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Women in Diogenes Laertius’ Lives of Eminent Philosophers

Dorota Dutsch

University of California, Santa Barbara

“And the old woman who used to sit beside him [Chrysippus], as Diocles asserts, said that he wrote 500 lines a day.” Diogenes Laertius, Lives of Eminent Philosophers (7.181).

The female witness patiently counting the lines produced by the prolific Stoic philosopher is by no means a unique example of Diogenes’ efforts to include female figures in his panorama of the history of Greek philosophy. Diogenes speaks of intellectual gifts of philosophers’ daughters and mothers (e.g., 1.89, 1.91, 2.72), and dedicates entire sections to the achievements of Theano (8. 42-43) and Hipparchia (6. 96- 97). In this paper I examine the possibility that Diognes’ efforts to grant small roles in the history of philosophy to women are not merely dictated by his source material, but they are programmatic.

Thomas Hägg has argued persuasively that Diogenes Laertius’ work as biographer was “antiquarian and all inclusive: to include and transmit whatever he may find about earlier Greek philosophers.” Hägg admitted, however, that this “antiquarian zeal may well have been ideologically motivated by a desire to promote Hellenic excellence” (2012: 317). In other words, Diogenes has an ideologically informed vision of the past of Greek philosophy. As James Warren has proposed, central to Diogenes’ vision is the question of transmission of knowledge from philosopher to philosopher, which in Warren’s account often takes the form of an eroticized relationship between the master and his disciple (2007: 145-6). Unnoted in Warren’s analysis, quite a few women figure in this system of philosophical kinship—as wives, daughters, and mothers of philosophers. Such figures might have in fact been of special interest to the woman to whom Diogenes apparently dedicated his book (3.47: φιλιπλάτονι δέ σοι... ὑπαρχούσῃ).

Women’s presence is particularly important in the transmission of knowledge in the West. Pythagoras, Diogenes reports, studied philosophy with a Delphic priestess named Themistoclea (8.11). When he conducted his eschatological experiment, spending a long time in an underground dwelling (before he emerged to announce that that he had visited Hades) his mother remained his only contact with the life on surface (8.41). Pythagoras’ philosophically inclined daughter Damo and wife Theano fit neatly into this image of a family practicing wisdom under the watchful eye a father figure (8.42). A similar pattern applies to the Cynics as well: Hipparchia’s initiation into philosophy begins with her brother, Metrocles, whom Crates saves from suicide (6.94-5). Because of Metrocles’ conversion to Cynicism, Hipparchia also became familiar with Crates’ teachings and “fell in love with the philosopher and his doctrines” (6.97). Notably, Diogenes’ version of Hipparchia’s Life avoids allusions to the risqué practice of kynogamia.

In conclusion, Diogenes seems to be interested in presenting philosophy as a Greek practice that in the past was embraced by entire families and communities— including old women, such as the one sitting beside Chrysippus. The inclusion of women in the history of philosophy thus seems to serve the purpose of demonstrating philosophy’s genuinely domestic Hellenic pedigree. 

Session/Panel Title

The Art of Biography in Antiquity

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