It’s ironic that Diogenes Laertius, biographer extraordinaire, had no biographer of his own. We know next to nothing about the life of the man who wrote Lives of the Eminent Philosophers. It is generally thought that he lived and wrote in the early 3rd century AD. He may have been from Nicaea, in what is now Turkey. Beyond that, the man is a cipher. Does that matter?
He himself would probably have thought it did. That’s almost the whole point of the Lives: it’s a collection of biographical sketches and philosophical doctrines, a survey not just of philosophical schools but of the kinds of people who founded and attended them. “Diogenes seems… to assume that a vignette or a telling anecdote may reveal more about the essential character of a philosopher than the canonic writings that generations have intensively studied,” writes James Miller. The Lives presents its subjects as complete individuals, whose philosophical outlook was bound up with their personalities and whose truest teaching was revealed by their lives. The Stoics and the Epicureans and the Cynics talked a big game. Did they practice what they preached? How did that work out for them?
Diogenes’ approach to philosophy has been alternately the object of passionate scorn and of devoted affection, according mostly to the fashions of the times and places in which the Lives have been read. If you want rigorous historical accuracy and meticulously cited sources, look elsewhere. And it’s not even clear that his anecdotes always reveal much about the philosophy at issue. How does it help us to know that Zeno of Citium, founder of the Stoic school of philosophy, liked figs?
Perhaps that is what led the uncompromising German philosopher G.W.F. Hegel to dismiss the Lives in the 19th century as containing “bad anecdotes extraneous to the matter in hand”. Others have been harsher still: one critic called Diogenes’ original poetry, which is sprinkled throughout the Lives, “perhaps the worst verses ever published.”
Fair enough: Diogenes’ poems suck. But by including them, he gives us a rare hint about his character – and we’ll take as many of those as we can get. In these moments of spontaneous versification, Diogenes has the air of an excitable enthusiast – more passionate perhaps than self-aware, but likable all the same for his eagerness to share his latest turn of phrase. The outsized disdain this has engendered in some commentators has just a whiff of the professional academic’s contempt for amateurism.
How to Read a Life
Still, “it’s no sin to write bad poems – but it speaks poorly of one’s judgment not to realize how substandard they are.” So wrote the French essayist Michel de Montaigne – not of Diogenes, but of the Roman orator Cicero: “I don’t know how to forgive him for considering his poetry worthy to see the light of day.” He might have said the same of Diogenes, but didn’t: in fact, in the same essay, Montaigne wrote, “I’m devastated we don’t have a dozen Laertii, that he didn’t write more, that he isn’t read more. I’m no less curious to know how these great teachers of the world lived, and how they fared, than all the different things they taught and dreamed up.”
Montaigne is in some ways Diogenes’ target audience: hungry for gossip, a little credulous, and thoroughly committed to the premise that a philosopher’s personal life reveals things about the worth of his ideas. Montaigne’s essays are full of morsels from the Lives, many of which he misremembers or simply rewrites to fit his purposes. But in one of his more somber moods, when arguing “That to Study Philosophy is to Learn to Die,” Montaigne offers what seems to me an exemplary reading of an exchange from Book 1 of the Lives.
The conversation involves an anonymous questioner and Thales of Miletus (active in the early sixth-century and regarded by Aristotle as the first Greek philosopher). Diogenes also considers Thales to be a sort of inflection point between the earliest “sages” and the self-proclaimed “philosophers” who followed after them. Thales, Diogenes reports, “said that there was no difference between life and death. ‘Why, then,’ someone asked, ‘do you not die?’ ‘Because,’ he replied, ‘it makes no difference.’”
Here the character of the sage and the nature of his teaching are conveyed in a single exchange; you might almost say the two things are one and the same. Thales emerges as a charismatic figure whose strange attitudes and suggestive aphorisms exemplify the way of life he advocates. In equal parts wryly ironic and piercingly sincere, he both expresses and embodies the kind of cool composure in the face of intense questions that Montaigne wants to emulate himself.
From this standpoint we can start to see why it might matter even that Zeno liked figs: there is more to every statement than just what it means on the page. The way things were said, the attitude and tone of the speaker, what sort of fellow he was in general, how he got on at parties – all these round out our understanding of how and why he taught what he taught. Diogenes, at his best, allows us to see this. Even fanciful or outlandish anecdotes, if they depict something true about how a thinker was remembered or perceived, give some insight into what his thought meant to those around him.
Brains in Jars
But whether we like Diogenes or not, it can be hard to resist treating him as a sort of ancient Wikipedia, a grab-bag of miscellaneous ideas from more important people. The Lives classify philosophical schools as either Italian – with origins in a few Greek colonies in Italy, particularly Elea – or Ionian – with origins in the city of Miletus in Asia Minor. This handy taxonomy is still in use today. Cross-referenced with Aristotle’s division of philosophy under the three major subject headings of physics, ethics, and logic, Diogenes’ geographic categories make the Lives an easy text for dipping into at will and fishing out whatever citation you need to prove whatever point you’re making.
There’s nothing so terribly wrong with that, if done carefully. But it has almost exactly the opposite effect of what Diogenes seems to have intended: it invites us to think about philosophy not as a holistic framework of beliefs and practices, but as a series of disembodied propositions and one-liners, perhaps associated with a school of thought but not integrated into the whole fabric of a human life as in the Lives.
