By Van Bryan
Most of these anecdotes, though not all of them, come from the pen of the mysterious biographer, Diogenes Laertius. His epic collection, The Lives and Opinions of Eminent Philosophers, is a rather dubious source for credible information. All of what is recorded within Diogenes’ text is based upon oral tradition, stories and legends passed down through the years.
As you can guess, the authenticity of some of his tales are often disputed, and rightfully so. Since none of his stories were experienced firsthand, it can be safely assumed that his various anecdotes contain embellishments and exaggerations.
The point of all this is simply to say that we cannot know for certain how accurate the following stories really are. Diogenes may have been less of a biographer and more of a gossip columnist. So with an exasperated sigh and a shrug of the shoulders, we press on nonetheless.
Here are a few stories about famous philosophers that may be of interest to you.
1. Thales is a Shrewd Businessman
Go out and purchase a text book on ancient Greek philosophy. Thumb to the first chapter and you will undoubtedly see the face of Thales of Miletus. It is often said that Western philosophy begins with Thales. Diogenes Laertius writes that Thales was the first man ever to be described as “wise.”
While we might find a few reasons to doubt that, there certainly is no denying the influence Thales had on ancient philosophy and the development of Western thought. He was the first Greek in recorded history to search for rational explanation to observable phenomenon.
He had a particular fascination with the night sky, so much so that the philosopher Anaximenes would refer to him as “the astronomer of Miletus.” Thales’ knowledge of the heavenly bodies was so advanced that he was able to accurately predict a solar eclipse in 585 BCE.
However, his love for the night sky also had its downsides. It was said that Thales once took a walk late at night through the country side. He turned his head up towards the stars as he walked and became so enthralled with the stars above that he was unable to see in front of himself and fell into a ditch.
This is usually pointed to as proof that philosophers are out of touch with reality. They spend so much time with their head in the clouds that they don’t even see the ditch in front of them. However, Thales would disprove this notion rather decisively.
Thales deduced that good crops were due to favorable weather conditions and not the result of the gods; he used this knowledge to predict a high yield of olives one harvest year. The philosopher bought out a large number of olive presses at a low price early in the season.
Several months later farmers indeed were met with a bountiful supply of olives. Thales, being the owner of a majority of olive presses, was able to rent and sell the equipment at a considerable mark up. The man made a substantial profit and proved that philosophy, in fact, could lead to success in business.
2. Aristippus Wears Women’s Clothing
Aristippus was a rather interesting philosopher. Born in the ancient city of Cyrene, he is credited with founding the Hedonistic school of thought. The stories surrounding his life certainly seem to support this.
It is told by Diogenes Laertius that while attending a banquet at the court of King Dionysius, Aristippus was commanded by the king to dawn a woman’s robe and dance around the palatial halls. As chance would have it, the philosopher Plato was also in attendance and was similarly instructed to dress in the womanly clothing.
Plato, being the serious and profound philosopher that he was, obstinately refused. He is cited as saying…
“I could not wear a woman’s robe, when I was born a man, and of a manly race.”
Aristippus, on the other hand, was not embarrassed in the slightest. It is said that he promptly took the garment and before he was about to dance, he said very wittily…
“She, who is chaste, will not corrupted be by Bacchanalian revels.”
Aristippus’ philosophy had something to do with his behavior. As a Hedonist, he gladly enjoyed luxury, often to excess. Whenever presented with a new and fascinating opportunity, he jumped at the chance and very rarely fell victim to shame or embarrassment.
However, while he often indulged in luxury, Aristippus claimed that he would be equally as happy if he were a peasant. It was espoused by Hedonists like Aristippus that we ought to enjoy pleasure, but we should not make ourselves a slave to pleasure.
Plato once said of him that he was the only man he knew who would be equally happy whether he was clothed in rags or robes.
3. Diogenes Throws a Chicken at Plato
Diogenes of Sinope is another interesting character from the ancient philosophical world. Like Aristippus, there are numerous strange anecdotes about his life. Diogenes is often credited as the founder of the ethical philosophy known as “Cynicism.” He rejected all forms of material wealth and gave no consideration to abstract ideals such as honor or societal status.
