Diogenes Laertius (c. 200 CE)
(c. 200 CE)
Diogenes Laertius is the author of Compendium of the Lives and Opinions of Philosophers, the only general book on philosophers and their philosophy that has been transmitted from classical antiquity. Diogenes is known from this work only—nothing is known about his life—and his date can only be fixed by the dates of the latest personalities mentioned in his text (second century CE), and because he seems to have written prior to the rise of Neoplatonism (c. 250 CE). His work was dedicated to a woman interested in Platonism (bk. 3 § 47).
Diogenes's work belongs to a type of ancient literature (often called Diadocha or Successions ) in which accounts of the lives of philosophers were arranged as series of biographies so that teacher and student followed one another within each major philosophical school.
Diogenes's text is divided into ten sections, or "books":
- Introduction and various "wise men," including Thales.
(2–7: The Ionian Tradition )
- 2: The Ionian physicists, Socrates, and the minor Socratic schools down to the early third century BCE.
- 3: Plato.
- 4: The Academy down to Clitomachus (late second century BCE).
- 5: Aristotle and the Peripatetics down to Lyco (late third century BCE).
- 6: Antisthenes and the Cynics down to the end of the third century BCE.
- 7: Zeno and the Stoics down to at least Chrysippus (late third century BCE), and in the missing end of the book perhaps even down to the first century CE.
(8–10: The Italic Tradition )
- 8: Pythagoras and his early successors; Empedocles.
- 9: Heraclitus; the Eleatics; the Atomists, Protagoras and Diogenes of Apollonia; Pyrrho.
- 10: Epicurus.
Diogenes's book is basically a compilation of excerpts from numerous sources; in the biographical sections he often tells which sources he is using, whereas the philosophical sections contain few such references.
The book is also uneven. Some lives contain nothing but anecdotes and aphorisms, whereas others are mainly doxographical reports; some have long, detailed sections on philosophy, whereas others have short, superficial sections. Diogenes is unlikely to have read many philosophical works. However, in book 10 he has preserved four long, original writings by Epicurus, which constitute the most important evidence for Epicurus's philosophy from before the period of Cicero. However, his many references to his predecessors give an impression of the Hellenistic tradition of philosophical biography. Because Diogenes seems to have had a predilection for old documents, he has preserved the testaments of four peripatetics and a number of book catalogs.
Most of Diogenes's biographies include a number of items such as birth, parents, name, appearance, relationship to other philosophers, travels, lifestyle, and circumstances of death, yet they are presented in no particular order. The dominating element in the biographies is the use of anecdotes. In antiquity it was impossible to find documentary evidence concerning a deceased person, unless that person was a famous public figure or had left written works. Often literary works were exploited without regard to the fact that the content of a fictional work is unlikely to apply to the life of its author. Therefore, Diogenes's factual information must be viewed with some skepticism: Notice that most of his dates are taken from a Hellenistic poem.
Diogenes's biographies may have been written with less artistic skill than, for example, Plutarch's; however, they are not unlike other ancient accounts of the lives of philosophers.
Diogenes devotes much space to present the doctrines of the major philosophical schools: Book 3, § 48–109, is a general introduction to the study of the Corpus Platonicum ; as an account of Plato's philosophy it may be inadequate, but it resembles other Platonic writings of the second century CE. The section on Aristotelian philosophy (bk. 5, § 28–34) is far less satisfying, but all three parts seem to go back to the Hellenistic period. Book 7, § 38–160, is the most comprehensive account of Stoic philosophy from antiquity, the section on logic is especially important. The survey of the Skeptic tropes (bk. 9, § 79–105) is shorter than in Sextus Empiricus but otherwise comparable. The three Epicurean letters and his forty "Principal Doctrines" in book 10 are crucial to what is known about Epicurus; when Diogenes places these aphorisms at the end of his book, he indicates that he considers them a culmination of philosophical wisdom.
For the pre-Socratic philosophers, Diogenes has used a "doxographical" source similar to other accounts in late antiquity; ultimately, it derives from Aristotle and Theophrastus. In the case of Pythagoras, Diogenes presents two excerpts from Aristotle and from Alexander Polyhistor (first century BCE), thus presenting a much earlier expression of Pythagoreanism than is found in other sources from late antiquity.
Diogenes was no philosopher, but he has preserved much of philosophical significance. He seems to have had no influence in antiquity, but since Walter Burley's On the Life and Manners of the Philosophers (early fourteenth century), the Latin translation by Ambrosius Traversarius (1432), and the editio princeps of the Greek text in 1533, Diogenes has been the most important single source for the lives and often for the doctrines of ancient philosophers. Until around 1800, Diogenes was the main model for historiography of philosophy.
See also History and Historiography of Philosophy.
Diogène Laërce Vies et doctrines des philosophes illustres, edited by Marie-Odile Goulet-Cazé. Paris: La Pochothèque, 1999. French translation.
Lives of Eminent Philosophers. Translated by R. D. Hicks. London: W. Heinemann; New York: Putnam, 1925. English translation.
Vitae Philosophorum. Vols. 1 and 2 edited by M. Marcovich; vol. 3, Indices, edited by H. Gärtner. Leipzig/Munich, Germany: Bibliotheca Teuneriana, 1999–2002. Greek translation. A new Budé edition by T. Dorandi, in preparation, will become the standard edition of the future.
Giannantoni, G., ed. Diogene Laerzio. Storico del pensiero antico. Naples: Bibliopolis, 1986.
Haase, W., and Temporini, H., eds. Aufstieg und Niedergang der Römischen Welt. Berlin and New York: W. de Gruyter, 1992. (Part) II volume 36 (parts) 5–6 contains various studies in several languages.
Mejer, Jørgen. Die Ueberlieferung der Philosophie im Altertum. Copenhagen: Det Kongelige Danske videnskabernes selskab, 2000. Contains an extensive bibliography.
Mejer, Jørgen. Diogenes Laertius and His Hellenistic Background. Wiesbaden, Germany: Steiner, 1978.
Jørgen Mejer (2005)
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