European Scholar

DIELS, Hermann Alexander

  • Image
  • Date of Birth (YYYY-MM-DD): 1848-05-18
  • Born City: Biebrich
  • Born State/Country: Germany
  • Parents: Ludwig, a railroad stationmaster, & Anna D.
  • Date of Death (YYYY-MM-DD): 1922-06-04
  • Death City: Dahlem, Stieglitz-Zehlendorf,
  • Death State/Country: Germany
  • Education:

    Gymnasium, Wiesbaden, 1858-67; study at Berlin, 1867-8; Ph.D., Bonn, 1870; LL.D., Cambridge, 1909.

  • Professional Experience:

    Teacher, Gymnasium, Flenburg, 1870-3; Gehlertenschule, Johanneum, Hamburg, 1873-7; Konigstadtische, Berlin, 1877-82, ed. Commentaria in Aristotelem Graeca, 1877-1909; prof. exraordinarius, Berlin, 1882-6; ordinarius, 1886-1920; rector, 1905-6; member, Berlin Academy, 1881; secretary, philosophical-historical section, 1895-1920; member, British Academy; foreign honorary member, American Academy of Arts and Sciences, 1907; member, American Philosophical Society, 1909; co-founder, Archiv für Geschichte der Philosophie,1888.

  • Dissertation:

    “De Galeni historia philosophia” (Bonn, 1870)

  • Publications:


    Doxographi Graeci collegit recensuit Prolegomenis Indicibusque instruxit (Berlin, 1879) ; Simplicii in Physicorum Libros quattuor priores, Commentaria in Aristotelem Graeca, vol. IX (Berlin, 1882); Sibyllinische Blätter (Berlin, 1890); Anonymi Londinensis ex Aristotelis latricis Menoniis et aliis medicis eclogae, Supplement turn Aristotelicum, vol. III, part I (Berlin, 1893; reprinted 1961); Simplicii in Physicorum Libros quattuor posteriores, Commentaria in Aristotelem Graeca, vol. X (Berlin, 1895); Parmenides' Lehrgedicht. Griechisch und Deutsch. Mit einem Anhang über griechische Türen und Schlösser (Berlin, 1897); Elementum. Eine Vorarbeit zum Griechischen und Lateinischen Thesaurus (Leipzig, 1899); Poetarum philosophorum fragmenta (Berlin, 1901); Herakleitos von Ephesos. Griechisch und Deutsch (Berlin, 1901; 2d ed., 1909); Die Fragmente der Vorsokratiker. Griechisch und Deutsch (Berlin, 1903; 2d ed., revised and enlarged. Vol. I, Berlin 1906; Vol. II, 1907, 2nd half, Wortindex, compiled by W. Kranz, foreword and supplement by H. Diels, 1910; 3rd ed., 1912; 4th ed., 1922; 5th ed., 1934-1937. English translation of the fifth edition by Kathleen Freeman as Ancilla to the Pre-Socratic Philosophers [Oxford, 1948]; see also K. Freeman, The Presocratic Philosophers: A Companion to Diels’ Fragmente der Vorsokratiker (Oxford, 1946); Didymos’ Kommentar zu Demosthenes (Papyrus 9780) nebst Wörterbuch zu Demosthenes’ Aristocratea (Papyrus 5008), compiled with W. Schubart, in Berliner Klassikertexte 1 (Berlin, 1904); Didymi de Demosthene Commenta cum Anonymi in Aristocrateam lexico post editionem Berolinensem, ed. with W. Schubart (Leipzig, 1904); Anonymer Kommentar zu Platons Theaetet (Papyrus 9782) nebst drei Bruchstucken philosophischen Inhalts (Papyrus N. 8; Papyrus 9766; 9569), under the supervision of J. L. Heiberg, compiled by Diels and W. Schubart, in Berliner Klassikertexte 2 (Berlin, 1905); Colloquium über antikes Schriftwesen (1908): Vorlesungen über Herodot (1907-08), intro. J. Dummer and W. Rosier, epilogue H. Hommel (Leipzig, London, & New York, 1984); Theophrasti Characteres (Oxford, 1909; reprinted 1920; 1944; 1952; 1961; 1964); Antike Technik. Sechs Vortrtige (Leipzig & Berlin, 1914; enlarged 2d ed., 1919; 3rd ed., 1924); Galeni In Hippocratis Prorrheticum I, in Corpus Medicorum Graecorum, V.9, 2 (Leipzig, 1915): 1-178; T. Lucretii Cari de rerum natura libri sex (Berlin, 1923); Lukrez von der Natur (ed.), foreword by J. Mewaldt, preface by Albert Einstein (Berlin, 1924).

