh book of the Ethics. 

These then are the sayings attributed to him. He wrote an enormous number of books, a list of which, in light of the man’s excellence and range, I deemed it right to append … [a list follows].

As for the essays, to give a sense of their range, A. Grafton argues that in the 3rd C AD, with the Empire under threat, DL was among those Christians and pagans who set about gathering and ordering their intellectual traditions in various, often innovative, ways. I. Rowland shows how DL’s depictions of philosophers influenced Raphael’s famous painting The School of Athens. J. Romm suggests that all the anecdotes about the philosophers’ sexual escapades were designed to undermine in a comical fashion their intellectual pretensions. M. Schofield follows the changing fortunes of DL’s chosen philosophers at the courts of kings and tyrants, especially their efforts to overthrow them. R. Bracht Branham offers a wide-ranging study of the changing meanings of ‘cynicism’ down to the present day. Other essays discuss the nature of DL’s ‘Lives’ (G. Cambiano—more about ethics than physics or logic), the Greek and Latin MSS containing his work (T. Dorandi), his humorous epigrams on the philosophers (K. Gutzwiller), and DL’s take on the pre-Socratics (A. Laks), Platonic doctrine (J. Dillon), Zeno (A.A. Long), the Sceptics (J. Allen), Epicurus (J. Allen) and finally Nietzsche’s vain efforts to establish the relationship between DL and his sources (G.W. Most). All are of a high quality.

This is an all-round superb piece of work. To introduce DL to a wider public, the reviewer hopes that a less cumbersome World’s Classic, consisting of introduction, translation and notes, is in the pipeline.

Peter Jones

We welcome your comments; please send via our social media.
Back to Reading Room