Diogenes Laërtius (c. 200 - 250 C.E.) was an early doxographer who compiled biographies of ancient Greek philosphers in his seminal work, Lives of Eminent Philosophers. The ten books contain quotations and anecdotes from the lives of nearly one hundred philosophers, including 45 important figures, from Thales (585 B.C.E.) to the Skeptics of the late second century C.E. He collected information from dozens of earlier works, many of which are no longer in existence. Though the accuracy of the stories is often called into question, Lives of Eminent Philosophers is an invaluable source of information about the early Greek philosophers, and a colorful portrayal of the circumstances in which they lived and taught. It also contains fragments of original works, such as letters written by Epicurus, which have been lost and otherwise would not be available to modern scholars.
Almost nothing is known about the life of Diogenes Laertius. The name “Laertius” indicates he may have come from the town of Laerte in Cilicia (ancient Turkey) or from the Roman family of the Laërtii. The period when he lived is not exactly known, but it is supposed to have been during the reigns of Septimius Severus (193-211 C.E.) and Caracalla (211 – 217 C.E.). Lives of Eminent Philosophers is dated to the first half of the third century C.E., because the last philosopher included is said to be a pupil of Sextus Empiricus (end of second century C.E.).
Diogenes’ own philosophical stance is unclear. He takes obvious delight in repeating humorous and dramatic stories about his subjects, and his work expresses admiration for their accomplishments. He occasionally inserts some verses, not particularly well-written, of his own composition. In addition to the Lives, Diogenes wrote a work in verse on famous men, Medley of Metres, which has been lost.
Diogenes Laertius wrote in Greek, compiling his material from hundreds of sources that he often names. Most of these sources are no longer in existence. The philosophers are divided, unscientifically, into two 'successions' or sections: 'Ionian' from Anaximander to Theophrastus and Chrysippus, including the Socratic schools; and 'Italian' from Pythagoras to Epicurus, including the Eleatics and Skeptics.
The accuracy of his accounts depends on the accuracy of his sources; the information on Epicurus and on the Pre-Socratics appears to be correct, while the information about Aristotle is unreliable. Diogenes’ main authorities are Cursory Notice of Philosophers by Diodes of Magnesia, and the Miscellaneous History and Memoirs of Favorinus. The tenth book is entirely about Epicurus and includes three letters addressed to Herodotus, Pythocles and Menoeceus, which clearly explain some points of Epicurus’ doctrine.
The original manuscript of Lives of Eminent Philosphers was lost but numerous copies remain. The oldest and one of the best is Codex Borbonicus, of the National Library at Naples, dated about 1200 C.E. and apparently copied by a scribe who knew no Greek. The book was first made available to Western scholars in Latin with the publication of an adaptation by Walter de Burleigh (1275-1337), De vita et moribus philosophorum. A translation by Ambrosius Traversarius Camaldu-lensis was completed in 1431. A complete version in Greek was published in 1533. There are a number of discrepancies in the various manuscripts, as well as conjectures and interpretations in later translations, which sometimes make Diogenes Laertius’ original meaning unclear.
Diogenes made no attempt at a systematic exposition of philosophical doctrine. Some of the accounts contain anecdotes and quotations that are apparent exaggerations illustrating the beliefs and personality of the philosopher, rather than accurate historical records. Nevertheless they provide a fascinating insight into the private lives of the early Greek philosophers, and convey an understanding of the historical context in which they developed their ideas. Many of the biographies name the teachers and famous student of each philosopher, as well as people with whom they had personal encounters. Lives of Eminent Philosophers is also invaluable because it contains fragments of original works, such as the letters of Epicurus, which allow us to read the original teachings of the philosophers in their own words.
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