Diogenes Laertius on the Stoics, III: Chrysippus

ChrysippusThe last major Stoic figure to be covered in Diogenes Laertius’ Lives of the Eminent Philosophers is that of Chrysippus, the third head of the Stoa (after Zeno and Cleanthes).

Chrysippus too was an example of a philosopher who began as an athlete, in his case a long-distance runner (Cleanthes was a pugilist, you may recall). Like Cleanthes, as well as Zeno, Chrysippus was of poor financial means when he began his practice of philosophy — in his case because his father’s inheritance had been confiscated by the king (we are not told for what reasons).

In response to someone’s criticism that he didn’t follow common opinion, Chrysippus rightly replied: “If I had followed the multitude, I should not have studied philosophy.” He was so influential on Stoicism that Diogenes tells us that “but for Chrysippus, there had been no Porch.”

Still, he did hold to some unusual notions. We are told, for instance, that in his Republic (a common title for ancient philosophical treatises: besides Plato’s famous version, Zeno also wrote one) that he approved of “marriage with mothers and daughters and sons.” In his On Justice he apparently permits “eating of the corpses of the dead.” Nowadays, however, we remember Chrysippus mostly for his many innovations to Stoic logic, metaphysics and ethics.

There are, as usual, several accounts of his death. According to one, Chrysippus died at age 73, as a result of dizziness caused by drinking wine unmixed with water. “Another account” — says Diogenes — “is that his death was caused by a violent fit of laughter; for after an ass had eaten up his figs, he cried out to the old woman, ‘Now give the ass a drink of pure wine to wash down the figs.’ And thereupon he laughed so heartily that he died.”