BMCR 2022.01.04

Diogenes Laertius. Lives of eminent philosophers: an edited translation

, Diogenes Laertius. Lives of eminent philosophers: an edited translation. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2021. Pp. 524. ISBN 9780521883351


This translation of Diogenes Laertius by Stephen White has long been eagerly anticipated; some years ago, for a class I was teaching, he shared four chapters with me – in exchange for a few dozen minor notes. When it came out with Cambridge this summer, of course, Pamela Mensch’s Oxford translation of Diogenes Laertius (2018; BMCR review; CJ review) had already received an updated paperback “Compact Edition” (2020). Both are excellent, though like the Ionic and Italic philosophical lineages each has its distinguishing marks. As the deadline for really-belated holiday shopping fast approaches, I write this review with the detail-oriented comparison shopper in mind.

Underlying Greek text.
Both rely on Tiziano Dorandi’s 2013 Cambridge edition, Diogenes Laertius: Lives of Eminent Philosophers.
• White: 128 departures (recorded on pp. 463–68), hence the “edited translation” of the book’s title.
• Mensch: no intentional departures (several disagreements resolved for the paperback), but following Dorandi’s quotation-marks more frequently.

• White: sort of reproduces Dorandi’s marginal lineation, except that he counts continuously from the beginning of the Book, not of each biography as Dorandi does; reproduces Dorandi’s inline bold section numeration.
• Mensch: small-font marginal section numeration.

• White: new biographies always begin on a new page, as do subheaded sections, for example “Plato: Life” (3.1–47), “Plato’s Writings” (3.47–66), and “Plato’s Doctrines” (3.67–167). This is especially helpful in Book 7 on Stoic doctrine and Book 10 on Epicurus and Epicurean thought. If a new biography or section begins on the left-hand page, however, one cannot tell what Book one is in (see, e.g., pp. 374–79).
• Mensch: only bold names at the head of each biography.

• White: index numbers included inline for all named sources when found in a collection (not, for example, Diocles of Magnesia).
• Mensch: none.

• White: 1364.
• Mensch: 1715.
Both give ample and useful assistance to the reader. White often puts multiple pieces of information in a single note, which explains their smaller quantity. His notes also give more cross-references, and are more frequently technical, for example in furnishing alternative readings or glosses.

• White: None, but this is no demerit.
• Mensch: a lot, and a map.

Tables of Contents.
• White: in effect three – (i) the publisher’s “Contents,” with the page-numbers and a one- or two-word description of the contents of each book (p. v); (ii) a most useful synoptic “Outline of the Lives,” giving section spans for each biography or doctrinal discussion and its subordinate parts (pp. 25–30); and (iii) the “Index locupletior” with long title from the Paris manuscript of Diogenes’ text (pp. 33–34).
• Mensch: in effect two – (i) an informative “Contents” page, listing the names of philosophers whose biographies are contained in each book (p. v–vi); and (ii) at the start of each book, a second list of the biographies it contains along with approximate dates for each.

Book lists.
• White: titles run together onto the same line.
• Mensch: one title per line. This takes more pages, but makes it easier to take in the range of topics.

Attitude toward the “Other Companions of Socrates” (2.121–5).
• White: impugns the legitimacy of the book-lists: “standardly considered a fabrication” (Crito); “may again be apocryphal” (Simon); “probably all apocryphal” (Glaucon); “no other trace of these works survives” (Simmias).
• Mensch: neutral.
The only grounds for judging these works apocryphal is that they are never quoted in extant literature. And yet if they are just short scenes – as I imagine them, sketching some exchange in the fashion of Ion of Chios’ Epidemiai (e.g., Ath. 13, 603e–604d), since several dozen fit a single book – I am not surprised that they are not quoted, since the same holds for lots of fifth-century prose. And assuming they are apocryphal impedes reflection on whether they really are – and thus about the literary culture around Socrates, a central figure in the system of the Lives.

• White: Textual appendix; Glossary of philosophical terms (in both directions); Index of philosophers biographized; Index of ancient authorities cited (with fragment numbers); Index of persons named with their designating epithet and town.
• Mensch: In the Compact Edition: a through-written Guide to Further Reading, by Jay Elliot (pp. 395–409); a Glossary of Ancient Sources, with several sentences about each, by Joseph Lemelin (pp. 410–30); and an (updated) comprehensive Index of names, titles, and subjects, also by Lemelin (pp. 433–52). The original hardcover, notably, included sixteen scholarly essays: on the manuscript tradition, on reception, on aspects of Diogenes’ writing, on the various schools, and on the picture of the history of philosophy Diogenes provides us.

Both are lucid, idiomatic, and happily free of translationese. White notably uses “stance” for hairesis. They often differ in renderings, edifyingly so where the right choice is not obvious; this is often the case in book titles and in the characterizations of people. Sometimes, however, White appears to be more accurate. For examples of these differences of rendering and accuracy, we may turn to a series of instances from the middle of Book 9, the biographies of Democritus (34–49), Protagoras (50–56), and Diogenes (of Apollonia or Smyrna) (57).

[D]orandi: διασύρειν τε αὐτοῦ τὰ περὶ τῆς διακοσμήσεως καὶ τοῦ νοῦ, ἐχθρῶς ἔχοντα πρὸς αὐτὸν ὅτι δὴ μὴ προσήκατο αὐτόν.
[W]hite: and he disparages his views about the world order and mind, since he remained hostile to Anaxagoras for rebuffing him
[M]ensch: And he pulled to pieces Anaxagoras’s views about the world’s orderly arrangement and about Mind, his hostility toward him stemming from the fact that Anaxagoras had rebuffed him.

