Pythagoras was a cult leader, Socrates loved to dance + 8 other revelations

Philosophers often get depicted like sages in ivory towers without a practical or human side. A gossip-filled book from the 3rd century can fix that.

Credit: Public domain/Big Think

Think of how many celebrities you know with personal lives for the world to see. How many of them do you share hobbies with? How many of them have made a humanizing slip-up?

People have been gossiping about celebrity lifestyles since the dawn of fame, but we often focus our attention on the lives of actors, athletes, and attention seekers. Famous academics and philosophers usually get a little more privacy.

This doesn’t mean their lives are any less interesting, however. An entire book, Lives of the Eminent Philosophers by Diogenes Laërtius, was written on the subject in the third century. A new edition reminds us that even eggheads can be just as amusing as rock stars.

Here are some of the most demystifying life stories of 10 famous philosophers. Take some of the details here with a grain of salt though, the book is rather uncritically written, and many details lack sources. Other details are supposedly confirmed by sources long since lost.

This hasn’t stopped other philosophers, Nietzsche and Montaigne among them, from admiring the text and it shouldn't stop you. 


Socrates is held in extremely high esteem as both a great philosopher and academia's great martyr. In Diogenes’ biography, we are reminded of Socrates the man. He tells us of how Socrates served in the army, was often found socializing downtown, and edited his friends’ plays—including Euripides, one of the big three ancient Greek tragedians.

Perhaps most amusingly, Diogenes tells us that Socrates loved to dance and thought that “such exercise helped to keep the body in good condition.” He also learned how to play the lyre as an old man, just like your crazy uncle during his mid-life crisis, and "he saw no absurdity in learning a new accomplishment." 

In a showing of tremendous wit, when his wife told him he suffered unjustly, he asked her, “Would you have me suffer justly?" He also supposedly told a man that he would both regret both getting married and being single, perhaps explaining that last remark.


Aristotle teaching Alexander the Great. Engraving by Charles Laplante (Public domain, via Wikimedia Common)

Plato’s most famous student, Aristotle would go on to touch every branch of human thought that existed at the time. He tutored Alexander the great, wrote an ethical theory that still has a punch, and founded his own academy in Athens. 

The most interesting detail that Diogenes tells us about Aristotle is that he had a lisp or stutter. Given that many of Aristotle's works were given as lectures and recorded later, we must imagine that he either embraced it or worked around it. Diogenes gives us sources for this claim, but his book has long since become the authority on the matter. Accurate or not, Aristotle makes it on to many lists of celebrities with speech impediments. 


Original Artwork: Engraving by Ambrose Tardieu (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Thales is the first philosopher in the western intellectual tradition and is most famous for his argument that water is the fundamental substance of the universe. He was also a noted mathematician, businessman, and sage. 

Diogenes reminds us of his sharp wit. He records that when asked if there was a difference between life and death Thales responded that there was not. When he was then asked, “Why then, do you not die?” Thales retorted “Because it makes no difference.” On another occasion, he was asked which was older, nighttime or daytime. He replied, “Night is older, by one day.”


Plato (left) and his student Aristotle (Right) as imagined by Raphael.

Plato’s contribution to western thought is impossible to overstate. Philosopher Alfred Whitehead went so far as to suggest that all of European philosophy was “a series of footnotes to Plato.

Diogenes tells us a great many things about him. His name, allegedly, was given to him by his wrestling coach on account of his "robust figure"—the name is derived from the Greek word platys, meaning 'broad'. Plato was skilled enough to participate in the Isthmian Games, which attracted athletes from all over Greece.  

Platon was a common name, however, it would be strange for a family so wealthy and noble as Plato's not to name him for an immediate male relative. Diogenes tells us that Plato's real name was Aristocles, but this is impossible to confirm. Plato also called himself "Plato" later in his life, making the issue more difficult. In any case, we might know one of the greatest thinkers of all time by his stage name! 


Solon was an Athenian aristocrat who gave the city a very effective code of laws. Chosen to lead the city by virtue of his wisdom, he lowered the requirements for public office to a level that made the later Athenian Democracy possible.