This other, more impersonal way of reading philosophy is also ancient. Most famously, it was Aristotle’s customary practice to place as many noteworthy opinions as possible on a given topic side-by-side in order to survey them and find starting-points for further inquiry. This method of dialectic – quite unlike the technique of dramatic dialogue and character study employed by Aristotle’s teacher, Plato – has an inherent tendency to dissociate ideas from their contexts. To say that it has proven highly influential is understating things quite a bit.
The coldly rationalist attitude that allowed some critics to wave away Diogenes’ biographies as irrelevant to true philosophy is itself an Aristotelian inheritance. In its most extreme form, this ‘brain-in-a-jar’ approach is far more concerned with what was said than with who said it: it is about the categorization of ideas by field and sub-field, irrespective of time, place, or speaker.
This fixation on dry abstractions at the expense of practical implications infuriated another German philosopher, Friedrich Nietzsche. Nietzsche partially retracted accusations against Diogenes which he had made in earlier scholarly work. Writing in 1874, he said:
I, at any rate, would rather read Diogenes Laertius than [contemporary German philosopher Eduard] Zeller. 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.
Diogenes, for all his flaws, presents us with philosophy as more than mere word games.
How to Think, How to Live
Nietzsche makes a fair point: we shouldn’t let philosophers get away with high-flying theories that make no sense in practice. Still, these things are complicated. We all know someone who gives great advice but doesn’t live by it; an adulterer who preaches fidelity is a hypocrite, but he may not be wrong. And in our popular culture it seems to me we are far too ready to condemn works of merit or even genius – the novels of Mark Twain, the political philosophy of Winston Churchill, the U.S. Constitution – because their authors did not perfectly exemplify the virtues they articulated. Held to that standard, we will all fall short, and no masterpiece will long avoid the flames.
But perhaps there is a middle ground between the two extremes. Maybe we don’t need to demand unimpeachable virtue from intellectuals and public figures, in order to evaluate ideas at least in part by how they play out in reality. In Book 7 of the Lives, when surveying noteworthy Stoics, Diogenes Laertius introduces us to Dionysius of Heraclea, a.k.a. “Dionysius the Turncoat”, who abandoned Stoicism “as a result of an eye disease… for his suffering was so severe that he was reluctant to say that pain was a matter of indifference.” Huge if true, as they say. This remarkable story presents an important challenge which any cogent defense of Stoic ethics must answer.
Was Dionysius the Turncoat just insufficiently committed? Or is the Stoic attitude toward pain mere armchair philosophizing, unable to withstand a confrontation with real chronic suffering? The Dionysius episode is an important data point in that discussion. This makes it well worth including in the complete picture of Stoicism as an outlook and a way of life.
The question how’s that working out for you? is underrated as a philosophical heuristic. I’m less worried about the people who don’t live up to their ideals than I am about the people who do live by their ideals, and make themselves miserable in the process. Those always seem to be the people most eager to convince me that I’m doing things wrong. Real life is an acid test: it clears away jargon and exposes absurd ideas for what they are.
If Diogenes Laertius was not the most original or the most insightful of philosophical thinkers, he seems to have understood this well: perhaps the beauty of a thought is in how it’s expressed. But the test of philosophical truth is what happens when you live by it.
Spencer Klavan is host of the Young Heretics podcast, features editor of The American Mind, and associate editor of the Claremont Review of Books. His book on Ancient Greek Music, which developed out of his Oxford DPhil, was published by Bloomsbury in 2021.
Greek: T. Dorandi (ed.) Diogenes Laertius, Lives of the Eminent Philosophers (Cambridge UP, 2013).
English: P. Mensch (trans.) and J. Miller (ed.) Lives of the Eminent Philosophers (Oxford UP, 2020).
G.W.F. Hegel, Lectures on the History of Philosophy (1822–30), esp. Volume 1, Section 1, Chapter 1. Available online here (trans. E.S. Haldane).
M. Montaigne, Les Essais (1580), esp. Book 2, Essay 10. Available online here.
W.R. Paton (trans.), The Greek Anthology, Volume II. (Loeb Classical Library, William Heinemann, London/G.P. Putnam’s Sons, New York, 1917), esp. pp. 50–53.
F. Nietzsche, “Schopenhauer as Educator,” in Untimely Meditations (1873–6). Available online here (trans. Adrian Collins).
J. Barnes, “Nietzsche and Diogenes Laertius,” Nietzsche-Studien 15.1 (2010) 16–40.
J. Holt, “Lovers of Wisdom,” The New York Review, July 2019.
J. Mansfeld, “Diogenes Laertius on Stoic Philosophy,” Elenchos 7 (1986) 295–382.
J. Mansfeld, “Doxography of Ancient Philosophy,” in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (2004, rev. 2010).
|⇧1||The details of Miller’s translation are given under Further Reading.|
|⇧2||The words of W.R. Paton, editor of the Loeb Greek Anthology: see Further Reading.|
|⇧3||Essays 2.10 (On Books): see the reference in Further Reading, or explore the original context here.|
|⇧4||Original context here.|
|⇧5||Lives 7.166: the account can be read in Greek and English here. The name given to Dionyius, ὁ Μεταθέμενος, literally means “The man who has changed”.|