D: ‘εἴπερ οἱ Ἀντερασταὶ Πλάτωνός εἰσι,᾽ φησὶ Θράσυλλος, ‘οὗτος ἂν εἴη ὁ παραγενόμενος ἀνώνυμος, τῶν περὶ Οἰνοπίδην καὶ Ἀναξαγόραν ἕτερος, …
W: If in fact Rival Lovers is by Plato, says Thrasyllus [F18c], Democritus must be the unnamed visitor, not one of the followers of Oenopides and Anaxagoras…
M: “If the Rivals in Love is the work of Plato,” says Thrasyllus, “then Democritus would be the unnamed character, different from Oenopides and from Anaxagoras…”

D: ἀρχὰς εἶναι τῶν ὅλων ἀτόμους καὶ κενόν, τὰ δ’ ἄλλα πάντα νενομίσθαι {δοξάζεσθαι}.
W: The principles of whole things are atoms and void; everything else is {believed to be} established by convention.
M: The first principles of the universe are atoms and void; everything else is merely thought to exist.

D: ὁρᾶν δ’ ἡμᾶς κατ’ εἰδώλων ἐμπτώσεις.
W: And we see as a result of collisions with tiny shapes.
M: We see by virtue of the impact of images on our eyes.

D: Οὗτος πρῶτος μισθὸν εἰσεπράξατο μνᾶς ἑκατόν· καὶ πρῶτος μέρη χρόνου διώρισε καὶ καιροῦ δύναμιν ἐξέθετο καὶ λόγων ἀγῶνας ἐποιήσατο καὶ σοφίσμα<τα> τοῖς πραγματολογοῦσι προσήγαγε·
W: He was the first to charge a fee of 100 minas, and the first to distinguish parts of time, to expound the power of timing, to compose competing speeches, and to deploy sophisms against troublesome speakers.
M.: He was the first to charge a fee of a hundred minas and the first to distinguish the parts of time, to stress the importance of the opportune moment, and to furnish disputants with rhetorical gambits.

D.: καὶ τὸν Ἀντισθένους λόγον τὸν πειρώμενον ἀποδεικνύειν ὡς οὐκ ἔστιν ἀντιλέγειν οὗτος πρῶτος διείλεκται
W: and the first to use the argument of Antisthenes that tries to prove that there is no contradicting.
M: he was the first to address the argument advanced by Antisthenes to prove that contradiction is impossible.

D: Διογένης … ἀνὴρ φυσικὸς καὶ ἄγαν ἐλλόγιμος.
W: Diogenes… a natural philosopher and a man exceedingly famous
M: Diogenes… was a natural philosopher and was held in very high regard

• Mensch: $45 cloth/$20 paper/$19 Kindle; this makes it accessible to the individual buyer, including students and the casual bookstore browser.
• White: $145 cloth/$116 Kindle; this does not.

• Mensch: The Compact Edition has two introductions: a welcoming orientation to Diogenes by James Miller (pp. vii–xiii) and a crisp and engaging review of Diogenes’ history of philosophy by A. A. Long (pp. xv–xiv). The hardback had only the first, since it had its many concluding essays.
• White: This substantive, fresh, and captivating introduction, not quite twenty pages long, is a wonderful contribution to Diogenes scholarship. It begins at the work’s end (10.154), with Epicurus’ “beatific vision of peace and personal tranquility,” and advances a hypothesis about the longevity of Diogenes’ “patchwork quilt”: “it outlasted its forerunners, on so many of which it drew, by virtue of some distinctive strengths, whether in design or execution, scope or orientation, or the very selectivity of its threads and scraps.” White then establishes, at length, that the author’s name is Diogenes of Laertes (a town in modern-day Turkey); dates the work to 210–220 ce; discusses Diogenes’ contemporaries; explains how Diogenes could have access to all the materials he did, namely by his proximity to Tarsus; and speaks to Diogenes’ prose: “he deploys a refined and flexible style” and is “nothing if not concise, able to point an anecdote or witty riposte with the best, [and able to] condense… the complexities of his philosophers’ theories to a few sentences or paragraphs.” White finishes by explaining, in detail, the kind of work Diogenes is writing: not a complete history of philosophy but a portrayal of a practice and “a story of progress … from isolated pockets of brilliance to a network of institutionalized systems of analysis and instruction.”

All of this is compelling and extremely provocative, from the perspective of theorizing about the historiography of philosophy. It also opens or leaves open plenty of questions. Why isn’t Diogenes more interested in the way people establish or defend their views? Why exactly does he include the long doctrinal excerpts? What for him qualifies a person as a philosopher rather than as another kind of public intellectual? (The biography of Xenophon mentions no philosophy at all; it would seem he is there just as a Socratic.) What really does he expect his reader will get from his work? How should we think of his project by comparison to Athenaeus’ or Valerius Maximus’ or John of Stobi’s? How if at all might we imagine that this work is supposed to encourage philosophizing? I wish that White’s Introduction had gone on; his minute attention to Diogenes’ text authorizes him more than nearly anyone to have spoken to these and many other concerns.

In sum, White’s text is a model of usability, reliability, and philosophical integrity. Because the Oxford volume differs enough from his Cambridge volume, in supplemental materials and rendering of the Greek into English, however, a historian of philosophy would do well to have both.