Diogenes was content enough to lay about the streets of Athens, surviving off of a steady diet of discarded onions. When he was asked why it was that he lived on the streets rather than in a house, Diogenes would gesture to the Acropolis or the Colonnade of Zeus, saying, “The Athenians have already built places for me to live in.”
While Diogenes would regularly lay about the streets, the illustrious Plato was busy teaching at his Academy. One day the master Plato had given the definition of man as a “two-footed, featherless animal.”
This definition was praised by Plato’s students and the Athenian citizens alike. The only man who was unimpressed, it would seem, was Diogenes.
Upon hearing of Plato’s definition of “Man,” Diogenes fetched a chicken and plucked it of its feathers. He then traveled to The Academy where Plato was lecturing and threw the bird at the master philosopher’s head. The story goes that he then cried…
“Behold! I give you Plato’s man.”
It was after this altercation that Plato added to his definition, “…with broad, flat fingernails.”
4. Zeno Bites Off His Own Tounge
Zeno of Elea is a little known philosopher who is often confused for the much more influential stoic philosopher, Zeno of Citium. He is best known for his confounding paradoxes that attempt to prove through strict rationalism that motion as we know it is impossible.
While Zeno is remembered for his paradoxes, Diogenes Laertius tells us that he was something of a revolutionary. Wishing to put an end to the tyrant of Elea, Nearches, Zeno plotted an assassination attempt. A better philosopher than an assassin, Zeno was arrested and held in chains.
After he had been tortured for some time, Zeno declared that he wished to whisper a secret to the tyrant Nearches himself. When Nearches came close to Zeno, the philosopher bit his nose and did not let go until a guard had stabbed him.
Diogenes Laertius continues by telling us that Zeno then spoke directly to the bystanders who had gathered around. He declared…
“I marvel at your cowardice, if you submit to be slaves to a tyrant out of fear of such pains as I am now enduring.”
Then, the philosopher bit off his own tongue and spat it at Nearches. The citizens watching were so astounded by Zeno’s display of defiance that they immediately rushed forward and killed the tyrant with stones.
Now that seems rather fanciful, so much so that we may doubt that it ever happened. Diogenes himself does admit that the story seems a bit farfetched and describes a different version of the tale where Zeno is captured and promptly stoned to death for his transgressions. Diogenes Laertius writes of the philosopher…
“Your noble wish, O Zeno, was to slay a cruel tyrant, freeing Elea from the harsh bonds of shameful slavery, but we were disappointed; for the tyrant pounded you in a mortar. I say wrong, he only crushed your body, and not you.”
5. Aristotle Plays Horsey
We have saved the best for last. This final tale concerns Aristotle, arguably the greatest ancient philosopher of Greece, and a courtesan named Phyllis. The legend came about centuries after the philosophers death and is largely considered to be pure fiction. Still, the tale is so outrageous that we absolutely cannot ignore it.
The story says that while Aristotle was tutoring a young Alexander the Great in the kingdom of Macedon, the philosopher instructed the young prince that he should be weary of the charms and incantations that beautiful woman can cast upon men. Alexander, an impressionable young man, might be lead astray by his wife and impeded from seeking the general good.
Hearing this, Phyllis, who was either a wife or preferred courtesan of Alexander, set about to entice the old philosopher to fall in love with her. She regularly approached Aristotle with bare feet and disheveled hair, hoping that the philosopher might become enamored with her.
Finally, Aristotle succumbed to his desires and began to solicit Phyllis. The woman responded by saying…
“This I will certainly not do, unless I see a sign of love, lest you be testing me. Therefore, come to my chamber crawling on hand and foot, in order to carry me like a horse. Then I’ll know that you aren’t deluding me.”
Aristotle, perhaps begrudgingly, consented to this condition. Phyllis then secretly told Alexander of the intentions of his teacher. It is said that Aristotle met Phyllis in the palace gardens. Wearing a bit and bridle, the philosopher crawled on all fours, carrying the woman around as if he were a horse.
Unbeknownst to the philosopher, the young Alexander was lying in wait and had witnessed the entire thing. The young prince was so angry that he initially wished to kill Aristotle for his transgressions.
The philosopher excused himself by saying that he had been right all along. If a wise philosopher like himself could be tricked by a woman, the same could certainly happen to an impressionable young man like Alexander.
Hearing this, Alexander spared his teacher and continued his studies.
And they all lived happily ever after… or something like that.