On hearing some one say that the greatest good was to get all you want, [Menedemus] rejoined, “To want the right things is a far greater good.”—Diogenes Laertius
Few would suspect what literary treasures lie behind the crumbling 1970s edifice of the Richmond City Library. Yet among the venerable works that most public libraries have ignored or tossed out is an extensive collection of Loeb Classics of the great Greek and Roman writers.
Over the years, I’ve taken advantage of these volumes (which are a bit too expensive for me to buy on a regular basis) including Diogenes Laertius’ Lives of Eminent Philosophers. The author, a Greek Epicurean who lived in the third century A.D., offers a collection of life sketches and anecdotes of ancient thinkers. And while it is not strictly speaking a work of philosophy, it seems to me that good biography is always conducive to reflection.
When reading these Lives I am reminded of Samuel Johnson’s adage that the “only end of writing is to enable the readers better to enjoy life, or better to endure it.” Diogenes Laertius accomplishes both. He introduces us to thinkers both illustrious and obscure, and treats us to precious vignettes:
A story is told that Plato once saw some one playing at dice and rebuked him. And, upon his protesting that he played for a trifle only, “But the habit,” rejoined Plato, “is not a trifle.”
As for the lesser-known Arcesilaus, an intellectual descendant of Plato, we learn that
He esteemed Homer above all the poets and would always read a passage from him before going to sleep.
Rounding out this very human account of a philosopher who lived over two thousand years ago, Diogenes Laertius tells us
In persuasiveness [Arcesilaus] had no equal, and this all the more drew pupils to the school, although they were in terror of his pungent wit. But they willingly put up with that; for his goodness was extraordinary, and he inspired his pupils with hopes. He showed the greatest generosity in private life, being ever ready to confer benefits, yet most modestly anxious to conceal the favor. For instance, he once called upon Ctesibus when he was ill and, seeing in what straits he was, quietly put a purse under his pillow.
While not all of the subjects of the Lives are admirable (like the tyrant Periander), all are instructive. In conclusion, Diogenes Laertius’ book provides a very accessible, and often entertaining, window on the ancient thinkers.