    Articles (Collected)

    Hermann Diels. Kleine Schriften zur Geschichte der antiken Philosophie, ed. W. Burkert (Hildesheim, 1969).

  • Notes:

    Diels edited texts such as the Fragmente der Vorsokratiker that changed the course of study of early Greek philosophy, organized scholarly projects such as the Commentaria in Aristotelem Graeca and the Corpus Medicorum Graecorum that are still indispensable for modern scholarship.

    His father had intended that Hermann be a salesman, but the young Diels protested, finally getting his way, and was allowed to attend the Gymnasium in Wiesbaden. Nevertheless, his father still insisted that Hermann learn a trade, so Diels learned the profession of bookbinding. He bound many of the books in his own library, which bear witness to his skill (after his death Diels’s library was acquired by the University of Louvain). Strong reinforcement to commit himself to classics came from his uncle Karl Rossel (1815-1872), who had a Ph.D. from the University of Göttingen (with a thesis, De philosophia Socratis, in 1837). Diels’s schoolboy hobby of experimenting in chemistry and his interest in technical matters remained throughout his career and aided his work on ancient technology. His father, in addition to being a stationmaster, started several businesses (such as breeding silkworms) in order to finance his son’s studies; all failed.

    His first year of study of classical philology (spring 1867-1868) at the University of Berlin was on the whole disappointing. The only teachers Diels respected were J. G. Droysen (1808-1884) and, to a much lesser degree, Moriz Haupt (1808-1874). In 1867 Diels signed up for the seminar of August Böckh (1785-1867), who became too ill to complete the course and died the same year. Diels continued his studies (spring 1868) at the University of Bonn under Otto Jahn (1813-69) as well as under Jahn’s successor, Franz Bucheler (1837-1908), and in particular Hermann Usener (1834-1905). Fellow students were Ulrich von Wilamowitz-Moellendorff (1848-1931), Georg Kaibel (1849-1901), and Carl Robert (1850-1922). As a third-year student under Usener’s guidance he started exploring the relationship of the collections of Placita philosophorum in Plutarch, Stobaeus, and Galen, a study from which Diels’s Doxographi finally evolved. Diels mentions in his (unpublished and now lost) memoirs on his earlier years that the librarian Jacob Bernays (1824-1881), whose contributions to Aristotelian scholarship are still being discussed today, denied him access to some holdings of the library. For his work on the Placita Diels received the Faculty Prize in 1869. He graduated as Doctor of Philosophy with a thesis on De Galeni historia philosopha in 1870. For four months he traveled to Austria and Italy studying Greek manuscripts and searching for texts of florilegia. At the Archeological Institute in Rome he got to know a number of scholars, among them Rudolf Hirzel (1846-1917).

    Financial constraints did not allow him to prepare for the “Habilitation” (therefore, he never was “Privatdozent”) and forced him to teach at Gymnasia, first in Flensburg, then in Hamburg (called by him the “Hamburg galley”). He worked regularly from A.M. to 1 A.M. Moral support from Usener and Eduard Zeller (1814-1908) helped him persevere. Diels respected both men most highly and kept up a correspondence with each over many years.

