), the son of Telecleides or Teleclytus, was born in the island of Melos (Milo), one of the Cyclades.
He was a poet and a philosopher, who throughout antiquity was regarded as an atheist (ἄθεος
With the exception of this one point, we possess only very scanty information concerning his life and literary activity. All that is known is carefully collected by M. H. E. Meier (in Ersch. u. Gruber's Allgem. Encyclop.
xxiv. pp. 439-448).
The age of this remarkable man can be determined only in a general way by the fact of his being called a disciple of Democritus of Abdera, who taught about B. C. 436.
But the circumstance that, besides Bacchylides (about B. C. 435), Pindar also is called his contemporary, is a manifest anachronism, as has been already observed by Brandis. (Gesch. d. Griech. Röm. Philos.
i. p. 341.) Nearly all the ancient authorities agree that Melos was his native place, and Tatian, a late Christian writer, who calls him an Athenian, does so probably for no other reason but because Athens was the principal scene of the activity of Diagoras. (Tatian, Orat. adv. Graec.
p. 164a.) Lobeck (Aglaoph.
p. 370) is the only one among modern critics who maintains that the native country of Diagoras is uncertain.
According to a tradition in Hesychius Milesius and Suidas, Democritus the philosopher ransomed him for a very large sum from the captivity into which he had fallen in the cruel subjugation of Melos under Alcibiades (B. C. 411), and this account at all events serves to attest the close personal relation of these two kindredminded men, although the details respecting the ransom, for instance, may be incorrect.
The same authorities further state, that in his youth Diagoras had acquired some reputation as a lyric poet, and this is probably the cause of his being mentioned together with the lyric poets Simonides, Pindar, and Bacchylides. Thus he is said to have composed ᾁσματα
, and dithyrambs. Among his èncomia is mentioned in particular an eulogy on Arianthes of Argos, who is otherwise unknown, 1
another on Nicodorus, a statesman of Mantineia, and a third upon the Mantineians. Diagoras is said to have lived in intimate friendship with Nicodorus, who was celebrated as a statesman and lawgiver in his native place, and lived, according to Perizonius (ad Ael. VH 2.23
), at the time of Artaxerxes Mnemon.
The foolish Aelian, who has preserved this statement, declines any further discussion of this relation, although he knew more about it, under the pretext that he thought it objectionable to say anything in praise of a man who was so hostile to the gods (Δεοῖς ἐχθρὸν Διαγόραν
But still he informs us, that Diagoras assisted Nicodorus in his legislation, which he himself praises as very wise and good. Wachsmuth (Hellen. Alterth.
1.2, p. 90) places this political activity of the two friends about the beginning of the Peloponnesian war.
We find Diagoras at Athens as early as B. C. 424, for Aristophanes in the Clouds
(830), which were performed in that year, alludes to him as a well-known character; and when Socrates, as though it were a mistake, is there called a Melian, the poet does so in order to remind his hearers at once of Diagoras and of his attacks upon the popular religion.
In like manner Hippon is called a Melian, merely because he was a follower of Diagoras.
It can scarcely be doubted that Diagoras was acquainted with Socrates, a connexion which is described in the scholia on Aristophanes as if he had been a teacher of Socrates. Fifteen years later, B. C. 411, he was involved, as Diodorus (13.6
) informs us, by the democratical party in a lawsuit about impiety (διαβολῆς τνχὼν ἐπ̓ ἀσεβείᾳ
), and he thought it advisable to escape its result by flight. Religion seems to have been only the pretext for that accusation, for the mere fact of his being a Melian made him an object of suspicion with the people of Athens. In B. C. 416, Melos had been conquered and cruelly treated by the Athenians, and it is not at all impossible that Diagoras, indignant at such treatment, may have taken part in the party-strife at Athens, and thus have drawn upon himself the suspicion of the democratical party, for the opinion that heterodoxy was persecuted at Athens, and that the priests in particular busied themselves about such matters, is devoid of all foundation. (Bernhardy, Gesch. d. Griech. Lit.
i. p. 322.) All the circumstances of the case lead us to the conclusion, that the accusation of Diagoras was altogether and essentially of a political nature.
