Lives of the Eminent Philosophers
by Diogenes Laertius
translated by Pamela Mensch
edited by James Miller
Oxford University Press, 2018
Surely one of the most opulent, generous, and flatly surprising offerings from any major publisher in 2018 is this translation by Pamela Mensch of Lives of the Eminent Philosophers by Diogenes Laertius, new from Oxford University Press. The book, probably dating from the early third century AD, is a long, discordant jumble of bits and pieces about various ancient philosophers like Bias, Aristotle, Xenocrates, Zeno, Heraclitus, and of course Plato – basically Plutarch's Lives, only written without art and exclusively about boring people.
The volume comes with a quick, strainingly optimistic Introduction by James Miller in which, among other things, he claims, “The work of Diogenes willy-nilly poses anew the invaluable question: What is philosophy?” – which is just the kind of thing scholars have found themselves claiming about Diogenes Laertius for many centuries (when they weren't calling him a tedious moron, that is, which wasn't all that often). Those scholars have mined the Lives for interesting and potentially enlightening facts about the great founding figures among the Stoics, the school of Epicurus, and others, and since this author packs enormous amounts of detail into his sketches, such material-mining always pays off.
A sustained reading of Diogenes Laertius – and if this magnificent, lavishly-illustrated edition doesn't prompt such a reading, nothing will – certainly conveys the impression that he was all the worst of the things that have been said about him over the centuries: a clod, a gossip, and perhaps the person least likely in the whole world to ask the question “What is philosophy?”
But his book nevertheless survives, and as Mensch's shining new translation reinforces, there are very good reasons for this. He's never boring. He's interested in everything. And – it's always a bit of a surprise – he's also got a sly, sharp humor about him. Some of his quick asides about some of these characters appear flighty but are in fact merrily merciless, plying one paper-thin cut on top of another until the subject is bled dry:
It is said that Plato, after watching someone play at dice, admonished him. And when the man said that he played for an insignificant stake, Plato replied, “But the habit is not insignificant.” When asked if there would be memoirs of him as there were of his predecessors, he replied, “One must first make one's name, and the memoirs will follow.” When day, when Xenocrates had come by, Plato told him to flog his slave, since he himself was too enraged to do so. Being seated on horseback, he quickly dismounted, saying he had to take care not to be corrupted by horse-pride. He advised those who were drunk to look at themselves in the mirror; for they would then abstain from such unseemly conduct.
Philosophy is by far the most airlessly solipsistic and arid of all the magnificent legacies of the ancient Greeks, and for all his flaws and drawbacks, Diogenes Laertius has been one of the lone kazoos sounding in the background of all those solemn hymnals to the nature of the nature of the nature of the self. And now Lives of the Eminent Philosophers has the loveliest and most formidable English-language rendition it's ever received or is likely to receive. No comparable edition of Plato seems to be forthcoming this year.
Steve Donoghue was a founding editor of Open Letters Monthly. His book criticism has appeared in the Boston Globe, the Wall Street Journal, and the American Conservative. He writes regularly for the National, the Washington Post, the Vineyard Gazette, and the Christian Science Monitor. His website is http://www.stevedonoghue.com.