Death by Philosophy: The Biographical Tradition in the Life and Death of the Archaic Philosophers Empedocles, Heraclitus, and Democritus
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How does one die by philosophy? In Diogenes Laertius, philosophers jump into volcanoes, bury themselves in dung, get eaten by dogs, hang themselves, drown, and vanish into thin air -- sometimes all in a single lifetime. But what happens when we look beyond the fantastic and absurd to examine the particular ways that the philosophers' lives and deaths are recounted?
Ava Chitwood's reexamination of Diogenes Laertius's philosophical biographies opens a new window on the intellectual culture and context in which the work of philosophers like Empedocles, Heraclitus, and Democritus was read, received, and transmitted. Chitwood's analysis also suggests a methodology for understanding the interplay between biography and philosophy and for evaluating biographical sources.
While Chitwood's approach combines the disciplines of classical philology and philosophy, Death by Philosophy is not intended solely for the specialist. This investigation offers the modern reader a fascinating, fresh, and entertaining view of the ancient literary and philosophical world.
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Parmenides are universally described in their own biographies as teacher and student.) However, it is unlikely, if not chronologically impossible, for Empedocles himself to have studied with either Parmenides or Xenophanes (Parmenides was born ca. 515 BCE, while Xenophanes’ dates are 570–475 BCE). However, if we substituted the word influence for teacher, the mists begin to clear. Xenophanes certainly influenced Parmenides’ philosophical views. Empedocles, in his response to Parmenides’ views,
punish Empedocles by ridiculing his claim to divinity. It is not a god but an all too humanly fragile man who drowns or falls and breaks his hip and dies. So much for immortality. The death by drowning seems odd, until we consider certain fragments that the biographers must have found particularly ludicrous and are therefore worth of special attention. 38. For by now I have been boy and girl, plant and bird and mute sea-fish. (fr. 117). ηδη γαρ ποτ εγω γενοµην κουρος τε κορη τε θαµνος τ ο ιωνος
adolescents, there is some reason to think that Plato may have taken the passage to heart. In discussion, Diskin Clay noted that at the onset of adolescence, public education would begin and refers the reader to Socrates’ advice for foundation of the state: “They will begin by sending out into the country all the inhabitants of the city who are more than ten years old and they [the guardians] will take possession of their children, who will be unaffected by the habits of their parents” (Pl. Rep.
granted: in the passage immediately following, Diogenes Laertius records one of the few hostile anecdotes that exist for Democritus, the squandering of his inheritance and his prosecution, which also comes from Antisthenes. The placement of the two anecdotes thus reveals that their coherence, for Diogenes Laertius, both are hostile and as such should be presented together. 104. Letters 10–17 speak of Hippocrates’ visit, letters 18–21 report the conversation between Democritus and Hippocrates, see
Aristophanes Thesm. 627ff. 148. Fairweather 1974, 235. In a variant story, Democritus, like Plato, Speusippos, and Homer, dies of ptheiresis (lice disease) Plut. Marc. Anton. 3.3. Riginos (1976, 196) remarks that death by lice was “obviously a favored form of calumny.” Lefkowitz (1981, 162) notes that degrading deaths of this sort were often allotted to authors considered impious. For a list of those who died of lice disease, see Plutarch Sulla 35.5– 6. Lucretius, on the other hand, says that