All that we know of his writings, and especially of his poems, shews no trace of irreligion, but on the contrary contains evidence of the most profound religious feeling. (Philodemus in the Herculanens.
ed. Drummond and Walpole, p. 164.) Moreover, we do not find that out of Athens the charge of ἀσέβεια
was taken notice of in any other part of Greece. All that we know for certain on the point is, that Diagoras was one of those philosophers who, like Socrates, certainly gave offence by their views concerning the worship of the national gods; but we know what liberties the Attic comedy could take in this respect with impunity.
There is also an anecdote that Diagoras, for want of other fire-wood, once threw a wooden statue of Heracles into the fire, in order to cook a dish of lentils, and, if there is any truth in it, it certainly shews his liberal views respecting polytheism and the rude worship of images. (Meier, l.c.
In like manner he may have ridiculed the common notions of the people respecting the actions of the gods, and their direct and personal interference with human affairs.
This, too, is alluded to in several very characteristic anecdotes. For example, on his flight from Athens by sea to Pallene he was overtaken by a storm, and on hearing his fellowpassengers say, that this storm was sent them by the gods as a punishment, because they had an atheist on board, Diagoras shewed them other vessels at some distance which were struggling with the same storm without having a Diagoras on board. (Cic. de Nat. Deor.
This and similar anecdotes (D. L. 6.59
) accurately describe the relation in which our philosopher stood to the popular religion.
That he maintained his own position with great firmness, and perhaps with more freedom, wit, and boldness than was advisable, seems to be attested by the fact, that he
in particular obtained the epithet of ά̀θεος
in antiquity. Many modern writers maintain that this epithet ought not to be given to him, because he merely denied the direct
interference of God with the world; but though atheists, in the proper sense of the word, have never existed, and in that sense Diagoras was certainly not an atheist, yet as he did not believe in the personal existence of the Athenian gods and their human mode of acting, the Athenians could hardly have regarded him as other than an atheist.
In the eulogy on his friend Nicodorus he sang
Κατὰ δαίμονα καὶ τύχαν τὰ πάντα Βρότοισιν ἐκτελεῖται
But to return to the accusation of Diagoras, in consequence of which he was obliged to quit Athens.
That time was one in which scepticism was beginning to undermine the foundations of the ancient popular belief.
The trial of those who had broken down the statues of Hermes, the profanation of the mysteries, and the accusation of Alcibiades, are symptoms which shew that the unbelief, nourished by the speculations of philosophers and by the artifices of the sophists, began to appear very dangerous to the conservative party at Athens.
There is no doubt that Diagoras paid no regard to the established religion of the people, and he may occasionally have ridiculed it; but he also ventured on direct attacks upon public institutions of the Athenian worship, such as the Eleusinian mysteries, which he endeavoured to lower in public estimation, and he is said to have prevented many persons from becoming initiated in them.
These at least are the points of which the ancients accuse him (Craterus, apud Scol. Aristoph. l.c. ;
Tarrhaeus, apud Said.;
Lysias, c. Andocid.
p. 214; Joseph. c. Apion.
2.37; Tatian, ad v. Graec.
p. 164a.), and this statement is also supported by the circumstance, that Melanthius, in his work on the mysteries, mentions the decree passed against Diagoras.
But, notwithstanding the absence of accurate information, we can discover political motives through all these religious disputes. Diagoras was a Melian, and consequently belonged to the Doric race ; he was a friend of the Doric Mantineia, which was hated by Athens, and had only recently given up its alliance with Athens; the Dorians and Ionians were opposed to each other in various points of their worship, and this spark of hostility was kindled into a glowing hatred by the Peloponnesian war. Diagoras fled from Athens in time to escape the consequences of the attacks which his enemies had made upon him.
He was therefore punished by Steliteusis,
that is, he was condemned, and the psephisma was engraved on a column, promising a prize for his head, and one talent to the person who should bring his dead body to Athens, and two talents to him who should deliver him up alive to the Athenians. (Schol. ad Aristoph. Av.
1013, 1073; Diod. 13.6
.) Melanthius, in his work on the mysteries, had preserved a copy of this psephisma.
That the enemies of the philosopher acted on that occasion with great injustice and animosity towards him, we may infer from the manner in which Aristophanes, in his Birds, which was brought upon the stage in that year, speaks of the matter; for he describes that decree as having been framed in the republic of the birds, and ridicules it by the ludicrous addition that a prize was offered to any one who should kill a dead tyrant. Meier, with full justice, infers from this passage of Aristophanes, that the poet did not approve of the proceedings of the people, who were instigated by their leaders, had become frightened about the preservation of the constitution, and were thus misled to various acts of violence.
