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Substance and Style Through the Centuries: From Isocrates and Xenophon to Plutarch and Diogenes Laertius

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By Adam Z. Margulies

Introduction Edit

The biographical approaches of Plutarch and Diogenes Laertius can be traced to fourth century B.C. Greek prose encomia. Eulogies such as Isocrates’ Evagoras and Xenophon’s Agesilaus serve as good starting points from which these later Greek biographers both followed and deviated. The personality traits important to the later Greek biographer, and what constituted either a virtue or a flaw, remained constant as core biographical elements. Consistency can also be found in the way that the biographer structured his subject’s life, with achievements and virtues intimately connected yet often separated by section. By sifting through the similarities and differences between the first Greek biographies and those that came later, we might begin to understand what was truly important to the Greeks and why.

Substance Edit

When Isocrates eulogized Evagoras’s life for the deceased’s son, King Nicocles, he was well aware of his venture into the untested waters of prose biography. Isocrates wrote in prose specifically to test these waters, stating that “although poetry has such a great advantage, we must not hesitate to attempt prose speeches to see if good men may be praised by such speeches just as well as by those who celebrate them in songs and meter” (Evagoras, 11). Isocrates did not just embark on a new style of biography, but on new substance as well, thereby setting the mark for both style and substance for centuries to follow. This change in substance is a transition from focusing on physical attributes to focusing on character attributes. The switch is more subtle than the stylistic endeavor. In his introduction, Yun Lee Too posits that “Isocrates may implicitly be making the case for a new post-epic heroism, in which the fourth-century nonmaterial virtues…are privileged over and above the physical qualities, for example, strength and speed, of the traditional hero” (Yun Lee Too, Isocrates I, 139). These “non-material” virtues transcended the fourth-century and remained core elements in the biographies of Plutarch and Laertius.

In order to proceed with this argument, we must define specifically what virtues Isocrates and Xenophon considered interesting. First we have justice, courage, and wisdom, which, according to Isocrates, Evagoras possessed “to a superlative degree” (Evagoras, 23). Likewise, Xenophon devoted much of his character praise to justice, courage, and wisdom when extolling the Spartan king, Agesilaus (Agesilaus, IV, VI).1

The importance of these attributes did not diminish over time for the Greek biographer. Over four centuries later, Plutarch began his comparison between Alcibiades and Coriolanus by remarking that both men “were alike hardy and valiant for their persons, as also wise and politic in the wars” (Comp. of Alcibiades w. Coriolanus, 1). Plutarch therefore found it difficult to discern between the courage and wisdom of his Greek and Roman subjects. Next, however, he turned his attention to judging whether or not each man was fair and just. “It is true,” Plutarch wrote, “that Martius was ever counted an honest-natured man…howbeit Alcibiades merely contrary, for he was fine, subtle, and deceitful” (2). These three virtues were clearly integral to how the ancient Greek biographer judged the fitness of a ruler. Nonetheless, fourth century B.C. biographers esteemed other virtues that lasted the test of time as well.

An individual’s moderation greatly interested the Greeks. Xenophon, for instance, set aside a section to praise Agesilaus for his self-restraint. The eulogist began, “reviewing the divers pleasures which master human beings, I defy any one [sic] to name a single one to which Agesilaus was enslaved” (Agesilaus, V). He continued on, specifying that Agesilaus “regarded drunkenness as a thing to hold aloof from like madness, and immoderate eating like a snare of indolence” (V). If we fast-forward about six centuries, we find that not much has changed for Diogenes Laertius. Documenting the life of Pythagoras, Laertius noted that the philosopher was “never known to over-eat, to behave loosely, or to be drunk” (Diogenes Laertius, VIII. 19). The only real difference between Xenophon and Laertius is that the former heaped on immense praise for such self-control, whereas the latter’s assessment is more objective. This difference can be simply accounted for by the flattering nature of the encomium, and so should not distract one from noticing the parallel interests of the biographers. Laertius’s purpose was simply to describe the nature of his subject. Plutarch, however, was also interested in moderation; but since he sought to judge between two men, he abandoned the objectivity of Laertius and instead took Xenophon’s approach. Self-restraint was such a crucial part of a man’s character for Plutarch that he concluded his Comparative Lives of Alcibiades with Coriolanus as follows:

For [Martius’s] temperance, and clean hands from taking of bribes and money, he may be compared with the most perfect, virtuous, and honest men of all Greece: but not with Alcibiades, who was in that undoubtedly always too licentious and loosely given, and had too small regard of his credit and honesty (Comp. of Alcibiades w. Coriolanus, 5).

Clearly then, characteristics such as justice, courage, wisdom, and moderation, were all core substantive elements of the first Greek prose biographies and remained important to later Greek biographers. But why? As seen above in Plutarch’s conclusory judgment, these attributes were not merely important to the biographer, but to the ancient Greek audience – that is, Greek society considered possessing these traits to be the sign of “the most perfect, virtuous, and honest” man. Whereas the epic poet may have romanticized the physical beauty of a hero fighting in famous wars of a different time, the very first prose biographers were describing very recent and very relevant rulers. For Isocrates, the eulogy of Evagoras also served to provide advice for King Nicocles. Thus prose biographies became venues to discuss meaningful virtues that affected the community in which both the audience and the biographer’s subject lived. Later, when Greek biographers wrote of lives farther removed in time, they discussed the same character traits as their early predecessors, because these attributes – among them justice, courage, wisdom, and moderation – still mattered to the Greek audience.

