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Diogenes Laertius and Cross-Cultural Intellectual Debates in the Third Century

Jared Secord

Diogenes Laertius’ collective biography of ancient philosophers begins with a shrill polemic directed against the claim that philosophy had non-Greek origins. I identify his polemic as a veiled response to an increasingly prominent group of scholars, including many Christians, who questioned the primacy of Greek culture. I argue also that the remarkably Hellenocentric perspective found in Diogenes’ polemic makes explicit an attitude shared by many Greek authors of the third century, even if they only hinted at it in their own works.

The paper I offer is therefore intended to suggest that Greek authors of the third century were more aware of challenges to the primacy of Greek culture than has previously been believed. While there have been several attempts to suggest that Diogenes was responding to near-contemporary Christian scholars such as Clement of Alexandria (Canfora; Whitmarsh), or that Christians were responding to him (Ramelli), there has been little effort to flesh out the possible contours of a larger cross-cultural intellectual debate in the third century, despite repeated references to its existence. There have even been insistent claims that Diogenes’ perspective was very much outside of the mainstream of intellectual life in the third century (Hope 110; Eshleman 191-4), and that he was at best an obscure scholar living in a backwater town (Mansfeld 300-1) who was simply offering a pedantic response to Hellenistic suggestions about the barbarian origins of Greek philosophy (Warren 141). I argue instead that Diogenes’ polemic formed part of a larger, mainstream response to third-century attacks on the primacy and significance of Greek culture, and on the originality of classical Greek philosophical thought.

The first part of the paper traces the growing prominence in the third century of scholars who attempted to challenge the primacy of Greek culture. Chief among this group were Christian scholars, such as Origen, Hippolytus, and Julius Africanus, who enjoyed a major breakthrough under the Severan dynasty, and who became increasingly well-known to the imperial household, and to other elite circles (Barnes). There were also other, non-Christian scholars who were not completely enamored with Hellenocentric views on the world and its history. These scholars often came from the provinces of the Near East, such as the jurist Ulpian, who took great pride in the ancient and non-Greek past of Tyre, the city of his birth (Dig. 50.15.1pr.). The increased presence of such scholars in elite intellectual circles raised new challenges to prevailing Hellenocentric attitudes.

The paper’s second part examines the conservative responses of Hellenocentric scholars to such challenges, and argues that Diogenes’ opening polemic represented a perspective that was widely held. Signs of a conservative response are apparent, for instance, in Athenaeus, and especially in the works of Philostratus, who has been rightly characterized as a “defender of Hellenism” (Swain). Though Diogenes, Philostratus, and many of their peers were studiously silent on the subject of Christianity (Martinelli), they nonetheless revealed their prejudices against challengers to the primacy and superiority of Greek culture, particularly through the depiction of caricatured “Phoenician” or “Assyrian” scholars in their works (e.g. Damis in Philostr. V A). Diogenes’ opening polemic, which is ostensibly directed against older authorities such as Sotion (Gigon), distills in a concentrated form the prejudicial spirit of other Hellenocentric scholars against any challenges to the value and originality of Greek culture.

The proposed paper, in sum, offers a new reconstruction of the cross-cultural intellectual debates of the third century. It differs from previous work on the subject by suggesting that the much-discussed interactions between Greeks and Christians in the third century formed part of a larger debate concerning the primacy and originality of Greek culture.

Session/Panel Title

The Intellectual Culture of the Second to Fourth Centuries CE: Christians, Jews, Philosophers, and Sophists

Session/Paper Number


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