Diogenes writes that Athens had passed a law threatening to kill any man who even suggested a continuation of the long and bloody Salaminian war. Solon, knowing that Athens could win, feigned insanity and ran into the Agora with a garland on his head as though he were an Olympic champion. In his pretend delirium he recited a poem he had composed to rouse the public to war. It worked, and he became a war hero as a result. This bizarre piece of political theatre made his career, and the golden age of Athens, possible.


Epicurus was a hedonistic philosopher who tried to come up with a new way of living that would maximize the pleasure gained over the course of a lifetime. His answer was to live a moderate, temperate life in a large house with your friends and to study philosophy. Overindulgence, long the stock and trade of the hedonists, was seen as the cause of suffering.

The only remaining works of Epicurus are to be found in this book, a few letters that he wrote are reproduced in full while an extensive bibliography of lost works is given. Diogenes agrees with other sources that he had and probably died of a severe kidney stone problem. However, the biography given here accounts that Epicurus had a happy death, as recounted in this poem. 

Farewell, my friends; the truths I taught hold fast:
Thus Epicurus spake, and breathed his last.
He sat in a warm bath and neat wine quaffed,
And straightway found chill death in that same draught.


Democritus was a thinker who is best remembered for arguing that the universe was made up of atoms. He and the other atomists had no empirical evidence for their claims but largely stumbled into modern science anyway.

Diogenes explains that he would go on trips to far-off lands to learn and socialize with friends. Upon his return, he would be so broke that he had to live off his brother, kind of like that one friend of yours who always posts pictures of their exotic travels but then can’t afford to go out when they get back. He later earned a fortune as a result of "foreseeing the future"—using his masterful grasp of science to predict weather and seasons.


(Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

The namesake for the Pythagorean theorem, Pythagoras was a mystic who saw mathematics everywhere he looked and managed a small cult. His followers had a myriad of strange rules; none of them could eat beans, the right shoe had to go on first, and long vows of silence were the norm.

He died as strangely as he lived. When he and his cult were attacked by a mob, Pythagoras fled. While modern scholars debate if he was killed or escaped to die in exile, Diogenes tells us he was killed. While running away from the mob, he came across a field of beans. Since he found them unsuitable to eat, he refused to run across them. The mob caught up and killed him. 

Zeno of Elea

Zeno of Elea is famous for inventing the dialectic method of argument and coming up with some famous paradoxes. He famously argued that movement is impossible.

Diogenes tells us that he was arrested for conspiracy against the tyrannical ruler of Elea. Zeno refused to give up his friends but did agree to whisper a secret to the tyrant that would be advantageous to him. When the tyrant allowed Zeno to approach his ear, the great philosopher “laid hold of it with his teeth and did not let go until stabbed to death.”


Diogenes Searching for an Honest Man by Johann Tischbein.

The author of The Lives of Eminent Philosophers himself shared a name with an eminent philosopher. Diogenes the Cynic was a thinker in the school of cynicism. He lived in a barrel, owned only a bowl, and once told Alexander the Great to move out of the way and stop blocking the sunlight. His life would inspire the Stoics, whose philosophy continues to inspire us today.

We learn in this book that he was once kidnapped by pirates and sold as a slave. As he stood on the auction block, he was asked his trade. He responded with, “I know how to govern men, does anybody need a master?” He was eagerly snatched up by a man who used him as a tutor for his children. Sources differ on if that man chose to free him immediately or not. 

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Reactive oxygen species (ROS) accumulate in the gut of sleep-deprived fruit flies, one (left), seven (center) and ten (right) days without sleep.

Image source: Vaccaro et al, 2020/Harvard Medical School
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We don't have to tell you what it feels like when you don't get enough sleep. A night or two of that can be miserable; long-term sleeplessness is out-and-out debilitating. Though we know from personal experience that we need sleep — our cognitive, metabolic, cardiovascular, and immune functioning depend on it — a lack of it does more than just make you feel like you want to die. It can actually kill you, according to study of rats published in 1989. But why?

A new study answers that question, and in an unexpected way. It appears that the sleeplessness/death connection has nothing to do with the brain or nervous system as many have assumed — it happens in your gut. Equally amazing, the study's authors were able to reverse the ill effects with antioxidants.

The study, from researchers at Harvard Medical School (HMS), is published in the journal Cell.