    During this time, Zeller had invited Diels to participate in projects to be undertaken by the Berlin Academy. When the Academy announced a prize in 1874 for the best study on Pseudo-Plutarch’s Placita, Diels submitted the manuscript of the Doxographi Graeci and won the award in July 1877. The first part of the Doxographi Graeci (1879) contains a prolegomena, in which Diels attempted to demonstrate that the ancient texts dealing with the opinions of the philosophers go back to Theophrastus’ Physikai doxai. He showed how excerpts were used by later authors for their excerpts and he attributed a crucial role to Aetius (first or second century A.D.), whose Ξυναγωγὴ περὶ ἀρεσκόντων Diels regarded as one of the most important sources for the literature on the opinions of the philosophers. The volume contains an edition of the texts of the Doxographi and a large index. It has been said by Otto Regenbogen (1891-1966) that Diels’ Doxographi Graeci presents a new kind of scholarship in a new area applying a new method: Diels introduced the study of the tradition of Greek philosophy. By analyzing the relationships of dependencies between the different sources, he placed the research on the history of Greek philosophy on a new basis. Naturally, it was unavoidable that some of Diels’s results would be rejected, in particular his reconstruction of Aetius out of texts of Stobaeus and Plutarch, about whose validity there is serious doubt today.

    In the fall of 1877 Diels moved to Berlin where he became a regular teacher at the Königstädtische Gymnasium. Soon afterward, upon the recommendation of Eduard Zeller, he was appointed editor of the edition of the Commentaria in Aristotelem Graeca undertaken by the Berlin Academy. He succeeded Adolf Torstrik (1821-77), who had been the editor of this project but under whom not a single volume was published. Diels organized the series as an international project, including scholars from England (Ingram Bywater; Frederic Kenyon), Denmark (J. L. Heiberg), Italy (Girolamo Vitelli), and Greece (Spyridon Lambros). Under Diels’s direction it was completed in 1909, comprising 23 volumes plus 3 volumes Supplementum Aristotelicum.

    It was Zeller who, supported by Mommsen, Hermann Bonitz, Adolf Kirchhoff, and Johannes Vahlen, recommended that Diels be elected an ordinary member of the Berlin Academy. When Diels became a member of the Academy in August 1881, he was still employed as a teacher at the Königstädtische Gymnasium, a post he did not leave until fall 1882. Contemporaries say that the decade he served as a schoolmaster shaped his personality, even his way of teaching at the university and the style of his many public addresses and speeches.

    In 1882 he received his first appointment at the University of Berlin as Extraordinarius for Classical Philology in the Philosophical Faculty. In the following years he received and turned down calls to the chairs of classics at the Universities of Gießen (1883), Greifswald (1885), and Heidelberg (1886). In 1886 he was promoted to Ordinarius in Berlin. He taught there until his retirement in 1920. As colleagues he had Wilamowitz (from 1897) and Eduard Norden (from 1906). All of them dedicated works to one another: Wilamowitz dedicated his Platon (1919) to Diels; Diels his edition of Lucretius (1923) to Wilamowitz; Norden dedicated his Die germanische Urgeschichte in Tacitus’ Germania(1920) to Diels, proving the high respect these scholars had for each other despite all their differences in personality and style (Diels disapproved of the injurious harshness with which Wilamowitz dealt with colleagues).

    In order to concentrate on scholarship, Diels turned down offers from Mommsen to become editor of Hermes and of the Deutsche Literaturzeitung, but in 1888 he cofounded the Archiv für Geschichte der Philosophie, in whose first volume he published a research report on the presocratics, something he continued in 1889 and 1891.

    Diels’s edition of books I-IV of Simplicius’ commentary to Aristotle’s Physics (CAG IX [Berlin 1882]) was the first volume of the whole series of Commentaria in Aristotelem Graeca to appear. His edition of the other four books of Simplicius’ commentary followed in 1895, and he contributed to this series as well the Anonymi Londinensis ex Aristotelis latricis Menoniis et aliis medicis eclogae (Suppl. Aristotelicum vol. Ill, 1893). While working on Simplicius he had already conceived the idea of collecting the fragments of the presocratic philosophers. In the preface to his edition of the first four books of Simplicius’ Commentary on the Physics (1882) he announced a plan to edit the presocratic philosophers that would be fulfilled more than twenty years later.

