Monday, June 04, 2007

Mayweek roundup

I suppose I ought to say something about how the Mayweek seminar on Diogenes Laertius 9 unfolded. (This will be my own perspective, obviously, and others' may well differ; we don't keep minutes of any kind, though some keep their own notes.)

First, I had a lot of fun. The discussion was lively and good-natured and I think we made some good headway. I imagine it is not often that anyone sits down to read a book of DL as a book, and some surprising things emerged. In particular, it was very clear that this is an enormously varied text: in tone, register, subject matter, and -- presumably -- in the date of the original sources, which must range from (in DL 9, anyway) the early Hellenistic to at least the early Imperial. We found it tricky to be sure whether DL was ever citing the original source he mentions or some later intermediary, but he is certainly interested in impressing the reader with the range of his scholarship.

As for the quality of the work, as philosophy or as a history of philosophy, opinions were very divided. I was more prepared than most to see some kind of unity of purpose in the book, while others were more prepared to explain a particular omission or concentration on DL's part to his being unable to find a particular source or otherwise simply tickled by a racy story. For example, his treatment of Parmenides omits nearly everything you would find in a modern treatment of that philosopher. Is it because DL simply did not know the section we call the 'Way of Truth'? Or did he know it but think it unimportant? Or perhaps he simply could not understand it...

Nevertheless, DL's treatment of Pyrrhonism got some praise, thoroughly compressed though it is, and some were even prepared to say that in some aspects it represents an improvement on Sextus Empiricus (e.g. on the arrangement of the 10 modes and the separation of the material between the 10 and the 5 modes).

And was DL an Epicurean? That was the notion floated in the final session, on the basis that Epicurus seems to be the final destination of the work and is introduced in very positive terms, but I got the impression it did not win a great deal of support. Still, it would certainly be worth reading book 10 as a whole, and in tandem with book 9. Then again, I think we ought to have a good go at the prologue to book 1 as well.

That's the problem with seminars like this: the more you read the more you realise you need to read properly to understand what you've just read.

One final question that turns out to be tremendously important: How was DL read in antiquity? I don't mean to ask how he was interpreted, but simply how the work was consulted. Was it possible, for example, to turn to DL to look up some particular philosopher as one might now consult an encyclopedia or dictionary of philosophy? If so, then he did indeed make some surprising choices about what to include and omit. But if it was read rather as a continuous narrative, then it does seem that it is more legitimate to look for an overall strategy in the work, perhaps even to see it as a unified whole of some kind.


RJR said...

Does codicology matter here? If there's evidence for how it was physically transmitted that might help; e.g., to be crude, rolls can be guide the reader into going from start to end, codices are easier to skip about in.

I heart codicology.

JIW said...

It must certainly matter. My suspicion is that like lots of other ancient works, DL was originally consulted on papyrus rolls, with perhaps one roll to each book (they are quite long). In that case it seems to me it would be a tricky job to scroll through to the bit you want to consult (though each roll would probably have a tag listing the contents of that book). So my suspicion is that it is unlikely to be a reference work in a recognisable sense.