The Birth of Biography

During the Hellenistic period, we assist to a changed conception of the Greek man and his life. He is finally rather freed from the ties that characterised the 5th century b.C. scenario where he was seen, and consequently felt himself, mainly – if not exclusively – as a member of the community, a citizen of his πόλις, principally belonging to his family and his tribe. His life was now conceivable under a diverse and autonomous perspective, far away from the authority thanks to the new larger distances that Alexander the Great had created within his humongous empire.

Greek man starts joining clubs in accordance with his trade or hobbies, begins reading avidly and more down to earth subjects rather than the topics upon which epic and the classic tragedy was based. Realism was the main issue in those days: artists active in any field (sculpture, painting, poetry…) started to represent reality in any possible way, leaving to the past the canons of the classic period. This implied no more images of gods and heroes, representing abstractly beauty, courage and rage, but realistic and more common resembling people with feelings and even flaws! In this very same period the interest for great men grew, as well as the audience of readers, including for the first time even women. This interest stimulated the birth of biography as an independent literary genre from history.


During the classical period the interest of historians like Herodotus and Thucydides for biography had been quite immaterial, as it was not even considered a separate genre. Probably the attention exclusively placed on ideal characters, myths and epic heroes prevented any interest in the analysis of the actual men. Furthermore life was believed in the hands of Τύχη (chance or fate) and consequently any effort of men on earth was of no avail – men’s frailty meant to a certain extent their uselessness. Finally men were deemed too equal to leave anyone enough room to excel too much with respect to his fellow citizens.

Nonetheless, we find early writers who commenced narrating about some personal characteristics or episodes, such as Ion of Chios (490 b.C.) who wrote in his Epidemiai (Travels) also anecdotes about Pericles and Sophocles in order to give to his readers some additional information about the person and not simply of his opus or acts.

Almost one century later Isocrates (with his Evagoras I of Salamina) and Xenophon (with his Agesilaus II of Sparta) developed a new variant: the encomium, which is the biography of kings and emperors mainly aimed at magnifying their greatness as men as well as monarchs.

Aristoxenus of Taras can be considered the real father of biography as a separate literary category. A convinced Pythagorean he travelled widely and then settled down in Athens, where he became one of the best students of Aristotle. Disillusioned for not having been appointed as successor of Aristotle in leading the Lyceum, he left the school (322 b.C.) and started writing extensively (about 450 books) on almost any possible subject (history, musicology, philosophy etc.). Unfortunately only three books of the Elements of Harmony, an incomplete musical treatise, have reached us.

Aristoxenus wrote biographies of Pythagoras, Archytas, Socrates, and Plato. His approach to biography was not simply following the Aristotelic interest for the classification of individual characters, since his personal idea was to rely on the interpretation of life and writings of great men in order to comprehend their thought and greatness. Aristoxenus was probably the first one who showed that great men were not merely or solely the heroes, kings or generals, but people who had a memorable life thank also to their thought – evidence is that he lived in the age of Alexander the Great, whose biography he did not write….

Thus with his writings he initiated a new genre, and almost all the successive biographers started following his framework, as a template: historical scenario, birth, early youth, paramount episodes to reveal the character and finally death. Aristoxenus often liked to enrich this framework with stingy personal opinions plus anecdotes and curiosities generally in order to show off his vast culture and deep erudition.

Following the trail created by Aristoxenus, Satyrus of Callatis Pontica, who lived and worked mainly in Egypt, wrote biographies of Euripides, Pythagoras, and Demosthenes. Then he shifted his attention to Dionysus II of Syracuse, and Philip II of Macedonia. He was, nevertheless, a balanced writer avoiding to downsize his biographies to legendary tales

Antigonus of Caristos was principally a sculptor; probably he participated to some bronze artefacts in Pergamus by Attalus court. However he wrote his Lives of the Philosophers, a very detailed and erudite account, based on original material and personal interviews. Almost in the same period Hieronymus of Cardias wrote nearly an encomium of Demetrius I Poliorcetes.