Style Edit

The form of the prose biography similarly evolved while keeping some core elements from Isocrates and Xenophon. The eulogies of Evagoras and Agesilaus begin by describing the subject’s origins and upbringing, but do not maintain a completely linear chronological progression throughout. Instead, after the introduction they are generally split into two complimentary sections, achievements and virtues, each with some overlap. This form is explicitly seen with Xenophon, where he wrote between sections, “Such, then, is the chronicle of the man’s achievements…. But now I will endeavor to reveal the excellence indwelling in his soul” (Agesilaus, III). Isocrates made a similar transition when he pondered, “If someone were to ask me what I think was Evagoras’ greatest achievement… I would not know what to say…. Accordingly, if any of our predecessors have become immortal as a result of their virtue, I think Evagoras was also worthy of this gift” (Evagoras, 69-70).

This relationship between achievements and virtue, acts and motivation, facts and analysis, was used later by Plutarch. Plutarch documented the individual lives of Alcibiades and Coriolanus with some commentary, but primarily focused on their achievements. Having impartially laid out the lives of his Greek and Roman subjects, he then embarked on his primary discussion of their virtues for the comparison piece at the end. Accounts from Diogenes Laertius, on the other hand, lack a strict organizational structure, and Laertius wrote on philosophers as opposed to political figures. Philosophers’ lives are simply not suited for a chronology of achievements and campaigns as are the lives of rulers. For Laertius, the little anecdotes that illustrate a philosopher’s teachings are the analog of the achievements that illustrate a ruler’s virtues. To name just one example, Laertius’s biography of Diogenes the philosopher is essentially one long list of quotes and anecdotes to demonstrate the cynic’s teachings. So while stylistic relationships can be drawn between Laertius and the ancient eulogies, much of the overall structure is lost due to the difference in subject matter.

In addition to the general form of the encomia, some specific rhetorical devices survived and were used by later biographers. For one fascinating example in particular, we might expand our considerations to St. Augustine’s Confessions. Augustine, at first a great scholar of rhetoric, must have been aware of ancient biographical works, if not specifically Evagoras and Agesilaus, then certainly other Greek biographies which in turn derived their style from the eulogies. Whereas Isocrates sought to praise Evagoras, Augustine sought to praise God. Parallels can be clearly seen in the word play used by each writer. Isocrates at one point manipulates words with negative connotations in a list of succinct sentences so as to demonstrate Evagoras’s virtue:

He made friends subordinate to him by favors and enslaved others by his generosity. He intimidated not by being harsh toward many, but because his nature far surpassed that of others. He controlled his pleasures and was not led by them. He gained considerable leisure by few labors but did not neglect great labors for the sake of small leisures (Evagoras, 45).
To sample just a part of Augustine’s adaptation of this technique, we have:
You change event without a change of plan; acquiring what is at hand without having lost; never in need, yet happy at gain; receiving, without exacting interest on what is owed you; overpaid to be put in debt, yet none pay you with anything you did not, in the first place, give; you honor debts without owing, cancel debts without losing (Confessions, I. 4).
It is clear that in addition to some core aspects of general organization, specific techniques for praise can be found several centuries after they were first used.

Again we might ask, why did some elements of prose style last and others evolve or perish? When applicable, the sections devoted to achievements and virtues continued to be mostly separate yet interdependent, as seen in Plutarch’s Parallel Lives. This worked well as a natural juxtaposition, and needed only change when the subject’s life required it to, such as in the case of the Lives of the Eminent Philosophers. Even then, the idea of explaining actions through virtues and virtues through actions turned into quotes explaining teachings and teachings explaining quotes.2 The endurance of specific rhetorical devices found in Evagoras and Confessions is an effect of similar motivations to praise the subject.

Conclusion Edit

The first ancient Greek prose encomia set certain precedents for biographical focus and style. From Isocrates and Xenophon to Laertius and Plutarch, we see a similar reverence for attributes such as justice, courage, wisdom, and moderation, used to describe and judge rulers, political figures, and philosophers. Biographical organization survived through the interplay between the subject’s life and motivation, and technical rhetoric also lasted when Isocrates and Augustine both sought out the best way to praise. The origins of Greek prose biography left their mark for centuries, often evolving and changing, but always present nonetheless.

Endnotes Edit

1. “To speak next of his justice in affairs of money” (IV); “Nor, in my opinion, were those obscure proofs of courage and true manliness” (VI); “And to speak next of his wisdom” (VI).

2. One example of many can be found in the life of Pythagoras, where his “watchwords or precepts” are first listed, immediately followed by, “This is what they meant” (D.L., VIII. 17-20).

Works Cited Edit

Augustine, and Garry Wills. Confessions. New York: Penguin, 2006. Print.

Isocrates, David C. Mirhady, and Yun Lee Too. Isocrates I. Austin: University of Texas, 2000. Print.

Diogenes, Laertius, and Robert Drew Hicks. Lives of the Eminent Philosophers. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 2005. Print.

Plutarch. Selected Lives. Trans. Thomas North. Comp. Judith Mossman. Hertfordshire: Wordsworth Editions Limited, 1998. Print.

"Xenophon's Agesilaus." Ancient / Classical History - Ancient Greece & Rome & Classics Research Guide. Web. 17 Oct. 2011. <>.

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