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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
Diogenes Laertius (Third Century A.D.)
Critical and Biographical Introduction
 
IT is curious how often we are dependent, for our knowledge of some larger subject, upon a single ancient author, who would be hardly worthy of notice but for the accidental loss of the books composed by fitter and abler men. Thus, our only general description of Greece at the close of the classical period is written by a man who describes many objects that he certainly did not see, who leaves unmentioned numberless things we wish explained, and who has a genius for so misplacing an adverb as to bring confusion into the most commonplace statement. But not even to Pausanias do we proffer such grudging gratitude and such ungrateful objurgations as to Diogenes Laertius, our chief—often our sole—authority for the ‘Lives and Sayings of the Philosophers.’ His book is a fascinating one, and even amusing, if we can forget what we so much wanted in its stead. At second or third hand, from the compendiums of the schools rather than from the original works of the great masters themselves, Diogenes does give us a fairly intelligible sketch, as a rule, of the outward life lived by each sage. This slight frame is crammed with anecdotes, evidently culled with most eager and uncritical hand from miscellaneous collections. Many of these stories are so fragmentary as to be pointless. Others are unquestionably attached to the wrong person. This method is at its maddest in the author’s sketch of his namesake, the Recluse of the Tub. (One of Ali Baba’s jars, by the way, would give a better notion of the real hermitage.) Since this “philosopher” had himself little character and no doctrines, the loose string of anecdotes, puns, and saucy answers suits all our needs. Throughout the work are scattered, apocryphal letters, and feeble poetic epigrams composed by the compiler himself. The leaning of our most unphilosophic author was apparently toward Epicurus. The loss of that teacher’s own works causes us to prize doubly the extensive fragments of them preserved in this relatively copious and serious study. The lover of the great Epicurean poem of Lucretius on the ‘Nature of Things’ will often be surprised to find here the source of many among the Roman poet’s most striking doctrines and images. The sketch of Zeno is also an important authority on Stoicism. Instruction in these particular chapters, then, and rich diversion elsewhere, await the reader of this most gossipy, formless, and uncritical volume. The English reader, by the way, ought to be provided with something better than the “Bohn” version. This adds a goodly harvest of ludicrous misprints and other errors of every kind to Diogenes’s own mixture of borrowed wisdom and native silliness. The classical student will prefer the Didot edition by Cobet, with the Latin version in parallel columns.  1
  It has been thought desirable to offer here a version, slightly abridged, of Diogenes’s chapter on Socrates. The original sources, in Plato’s and Xenophon’s extant works, will almost always explain, or correct, the statements of Diogenes. Such wild shots as the assertion that the plague repeatedly visited Athens, striking down every inhabitant save the temperate Socrates, hardly need a serious rejoinder. Diogenes cannot even speak with approximate accuracy of Socrates’s famous Dæmon or Inward Monitor. We know, on the best authority, that it prophesied nothing, even proposed nothing, but only vetoed the rasher impulses of its human companion. But to apply the tests of mere accuracy to Diogenes would be like criticizing Uncle Remus for his sins against English syntax.  2
  Of the author’s life we know nothing. Our assignment of him to the third century is based merely on the fact that he quotes writers of the second, and is himself in turn cited by somewhat later authors.  3
 
 
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