Also true historians, in their comprehensive and encyclopaedic writings, started to write and linger more on life of important characters. Theopompus, of Chios (378-323 b.C.) wrote extensively about Philip II of Macedonia, plus encomia of Mausolus, Philip and Alexander. Even Polybius, within his famous historical treatise on the birth and growth of the Roman Empire, lingers on the personality of the Achaean general Philopoemen.

Regardless this production and the growing interest of the readers, both biography and autobiography, whose first example is the Memoirs of Aratus of Sicyon (271-213 b.C.), were destined to be considered a minor art, a sub-category of history even centuries later in Rome…

Later on, starting with Plutarch biography slowly acquired its own dignity, and as much as someone more recently has reached to the conclusion that History itself is made of the histories of those who have had the fortune/misfortune to influence it.

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Why and whys of Philosophy

Why Philosophy? In other words what is the use of Philosophy, especially nowadays: in a hyper technical world, characterised by a fast, often brief and strongly superficial communication and even more by a quite rare inclination to introspection and meditation, and a tough reluctance to activities without a direct either social, career-wise or financial return.


Well I must admit that the response is not an easy one. I would start by saying that in the first place the enquiry itself is not well formulated and it already contains and shows at the same time the limits of a widely diffused current way of thinking: not all the activities a person performs must necessarily have a direct usefulness, in terms of present return or even of future spendability.

If you consider it, you will realise that Philosophy itself is the repudiation of this principle, since it means love for study, research and intellectual speculation. This love for knowledge is pure and uninterested and its only aim is knowledge.

This approach has lead – and still leads – the philosopher to ask himself questions which not necessarily, and rather seldom, have answers. Regardless the difficulties or impossibility of proposing answers philosophers have been asking themselves on behalf of the whole human kind the most capital whys and hows. Why do we live? Why we feel necessary to believe in something supernatural? What are the laws of the universe? How is the world born? What is the sense of life? Is there something after death? Should we believe in an overall supernatural justice? Is everything already written somewhere or we have the power of changing the course of our life? What is the conduct we should maintain in our life?

I know it is overwhelming: for over three thousand years the early scientists, thinkers, religious at the beginning and the true sole philosophers afterwards have been trying to contemplate responses to these questions. Some, but not all, of their explanations and solutions might seem naïve, especially when you go to the dawn of these studies, in the Greek Ionian City-states located on the West coast of what we call now Turkey.

Of course within these three millennia the progress in scientific studies and their technical applications have been enormous, but what is remarkably important is to note the strong need for these people, along all these centuries and still now, to ask themselves and try to give answers, a constant research which demonstrates the consistency of the inquisitive aspects of human nature, regardless the achievements, discovers and inventions. Some scientific theories, therefore, have been surpassed, and many inventions have been outshined; but I challenge you to throw the entire thought of an ancient Philosopher, some or even many of his findings cannot be considered old and inapplicable to our times.


Naturally still now, most if not all, of these question are unanswered – which makes Philosophy so present. A very controversial situation, in a world into which people are so used to believe that there are answers ready made for everyone…


I personally believe that Philosophy ought to help anyone to give to things and events the right weight and significance, to balance the judgment of situations, persons and relations, to develop a deeper consciousness of being.

Thus it ought to be studied, not for the sake of reaching responses, since, as it is easily understandable it would be a real disappointing exercise; but for the sake of the questions themselves. The research, the introspection, the speculations will widen the spectrum through which reading of our experiences and hopefully to break the often narrowness of our vision of the world.

Then expect a new, more critical approach to the interpretation of life, against the supine acceptance of the too widely and invasively proposed standards and cliché.

Don’t you think it is worth? I know I myself fell into the trap of proposing to study philosophy in order to achieve a direct goal, the real freedom of thought… after all also I am a child of these times…

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