The Consolations of Biography

Many years ago I read Boethius’ famous treatise The Consolation of Philosophy. But straight philosophy can be demanding. If I want something intellectually substantial, yet still easy to peruse at the end of the day, I turn to biography. As Plutarch says in his life of Alexander the Great:

It must be borne in mind that my design is not to write histories, but lives. And the most glorious exploits do not always furnish us with the clearest discoveries of virtue or vice in men; sometimes a matter of less moment, an expression or a jest, informs us better of their characters and inclinations, than the most famous sieges, the greatest armaments, or the bloodiest battles whatsoever.

Even anecdotes can impart useful lessons. A rare gem of contemplative biography is Diogenes Laertius’ Lives of Eminent Philosophers which chronicles the sublime, the mundane and the absurd in the careers of ancient Greek thinkers. In his study of Anacharsis (fl. 590 B.C.), Diogenes tells us that

When some Athenian reproached him with being a Scythian [i.e., a barbarian], he replied, “Well, granted that my country is a disgrace to me, you are a disgrace to your country.” To the question, “What among men is both good and bad?” his answer was “The tongue.” He said it was better to have one friend of great worth than many friends worth nothing at all.

Anaxagoros (c. 510 – 428) brought formal philosophical learning from the Greek Ionian settlements of Asia Minor to Athens, but was later forced into exile by political intrigues. Like many of Diogenes’ subjects, he left behind a trove of witty sayings.

To one who inquired, “You miss the society of the Athenians?” His reply was, “Not I, but they miss mine”…. To one who complained that he was dying in a foreign land, his answer was, “The descent to Hades is much the same from whatever place we start.”

Some of the biographical passages are pitifully concise. I believe the shortest one is for the Theban thinker Cebes. It musters the names of three of his dialogues and nothing else. Others entries are nearly as short, but do provide some priceless glimpses. There is Crito (born c. 469) who was featured in one of Plato’s famous dialogues. We learn that he was “most affectionate in his disposition towards Socrates, and took such care of him that none of his wants were left unsupplied.”

There is Simon (c. fifth century), a cobbler turned amateur cogitator, who learned his philosophical trade from the master himself. “When Socrates came to his workshop and began to converse, he used to make notes of all that he could remember.” Despite his humble origins, Diogenes says that he the first to introduce the “Socratic dialogues as a form of conversation.” The Athenian statesman Pericles offered to support Simon financially if he would take up residence with him, to which the cobbler replied, “I will not part with my free speech for money.”

See related comments on Diogenes Laertius.

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