Thursday, February 14, 2019


Pamela Mensch, James Miller, Diogenes Laertius. Lives of the Eminent Philosophers. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2018. Pp. xx, 676. ISBN 9780190862176. $45.00.

Reviewed by Sean McConnell, University of Otago (

Version at BMCR home site


For many of us, access to Diogenes Laertius' Lives of the Eminent Philosophers has been predominantly through the 1925 translation by R. D. Hicks in the Loeb Classical Library. Even for specialists, the Greek text is difficult, with problems in the manuscripts and many sequences that make little sense. Hicks largely used the 1850 text in the Didot series, while making amendments as he saw fit. Owing to the sterling work of Tiziano Dorandi, we now possess a superior Greek text of Diogenes Laertius' Lives (Cambridge, 2013). In the present volume, Dorandi's text is translated into English for the first time.

The English translation by Pamela Mensch is lively, fresh, engaging, and eminently readable. Given the number of vagaries, jokes, technicalities, and such that proliferate in the Greek, this is a most impressive achievement. The copious notes, helpfully placed beneath the translation on each page, are superb at giving required information on names, dates, places, technical terms, and so forth in a crisp and accurate manner. The translation will serve as an excellent resource for scholars referring to Diogenes Laertius for the very important material he preserves concerning the history of Greek philosophy, and its high literary merits make it enjoyable for those who want simply to be entertained reading Diogenes' quirky and idiosyncratic account of the lives of the Greek philosophers.

It must be said that, as a physical object, the hardcover is a very impressive book indeed. It is beautifully produced – glossy paper, high quality printing, with a treasure trove of stuff far beyond a translation of an ancient author. There are 556 full-colour images, gathered from antiquity to the present day. These include paintings, sculptures, coins, illuminated manuscripts, photography, all linked to what we are reading in Diogenes. There are particularly fascinating examples of artistic representations of Greek philosophers in the Indian, Arabic, and Japanese traditions. This all adds a wonderful extra visual dimension to the already kaleidoscopic text of Diogenes Laertius. It is, however, as a result an especially hefty tome – this is a book to be read on a solid surface.

In addition to the splendid English translation, the book contains sixteen papers that act as a sort of Companion to Diogenes Laertius, orientating the reader with some of the most important scholarly issues pertaining to the Lives. They cover the influence of Diogenes Laertius on the arts and philology during the Renaissance, his style and literary art, political and ethical elements in the Lives, the manuscript tradition, his treatment of the history of philosophy, and his influence on Nietzsche and German classical scholarship in the nineteenth century.

In 'Diogenes Laertius: From Inspiration to Annoyance (and Back)', Anthony Grafton examines the history of the critical reception of Diogenes Laertius, and in particular the development of philological methodology in response to the challenges posed by his text. In 'Raphael's Eminent Philosophers: The School of Athens and the Classic Work Almost No One Read', Ingrid D. Rowland considers Diogenes' influence in high artistic circles.

In 'Diogenes' Epigrams', Kathryn Gutzwiller offers a literary evaluation of Diogenes' striking quotation of his own epigrams throughout the Lives, and succeeds in showing them to be much more sophisticated than they appear at first. In another literary essay, 'Corporeal Humor in Diogenes Laertius', James Romm explores Diogenes' use of irony and humour. In particular, he highlights how Diogenes often returns to the theme of the fragility of the human body to poke fun at the philosophers, especially when addressing their deaths and erotic lives (often somewhat at odds with their lofty thought).

In 'Philosophers and Politics in Diogenes Laertius', Malcolm Schofield explores what Diogenes has to say on political activities of philosophers, and, in 'Diogenes Laertius and Philosophical Lives in Antiquity', Giuseppe Cambiano discusses Diogenes' interest in the fit, or lack thereof, between philosophers' lives and the ethical doctrines they profess.

Tiziano Dorandi offers three papers: the first, '"A la Recherche du Texte Perdu": The Manuscript Tradition of Diogenes Laertius' Lives of the Eminent Philosophers', outlines the messy and complicated history of textual transmission, which has bequeathed us an unreliable and corrupt text; the second, 'Diogenes Laertius in Byzantium', examines the earliest references to Diogenes Laertius; the third, 'Diogenes Laertius in Latin', focuses on his growing popularity and his exposure to a wider audience in the fifteenth century when the first Latin translation appeared.

Six papers address Diogenes' treatment of specific figures and philosophical movements, and in particular his working methods, his ordering principles, and his handling of the doxographic tradition: André Laks, 'Diogenes Laertius and the Pre-Socratics'; John Dillon, 'Plato's Doctrines in Diogenes Laertius'; R. Bracht Branham, 'Cynicism: Ancient and Modern'; A. A. Long, 'Zeno of Citium: Cynic Founder of the Stoic Tradition'; and James Allen, 'Skeptics in Diogenes Laertius' and 'Epicurus in Diogenes Laertius'. These papers all give a good indication of the value of Diogenes Laertius for our modern understanding of the history of ancient Greek philosophy and the doctrines of the various movements, and they also provide helpful examples for readers as to how best to handle critically the problematic evidence contained in Diogenes' Lives.

In 'Diogenes Laertius and Nietzsche', Glenn W. Most recalls heated debates surrounding the Lives in the nineteenth century, a particularly febrile period in German classical scholarship. There emerges a compelling account of the importance of Diogenes in the development of the influential method of Quellenforschung. Finally, Jay R. Elliott has produced an extremely comprehensive guide to further reading, and there is a helpful glossary and index.

This book offers a wealth of material on Diogenes Laertius: a translation, notes, a companion, a bibliography, all in one volume. It is a truly first-class resource, and everyone involved, including Oxford University Press, should be heartily congratulated for a brilliant achievement. That a book of this kind can be made affordable should be a salutary lesson for other academic publishers. I cannot recommend it highly enough.

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