    In his first position, as Extraordinarius at the University of Berlin, Diels succeeded F. W. A. Mullach (1807-1882), whose boring teaching he had detested even as a student. Mullach had edited a collection of fragments of Greek philosophers, which comprised the fragments of presocratics in volumes I (1860) and II (1867). This =collection did not satisfy even the most modest standards of scholarship, and the articles published by Diels since 1880 (many of which are reprinted in the Kleine Schriften) prove that presocratic philosophy already occupied his mind at that time. Editions by Diels of Parmenides (1897), Heraclitus (1901), and, in the same year, the poetic fragments of Greek philosophers were harbingers of his edition of Die Fragmente der Vorsokratiker (1903). The principles of his approach to both the transmitted texts of presocratic philosophy and the tradition of textual criticism had already displayed his virtuosity (for example, in transposing the order of lines in the transmitted text). These principles appear already in the preface to his Parmenides, where he claims more modest intentions, namely, not to bring the Eleatic philosopher up to the heights of modernity and not to give him in bold conjectures a beauty or elegance he simply never had. The errors of previous editors in dealing with the transmitted text, he explains, arose from a lack of understanding “for the poetic individuality and the ability of the Eleatic philosopher.”

    The edition of the “Vorsokratiker” opened a new area in the study of the history of early Greek philosophy. The differences between the editions of Mullach and Diels are evident: Mullach’s text could never have created the strong revival of the study of presocratic philosophy that took place after Diels’s edition. In his presentation of the material of presocratic philosophy Diels followed principles he had adopted in his edition of Parmenides: Rather than treating the philosophical schools as a whole, Diels wanted to focus on the individuals, the few big names and the innumerable less important ones who, with their industry, explain the almost incomprehensible development of philosophy in the sixth and, particularly, fifth centuries B.C. Diels aimed at presenting the complete material of the verbally transmitted fragments—in each new edition he added new material—because he regarded his selections as a tutorial for the student. It was with students in mind that he had written this book, for he planned that it would serve as the textbook for lectures on early Greek philosophy. Thus, Diels did not cite all texts in which verbally transmitted fragments are quoted.

    Diels introduced a new way of presenting the material by dividing it into three sections. For each author in section A, Diels gave the ancient biographical and doxographic evidence, the latter according to the disposition adopted by Theophrastus in his Physikai doxai; in section B, he printed only the verbally transmitted citations of the presocratic philosopher in question, marking off material of dubious value; in section C, he added imitations, for example, the myth in Plato’s Protagoras (320 c ff.) presented there by the interlocutor of that dialogue, Protagoras. To the texts listed in section B, Diels added his own translation. He resisted the temptation of ordering the fragments according to some theory about their original connection (his method is particularly evident in his dealing with Heraclitus when compared with that of earlier editors like F. Lasalle). Instead, he printed them in the order in which the ancient excerpts contain them; when ordering the authors of ancient excerpts he simply followed the alphabet. His intention was to provide a collection of fragments as complete as possible in a way that allowed a comprehension of the conditions of transmission of the fragments, because he regarded such an understanding as necessary for an assessment of these texts. Diels wanted to avoid the subjective view of the editor obstructing or influencing the study of these documents of the presocratic philosophers; only the order in which he placed the philosophers betrays his view on the development of presocratic philosophy. In the first edition Diels did not include a critical apparatus to the fragments, because he was not satisfied with the quality of the editions of the authors he referred to. It appears that the work on the presocratics was probably the scholarly achievement that meant most for Diels. Wilamowitz called it a work “indispensable for each philologist and for each philosopher, a work incomparable in its kind.”

