A Priceless Ignoramus.

Jim Holt’s NYRB review (July 19, 2018) of Lives of the Eminent Philosophers by Diogenes Laertius, translated by Pamela Mensch, starts off in Holt’s usual lively fashion:

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 Judging from the historical references in Lives (which stop just short of the Neoplatonists), he probably lived early in the third century CE.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.

I don’t remember noticing the Greco-Roman nature of his name before. [That’s because it’s not Greco-Roman; Λαέρτιος is perfectly good Greek. See comments below.] And here’s a great passage from later in the review:

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.)

Shades of Malkovich Malkovich Malkovich


  1. Answer to the question why his work survived is pretty obvious.

    Medieval readers simply didn’t have access to the entire body of Greek philosophy, so they needed a useful digest on the subject, comprehensive, but short.

    Diogenes delivered exactly that.

  2. Probably another good place for JC to mention his masterpiece vs. classic distinction.

  3. Is his name Greco-Roman? Looks Greek to me (unless you count the Romanized -us of course).

  4. Trond Engen says

    Diogenesis n. is the process that describes chronological and biographical changes in dead philosophers caused by increasing compression as they get buried in tradition. In the early stages, this transformation of philosophers into history of philosophy (historification) is accompanied simply by a reduction in numbers, while its component ideas remains unaltered.

  5. Greek -os endings are Romanised to -us in English (at least). Greek -es endings aren’t. Hence Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides, Diogenes Laertius.

  6. Good point; Λαέρτιος is perfectly good Greek. I shouldn’t have listened to Holt.

  7. Roberto Batisti says

    Yes, it’s perfectly good Greek: Diogénēs Laértios.

    It has been thought that it was a pseudonym, punning on the first half of the Homeric formulaic address diogenès Laertiádē, polumḗkhan’ Odysseû “o Zeus-born son of Laertes, much-resourceful Odysseus”.

    (Note, by the way, the difference in accent between the adjective diogenḗs and the proper name Diogénēs.)

    However, he could also have been a native of one of several towns named Laerte. In that case, Laértios would be an ethnic, not a patronymic.

Speak Your Mind