The mere fact that Aristophanes could venture upon such an insinuation shews that Diagoras was by no means in the same bad odour with all the Athenians.
From Athens Diagoras first went to Pallene 2
in Achaia, which town was on the side of Lacedaemon from the beginning of the Peloponnesian war, and before any other of the Achaean towns. (Thuc. 2.9
It was in vain that the Athenians demanded his surrender, and in consequence of this refusal, they included the inhabitants of Pallene in the same decree which had been passed against Diagoras.
This is a symptom of that fearful passion and blindness with which the Athenian people, misguided as it was by demagogues, tore itself to pieces in those unfortunate trials about those who had upset the Hermae. (Wachsmuth, l.c.
1.2, p.192; Droysen, in his Introduct. to the Birds of Aristoph. p. 240, &c.) For all that we know of Diagoras, his expressions and opinions, his accusation and its alleged cause, leads us to see in him one of the numberless persons who were suspected, and were fortunate enough to escape the consequences of the trial by flight. From Pallene he went to Corinth, where, as Suidas states, he died.
Among the works of Diagoras we have mention of a work entitled Φρν́γιοι λόγοι
in which he is said to have theoretically explained his atheism, and to have endeavoured to establish it by arguments.
This title of the work, which occurs also as a title among the works of Democritus and other Greek philosophers (D. L. 9.49
, mentions the λόγος Φρν́γιος
of Democritus, and concerning other works of the same title, see Lobeck, Aglaoph.
p. 369, &c.), leads us to suppose that Diagoras treated in that work of the Phrygian divinities, who were received in Greece, and endeavoured to explain the mythuses which referred to them; it is probable also that he drew the different mysteries within the circle of his investigations, and it may be that his accusers at Athens referred to this work.
The relation of Diagoras to the popular religion and theology of his age cannot be explained without going back to the opinions of his teacher, Democritus, and the intellectual movement of the time.
The atomistic philosophy had substituted for a world-governing deity the relation of cause and effect as the sources of all things. Democritus explained the wide-spread belief in gods as the result of fear of unusual and unaccountable phaenomena in nature; and, starting from this principle, Diagoras, at a time when the ancient popular belief had already been shaken, especially in the minds of the young, came forward with the decidedly sophistical doctrine, that there were no gods at all. His attacks seem to have been mainly directed against the dogmas of Greek theology and mythology, as well as against the established forms of worship.
The expression of the Scholiast on Aristophanes (Aristoph. Frogs 323
), that Diagoras, like Socrates, introduced new divinities, must probably be referred to the fact, that according to the fashion of the sophists, which is caricatured by Aristophanes in the Clouds, he substituted the active powers of nature for the activity of the gods; and some isolated statements thtt have come down to us render it probable that he did this in a witty manner, somewhat bordering upon frivolity; but there is no passage to shew that his disbelief in the popular gods, and his ridicule of the established, rude, and materialistic belief of the people, produced anything like an immoral conduct in the life and actions of the man. On the contrary, all accounts attest that he discharged the duties of life in an exemplary manner, that he was a moral and very estimable man, and that he was in earnest when in the eulogy on Arianthes of Argos he said : Δεὸς
, Δεὸς πρὸ παντὸς ἔργον νώμᾳ φρέν̓ ν̔περτάταν
! We do not feel inclined, with Meier, to doubt the statement that he distinguished himself not only as a philosopher, but also as an orator, and that he possessed many friends and great influence; for though we find it in an author of only secondary weight (Dion Chrysost. Hom. IV in prim. Epist. ad Corinth.
Op. v. p. 30, ed. Montf.), yet it perfectly agrees with the fate which Diagoras experienced for the very reason that he was not an unimportant man at Athens. (Fabric. Bibl. Graec.
ii. p 654, &c.; Brucker, Hist. Crit. Philos.
i. p. 1203; Thienemann, in Fülleborn's Beiträge zur (Gesch. der Philos.
xi. p. 15, &c.; D. L. Mounier, Disputatio de Diagora Melio,