On the lives of the philosophers

It is a salutary experience to read through Diogenes Laertius, Lives of the eminent philosophers.  I have just completed volume 1, and in the process have gained quite an insight into the running of the Greek states, just from the way in which they interacted with various individuals.  The wills of some of them are given by Laertius as well.  As a guide to daily living, it is revealing.

Unfortunately it is also somewhat disgusting.  Few of the philosophers are men whom any of us would respect.  The majority are addicted to money and vice.  From the way in which the Greek states tended to deal with them, it seems clear that these people rarely enjoyed a very good reputation.  The charge against Socrates, of corrupting the young, is amply evidenced in other cases.

Among the most obvious rogues is Aristippus, and you can read the Life here.

Having come forward as a lecturer or sophist, as Phanias of Eresus, the Peripatetic, informs us, he was the first of the followers of Socrates to charge fees and to send money to his master. … He was capable of adapting himself to place, time and person, and of playing his part appropriately under whatever circumstances. Hence he found more favour than anybody else with Dionysius, because he could always turn the situation to good account. He derived pleasure from what was present, and did not toil to procure the enjoyment of something not present. Hence Diogenes called him the king’s poodle. Timon, too, sneered at him for luxury …

He is said to have ordered a partridge to be bought at a cost of fifty drachmae, and, when someone censured him, he inquired, “Would not you have given an obol for it?” and, being answered in the affirmative, rejoined, “Fifty drachmae are no more to me.” And when Dionysius gave him his choice of three courtesans, he carried off all three, saying, “Paris paid dearly for giving the preference to one out of three.” And when he had brought them as far as the porch, he let them go. To such lengths did he go both in choosing and in disdaining. …  He bore with Dionysius when he spat on him, and to one who took him to task he replied, “If the fishermen let themselves be drenched with sea-water in order to catch a gudgeon, ought I not to endure to be wetted with negus in order to take a blenny?”

… Being reproached for his extravagance, he said, “If it were wrong to be extravagant, it would not be in vogue at the festivals of the gods.” … When he was reproached by Plato for his extravagance, he inquired, “Do you think Dionysius a good man?” and the reply being in the affirmative, “And yet,” said he, “he lives more extravagantly than I do. So that there is nothing to hinder a man living extravagantly and well.” … One day, as he entered the house of a courtesan, one of the lads with him blushed, whereupon he remarked, “It is not going in that is dangerous, but being unable to go out.”

It happened once that he set sail for Corinth and, being overtaken by a storm, he was in great consternation. Some one said, “We plain men are not alarmed, and are you philosophers turned cowards?” To this he replied, “The lives at stake in the two cases are not comparable.” …

To one who accused him of living with a courtesan, he put the question, “Why, is there any difference between taking a house in which many people have lived before and taking one in which nobody has ever lived?” The answer being “No,” he continued, “Or again, between sailing in a ship in which ten thousand persons have sailed before and in one in which nobody has ever sailed?” “There is no difference.” “Then it makes no difference,” said he, “whether the woman you live with has lived with many or with nobody.” …

He enjoyed the favours of Laïs, as Sotion states in the second book of his Successions of Philosophers. To those who censured him his defence was, “I have Lais, not she me; and it is not abstinence from pleasures that is best, but mastery over them without ever being worsted.” to one who reproached him with extravagance in catering, he replied, “Wouldn’t you have bought this if you could have got it for three obols?” The answer being in the affirmative, “Very well, then,” said Aristippus, “I am no longer a lover of pleasure, it is you who are a lover of money.” …

When Charondas (or, as others say, Phaedo) inquired, “Who is this who reeks with unguents?” he replied, “It is I, unlucky wight, and the still more unlucky Persian king. … Confound the effeminates who spoil for us the use of good perfume.” … Polyxenus the sophist once paid him a visit and, after having seen ladies present and expensive entertainment, reproached him with it later.

One day Dionysius over the wine commanded everybody to put on purple and dance. Plato declined … Aristippus, however, put on the dress and, as he was about to dance, was ready with the repartee …

He was once staying in Asia and was taken prisoner by Artaphernes, the satrap. “Can you be cheerful under these circumstances?” some one asked. “Yes, you simpleton,” was the reply, “for when should I be more cheerful than now that I am about to converse with Artaphernes?” …

 A courtesan having told him that she was with child by him, he replied, “You are no more sure of this than if, after running through coarse rushes, you were to say you had been pricked by one in particular.” Someone accused him of exposing his son as if it was not his offspring. Whereupon he replied, “Phlegm, too, and vermin we know to be of our own begetting, but for all that, because they are useless, we cast them as far from us as possible.”

He received a sum of money from Dionysius at the same time that Plato carried off a book and, when he was twitted with this, his reply was,, “Well, I want money, Plato wants books.” …

He said the world was his country. Theft, adultery, and sacrilege would be allowable upon occasion, since none of these acts is by nature base, if once you have removed the prejudice against them, which is kept up in order to hold the foolish multitude together. The wise man would indulge his passions openly without the least regard to circumstances.

A conman with a line of blarney would behave just so.  The majority of them seem no better. 

Our image of a philosopher is perhaps that of the Roman period, of a man dedicated to virtue.  But it is telling that the Romans passed edicts expelling the philosophers from the city from time to time — indeed the Athenians did so, even in the classical period — and with this as our example, it is easy to see why.

I confess to being a little disappointed.  I do not think I shall purchase volume 2.

5 Responses to “On the lives of the philosophers”


  1. Erlend

    You should probably read Lucian and Epictetus if you want to see reports from them on how bad philosophers could be in their (Roman) times too.

  2. Roger Pearse

    I can imagine that Lucian said the same. I hadn’t realised that Epictetus did too, tho.

  3. Joel

    Read I.F. Stone on Socrates. It changed my opinion of him totally.

  4. Roger Pearse

    Is this “The trial of Socrates”? This website tells me that he was a journalist.

  5. Joel

    Yes, that is the book.



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