Diogenes Laertius compiled “Lives of the Eminent Philosophers” sometime early in the 3rd century. Virtually nothing is known about him, but his book enjoyed centuries of esteem as a richly anecdotal introduction to the major and minor figures of ancient Greek philosophy. If you were setting up a country-house library in the 18th century, you’d probably shelve Diogenes’s work near Suetonius’s “Lives of the Caesars” and Plutarch’s “Lives of the Noble Greeks and Romans.”
These days, however, “Lives of the Eminent Philosophers” is regarded as factually dubious, as much hearsay as history. No matter. Its stories and quips, its quotations and insights are central to European literature. Thus a modern reader can — like Montaigne, who loved the book — still read Diogenes for intellectual entertainment, especially in this magnificent new edition packed with illustrations and notes. Its extensive appendix, moreover, adds learned background essays — by Anthony Grafton, Ingrid D. Rowland and others just as distinguished — as well as a detailed guide to further reading. For $45, one certainly receives good value for the money.
Above all else, Diogenes humanizes otherwise Olympian thinkers. Did you know that Aristotle spoke with a lisp? Socrates not only enjoyed dancing — arguing that it was good exercise — but was also reputed to have edited and “patched up” some of the plays of his friend Euripides. When the hedonistic Aristippus was unexpectedly observed entering the house of a courtesan, he commented, “It’s not hard to go in; what’s hard is not being able to leave.” After the god Hermes offered Pythagoras any gift except immortality, the philosopher and mathematician decided “to retain, both living and dead, the memory of what he had experienced.” Thus through incarnation after incarnation Pythagoras could remember all his past lives. He is also reported “to have been the first to put athletes on a meat diet.” Phryne and Lais — the most celebrated beauties of their time — both tried, unsuccessfully, to seduce the austere Xenocrates.
One of the best sections of “Lives of the Eminent Philosophers” focuses on the author’s namesake, the sardonic Diogenes who lived in a tub. Captured by pirates and about to be sold into slavery, the sage was asked by the auctioneer what he was good at: “Ruling over men.” He then added, “Spread the word in case anyone wants to buy himself a master.” Like Thoreau, this Greek contrarian kept his life as simple as possible: After seeing a boy drink with his hands, Diogenes threw away his cup. Once when the philosopher was enjoying an especially fine afternoon, his admirer Alexander the Great asked whether there was anything he could do for him. Diogenes answered that the conqueror could move out of the way since he was blocking the sun.
Diogenes Laertius devotes one of his longest chapters to Zeno of Citium, whose subsequent disciples, including Epictetus, Marcus Aurelius and Seneca, are central to Ward Farnsworth’s “The Practicing Stoic: A Philosophical User’s Manual.” Farnsworth, dean of the University of Texas School of Law, first made his mark with his outstanding “Farnsworth’s Classical English Rhetoric,” then followed it up with “Farnsworth’s Classical English Metaphor,” and both relied strongly on illustrative passages from the poets and philosophers of antiquity.
As befits a good Stoic, Farnsworth’s expository prose exhibits both clarity and an unflappable calm. “The first principle of practical Stoicism,” he writes, “is this: we don’t react to events; we react to our judgments about them, and the judgments are up to us.” Stoicism reminds us to treat everything as a matter of choice. Our attitude toward the vicissitudes of life ought to be one of scorn and contempt; we should aim for an inward detachment that views even the most painful adversity “as small, as unimportant, as something to which we should rise superior.”
Stoics, Farnsworth stresses, refuse to “worry about things beyond their control or to otherwise get worked up about them.” This means that runaway imaginations constantly need to be kept in check. Rather than giving in to panic, strengthen your inner resolve with Hamlet’s words: There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so. Besides, why should we bother to fuss about successes or setbacks when our brief hour upon life’s stage is so quickly over? After the tepid clapping stops, the world speedily forgets us. “All things fade,” wrote Marcus Aurelius, “and become mere tales, and are buried soon thereafter in complete oblivion.” Consequently the Stoic is “more concerned with the quality of life than its duration.” Even the fear of death, declared Seneca, can be conquered by making it “our aim to have already lived long enough.”
Stoicism, like Buddhism, is particularly critical of the American disease, the rapacious desire for things. As Farnsworth observes and many of us know: “Getting what we want tends not to produce the satisfaction that we imagined. It makes us want more.” Sometimes this then leads to envy, that most human of the petty vices. To quote Seneca again, “Such is the presumptuousness of men that, although they may have received much, they count it an injury that they might have received more.”
Throughout “The Practicing Stoic,” Farnsworth beautifully integrates his own observations with scores of quotations from Epictetus, Seneca, Marcus Aurelius, Montaigne and others. As a result, this isn’t just a book to read — it’s a book to return to, a book that will provide perspective and consolation at times of heartbreak or calamity. For the Stoic, as Farnsworth reminds us, “the work of life is to turn whatever happens to constructive ends.”
Michael Dirda reviews books each Thursday for The Washington Post.
By Diogenes Laertius
Translated from the Greek by Pamela Mensch
Edited by James Miller
Oxford. 676 pp. $45
By Ward Farnsworth
Godine. 260 pp. $27.95