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THE LIVES AND OPINIONS OF EMINENT PHILOSOPHERS

BY DIOGENES LAERTIUS, TRANSLATED BY C.D. YONGE

LIFE OF ARCESILAUS



I. ARCESILAUS was the son of Seuthes or Scythes, as Apollodorus states in the third book of his Chronicles, and a native of Pitane in Aeolia.

II. He was the original founder of the Middle Academy, and the first man who professed to suspend the declaration of his judgment, because of the contrarieties of the reasons alleged on either side. He was likewise the first who attempted to argue on both sides of a question, and who also made the method of discussion, which had been handed down by Plato, by means of question and answer, more contentious than before.

III. He met with Crantor in the following manner. He was one of four brothers, two by the same father and two by the same mother. Of those who were by the same mother the eldest was Pylades, and of those by the same father the eldest was Maereas, who was his guardian; and at first he was a pupil of Autolycus the mathematician, who happened to be a fellow citizen of his before he went to Athens; and with Autolycus he travelled as far as Sardis. After that he became a pupil of Xanthus the musician, and after that attended the lectures of Theophrastus, and subsequently came over to the Academy to Crantor. For Maereas his brother, whom I have mentioned before, urged him to apply himself to rhetoric; but he himself had a preference for philosophy, and when he became much attached to him Crantor asked him, quoting a line out of the Andromeda of Euripides:--

O virgin, if I save you, will you thank me?

And he replied by quoting the next line to it:--

O take me to you, stranger, as your slave,
Or wife, or what you please.

And ever after that they became very intimate, so that they say Theophrastus was much annoyed, and said, "That a most ingenious and well-disposed young man had deserted his school."

IV. For he was not only very impressive in his discourse, and displayed a great deal of learning in it, but he also tried his hand at poetry, and there is extant an epigram which is attributed to him, addressed to Attalus, which is as follows :

Pergamus is not famed for arms alone,
But often hears its praise resound
For its fine horses, at the holy Pisa.
Yet, if a mortal may declare,
Its fate as hidden in the breast of Jove,
It will be famous for its woes.

There is another addressed to Menodorus the son of Eudamus, who was attached to one of his fellow pupils:--

Phrygia is a distant land, and so
Is sacred Thyatira, and Cadanade,
Your country Menodorus. But from all,
As the unvaried song of bards relates,
An equal road does lie to Acheron,
That dark unmentioned river; so you lie
Here far from home; and here Eudamus raises
This tomb above your bones, for he did love you,
Though you were poor, with an undying love.

But he admired Homer above all poets, and always used to read a portion of his works before going to sleep; and in the morning he would say that he was going to the object of his love, when he was going to read him. He said, too, that Pindar was a wonderful man for filling the voice, and pouring forth an abundant variety of words and expressions. He also, when he was a young man, wrote a criticism on Ion.

V. And he was a pupil likewise of Hipponicus, the geometrican, whom he used to ridicule on other points as being lazy and gaping; but he admitted that in his own profession he was clear sighted enough, and said that geometry had flown into his mouth while he was yawning. And when he went out of his mind, he took him to his own house, and took care of him till he recovered his senses.

VI. And when Crates died, he succeeded him in the presidency of his schools, a man of the name of Socrates willingly yielding to him.

VII. And as he suspended his judgment on every point, he never, as it is said, wrote one single book. But others say that he was once detected correcting some passages in a work of his; and some assert that he published it, while others deny it, and affirm that he threw it into the fire.

VIII. He seems to have been a great admirer of Plato, and he possessed all his writings. He also, according to some authorities, had a very high opinion of Pyrrho.

IX. He also studied dialectics, and the discussions of the Eretrian school; on which account Ariston said of him:--

First Plato comes, and Pyrrho last,
And in the middle Diodorus.

And Timon speaks thus of him:

For having on this side the heavy load
Of Menedemus plac'd beneath his breast,
He'll to stout Pyrrho run, or Diodorus.

And presently afterwards he represents him as saying:

I'll swim to Pyrrho, or that crooked sophist
Called Diodorus.

X. He was exceedingly fond of employing axioms, very concise in his diction, and when speaking he laid an emphasis on each separate word.

XI. He was also very fond of attacking others, and very free spoken, on which account Timon in another passage speaks of him thus:--

You'll not escape all notice while you thus
Attack the young man with your biting sarcasm.