An unexpected culprit

The new research examines the mechanisms at play in sleep-deprived fruit flies and in mice — long-term sleep-deprivation experiments with humans are considered ethically iffy.

What the scientists found is that death from sleep deprivation is always preceded by a buildup of Reactive Oxygen Species (ROS) in the gut. These are not, as their name implies, living organisms. ROS are reactive molecules that are part of the immune system's response to invading microbes, and recent research suggests they're paradoxically key players in normal cell signal transduction and cell cycling as well. However, having an excess of ROS leads to oxidative stress, which is linked to "macromolecular damage and is implicated in various disease states such as atherosclerosis, diabetes, cancer, neurodegeneration, and aging." To prevent this, cellular defenses typically maintain a balance between ROS production and removal.

"We took an unbiased approach and searched throughout the body for indicators of damage from sleep deprivation," says senior study author Dragana Rogulja, admitting, "We were surprised to find it was the gut that plays a key role in causing death." The accumulation occurred in both sleep-deprived fruit flies and mice.

"Even more surprising," Rogulja recalls, "we found that premature death could be prevented. Each morning, we would all gather around to look at the flies, with disbelief to be honest. What we saw is that every time we could neutralize ROS in the gut, we could rescue the flies." Fruit flies given any of 11 antioxidant compounds — including melatonin, lipoic acid and NAD — that neutralize ROS buildups remained active and lived a normal length of time in spite of sleep deprivation. (The researchers note that these antioxidants did not extend the lifespans of non-sleep deprived control subjects.)

fly with thought bubble that says "What? I'm awake!"

Image source: Tomasz Klejdysz/Shutterstock/Big Think

The experiments

The study's tests were managed by co-first authors Alexandra Vaccaro and Yosef Kaplan Dor, both research fellows at HMS.

You may wonder how you compel a fruit fly to sleep, or for that matter, how you keep one awake. The researchers ascertained that fruit flies doze off in response to being shaken, and thus were the control subjects induced to snooze in their individual, warmed tubes. Each subject occupied its own 29 °C (84F) tube.

For their sleepless cohort, fruit flies were genetically manipulated to express a heat-sensitive protein in specific neurons. These neurons are known to suppress sleep, and did so — the fruit flies' activity levels, or lack thereof, were tracked using infrared beams.

Starting at Day 10 of sleep deprivation, fruit flies began dying, with all of them dead by Day 20. Control flies lived up to 40 days.

The scientists sought out markers that would indicate cell damage in their sleepless subjects. They saw no difference in brain tissue and elsewhere between the well-rested and sleep-deprived fruit flies, with the exception of one fruit fly.

However, in the guts of sleep-deprived fruit flies was a massive accumulation of ROS, which peaked around Day 10. Says Vaccaro, "We found that sleep-deprived flies were dying at the same pace, every time, and when we looked at markers of cell damage and death, the one tissue that really stood out was the gut." She adds, "I remember when we did the first experiment, you could immediately tell under the microscope that there was a striking difference. That almost never happens in lab research."

The experiments were repeated with mice who were gently kept awake for five days. Again, ROS built up over time in their small and large intestines but nowhere else.

As noted above, the administering of antioxidants alleviated the effect of the ROS buildup. In addition, flies that were modified to overproduce gut antioxidant enzymes were found to be immune to the damaging effects of sleep deprivation.

The research leaves some important questions unanswered. Says Kaplan Dor, "We still don't know why sleep loss causes ROS accumulation in the gut, and why this is lethal." He hypothesizes, "Sleep deprivation could directly affect the gut, but the trigger may also originate in the brain. Similarly, death could be due to damage in the gut or because high levels of ROS have systemic effects, or some combination of these."

The HMS researchers are now investigating the chemical pathways by which sleep-deprivation triggers the ROS buildup, and the means by which the ROS wreak cell havoc.

"We need to understand the biology of how sleep deprivation damages the body so that we can find ways to prevent this harm," says Rogulja.

Referring to the value of this study to humans, she notes,"So many of us are chronically sleep deprived. Even if we know staying up late every night is bad, we still do it. We believe we've identified a central issue that, when eliminated, allows for survival without sleep, at least in fruit flies."

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