Once, when a young man was arguing against him with more boldness than usual, he said, "Will no one stop his mouth with the knout?"1 And to a man who lay under the general imputation of low debauchery, and who argued with him that one thing was not greater than another, he asked him whether a cup holding two pints was not larger than one which held only one. There was a certain Chian named Hemon, exceedingly ugly, but who fancied himself good looking, and always went about in fine clothes; this man asked him one day, "If he thought that a wise man could feel attachment to him;" "Why should he not," said he, "when they love even those who are less handsome than you, and not so well-dressed either?" and when the man, though one of the vilest characters possible, said to Arcesilaus as if he were addressing a very rigid man:

O, noble man, may I a question put,
Or must I hold my tongue?

Arcesilaus replied:

O wretched woman, why do you thus roughen
Your voice, not speaking in your usual manner?

And once, when he was plagued by a chattering fellow of low extraction, he said:

The sons of slaves are always talking vilely.2

Another time, when a talkative man was giving utterance to a great deal of nonsense, he said, that "He had not had a nurse who was severe enough." And to some people he never gave any answer at all. On one occasion a usurer, who made pretence to some learning, said in his hearing that he did not know something or other, on which he rejoined:

For often times the passing winds do fill
The female bird, except when big with young.3

And the lines come out of the Aenomaus of Sophocles. He once reminded a certain dialectician, a pupil of Aleximes, who was unable to explain correctly some saying of his master, of what had been done by Philoxenus to some brick-makers. For when they were singing some of his songs very badly he came upon them, and trampled their bricks under foot, saying, "As, you spoil my works so will I spoil yours."

XII. And he used to be very indignant with those who neglected proper opportunities of applying themselves to learning; and he had a peculiar habit, while conversing, of using the expression, "I think," and "So and so," naming the person, "will not agree to this." And this was imitated by several of his pupils who copied also his style of expression and everything about him. He was a man very ready at inventing new words, and very quick at meeting objections, and at bringing round the conversation to the subject before him, and at adapting it to every occasion, and he was the most convincing speaker that could be found, on which account numbers of people flocked to his school, in spite of being somewhat alarmed at his severity, which however they bore with complacency, for he was a very kind man, and one who inspired his hearers with abundant hope, and in his manner of life he was very affable and liberal, always ready to do any one a service without any parade, and shrinking from any expression of gratitude on the part of those whom he had obliged. Accordingly once, when he had gone to visit Ctesibius who was ill, seeing him in great distress from want, he secretly slipped his purse under his pillow; and when Ctesibius found it, "This," said he, "is the amusement of Arcesilaus." And at another time he sent him a thousand drachmas. He it was also who introduced Archias the Arcadian to Eumenes, and who procured him many favours from him.

XIII. And being a very liberal man and utterly regardless of money, he made the most splendid display of silver plate, and in his exhibition of gold plate he vied with that of Archecrates and Callecrates; and he was constantly assisting and contributing to the wants of others with money; and once, when some one had borrowed from him some articles of silver plate to help him entertain his friends, and did not offer to return them, he never asked for them back or reclaimed them; but some say that he lent them with the purpose that they should be kept, and that when the man returned them, he made him a present of them as he was a poor man. He had also property in Pitana, the revenues from which were transmitted to him by his brother Pylades.

XIV. Moreover Eumenes, the son of Philetaerus, supplied him with many things, on which account he was the only king to whom he addressed any of his discourses. And when many philosophers paid court to Antigonus and went out to meet him when he arrived, he himself kept quiet, not wishing to make his acquaintance. But he was a great friend of Hierocles, the governor of the harbours of Munychia and the Piraeus; and at festivals he always paid him a visit. And when he constantly endeavoured to persuade him to pay his respects to Antigonus, he would not; but though he accompanied him as far as his gates, he turned back himself. And after the sea-fight of Antigonus, when many people went to him and wrote him letters to comfort him for his defeat, he neither went nor wrote; but still in the service of his country, he went to Demetrias as ambassador to Antigonus and succeeded in the object of his mission.

XV. And he spent all his time in the Academy, and avoided meddling with public affairs, but at times he would spend some days in the Piraeus of Athens, discoursing on philosophical subjects, from his friendship for Hierocles, which conduct of his gave rise to unfavourable reports being raised against him by some people.

XVI. Being a man of very expensive habits, for he was in this respect a sort of second Aristippus, he often went to dine with his friends. He also lived openly with Theodote and Philaete, two courtesans of Elis; and to those who reproached him for this conduct, he used to quote the opinions of Aristippus. He was also very fond of the society of young men, and of a very affectionate disposition, on which account Aristi, the Chian, a Stoic philosopher, used to accuse him of being a corrupter of the youth of the city, and a profligate man. He is said also to have been greatly attached to Demetrius, who sailed to Cyrene, and to Cleochares of Mydea, of whom he said to his messmates, that he wished to open the door to him, but that he prevented him.

XVII. Demochares the son of Laches, and Pythocles the son of Bugelus, were also among his friends, and he said that he humoured them in all their wishes because of his great patience. And, on this account, those people to whom I have before alluded, used to attack him and ridicule him as a popularity hunter and vain-glorious man. And they set upon him very violently at an entertainment given by Hieronymus, the Peripatetic when he invited his friends on the birthday of Alcymeus, the son of Antigonus, on which occasion Antigonus sent him a large sum of money to promote the conviviality. On this occasion, as he avoided all discussion during the continuance of the banquet, when Aridelus proposed to him a question which required some deliberation, and entreated him to discourse upon it, it is said that he replied, "But this is more especially the business of philosophy, to know the proper time for everything." With reference to the charge that was brought against him of being a popularity hunter, Timon speaks, among other matters, mentioning it in the following manner:--

He spoke and glided quick among the crowd,
They gazed on him as finches who behold
An owl among them. You then please the people!
Alas, poor fool, 'tis no great matter that;
Why give yourself such airs for such a trifle?

XVIII. However, in all other respects he was so free from vanity, that he used to advise his pupils to become the disciples of other men; and once, when a young man from Chios was not satisfied with his school, but preferred that of Hieronymus, whom I have mentioned before, he himself took him and introduced him to that philosopher, recommending him to preserve his regularity of conduct. And there is a very witty saying of his recorded. For when some one asked him once, why people left other schools to go to the Epicureans, but no one left the Epicureans to join other sects, he replied, "People sometimes make eunuchs of men, but no one can ever make a man out of an eunuch."

XIX. At last, when he was near his end, he left all his property to his brother Pylades, because he, without the knowledge of Maereas, had taken him to Chios and had brought him from thence to Athens. He never married a wife, and never had any children. He made three copies of his will, and deposited one in Eretria with Amphicritus, and one at Athens with some of his friends, and the third he sent to his own home to Thaumasias, one of his relations, entreating him to keep it. And he also wrote him the following letter:--

ARCESILAUS TO THAUMASIAS.

"I have given Diogenes a copy of my will to convey to you. For, because I am frequently unwell and have got very infirm, I have thought it right to make a will, that if anything should happen to me I might not depart with the feelings of having done you any injury, who have been so constantly affectionate to me. And as you have been at all times the most faithful to me of all my friends, I entreat you to preserve this for me out of regard for my old age and your regard for me. Take care then to behave justly towards me, remembering how much I entrust to your integrity, so that I may appear to have managed my affairs well, as far as depends on you; and there is another copy of this will at Athens, in the care of some of my friends, and another at Eretria, in the hands of Amphicritus."

XX. He died, as Hermippus relates after having drunk an excessive quantity of wine, and then became delirious, when he was seventy-five years old; and he was more beloved by the Athenians than any one else had ever been. And we have written the following epigram on him:

O wise Arcesilaus, why didst thou drink
So vast a quantity of unmixed wine,
As to lose all your senses, and then die?
I pity you not so much for your death,
As for the insult that you thus did offer
The Muses, by your sad excess in wine.

XXI.There were also three other persons of the name of Arcesilaus; one a poet of the old Comedy; another an elegiac poet; the third a sculptor, on whom Simonides wrote the following epigram:

This is a statue of chaste Dian's self
The price two hundred Parian drachmas fine,
Stamp 'd with the image of the wanton goat.
It is the work of wise Arcesilaus,
The son of Aristodicus: a man,
Whose hands Minerva guided in his art.

The philosopher of whom we have been speaking flourished, as Apollodorus tells us in his Chronicles, about the hundred and twentieth olympiad.




1. Perhaps there is a pun here; astragalos means not only a knout composed of small bones strung together, but also a die.

2. This is a quotation from some lost play of Euripides slightly altered; the line, as printed in the Variorum Edition, vol vii., Mc. Trag.cxxx. is--

akolasta panta ginetai, doulôn tekna.

3. There is a pun here which is untranslateable. The Greek is plên otan tokos parê, meaning usury, and also offspring or delivery.










Scanned and edited for Peithô's Web from The Lives and Opinions of Eminent Philosophers, by Diogenes Laertius, Literally translated by C.D. Yonge. London: Henry G. Bohn, 1853. Footnotes have been converted to endnotes. Some, but not all, of Yonge's spellings of ancient names have been updated.

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