    Just two years after the first edition a new one was necessary. Volume I was published in 1906, vol. II in 1907. Diels’s disciple, Walther Kranz (1884-1960), added a detailed index (1910). The third edition appeared in 1912, and for a fourth edition, published after his death in 1922, Diels had written a new preface and valuable supplements. Kranz was in charge of the revision of the fifth edition (1934-1937), which was again and again reprinted with additional changes.

    In 1895 Mommsen resigned as secretary of the philosophical-historical section of the Berlin Academy and Diels was elected to become his successor. He took the post for financial reasons and was active in this capacity until 1920, and the influence of his work went far beyond the limits of Berlin. He was committed to furthering international cooperation und understanding among European universities. The same commitment to the course of international cooperation he showed as Rector of the Berlin University in 1905-6, when, in his speech on the anniversary of the founding of the University, he addressed the international duties of universities. He was critical of attempts to introduce the artificial creation of Esperanto as a world language. At the same time, he rejected attempts to reinstate Latin as the language of international scholarship; English, French, and German should be treated equally within the international academic community. The teaching of French and English should be strengthened at German Gymnasia and universities, an academic exchange program should further international understanding. Diels compares favorably with less open attitudes at German universities during the decade preceding the First World War. During that time Diels received honors from the most prestigious national and international institutions, too many to be mentioned here. To name but a few: He became Corresponding Fellow of the British Academy in 1904; the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in the section Philology and Archaeology made him a foreign honorary member in 1907; the American Philosophical Society made him a member in 1909; in the same year the University of Cambridge awarded him an honorary doctorate; in 1913 he was awarded membership in the Ordre Pour le Merite. After 1914 he deplored the breakdown of international relations among scholars, and turned, very much from a patriotic position, against the anti-German attitude maintained chiefly by French scholars. Immediately after the end of the war he worked to re-establish scholarly contacts and, a few weeks before his death at the age of 74, he undertook an extended lecturing tour through the Scandinavian countries, hoping to lead their scholarship out of national isolation.

    The plan of an edition of a Corpus Medicorum Graecorum was formed at the first general assembly of the Association of Academies in Paris 1901, initiated by J. L. Heiberg (1854-1928). Following the proposal by Diels, the Berlin Academy decided to edit the texts of Greek medical writers in partnership with the Academies of Leipzig and Copenhagen. Diels was certainly the driving force behind the project. The basis for this work, the catalogue of the manuscripts of ancient medical writers, was already published in 1905 and 1906. Diels himself was prepared for this area of scholarship through his work on Galen as part of the Doxographi Graeci and his edition of the Anonymus Londinensis in the Supplementum Aristotelicum vol. Ill (1893). Numerous articles and reviews on Greek medicine written since 1899 prove Diels’s focus on this area. His contribution to the Corpus Medicorum Graecorum was his edition Galeni In Hippocratis Prorrheticum I (1915).

    Diels was active as well in founding the Thesaurus Linguae Latinae, a project initiated by four German Academies (Berlin, Gottingen, Leipzig, Munich) and that of Vienna. His study “Elementum” (1899) was written in this context as his model of a lexicological study.

    His work in the history of religion, begun in 1886 with “Antike Heilwunder,” started in earnest with the Sibyllinische Blätter (1890), in which he dealt with the Sibylline oracles for the year 125 B.C. For his argument he referred to cults and rituals outside of the Greek and Roman world. A number of articles and lectures belong to the same area. He studied religious aspects, in the words of Walter Burkert, “from the standpoint of an enlightened-liberal point of view.”

    Halfway between ancient medicine and religion are his studies (published in the Abhandlungen of the Berlin Academy 1907 and 1908) on παλμομαντική, a form of divination based on the convulsions of the sick. Here, again, he proved to be the talented organizer; he went beyond the boundaries of Greek antiquity by enlisting his colleagues’ support to compile a corpus of Arabic, Hebrew, Slavic, and Indian literature on throbbing.

    Diels took part as well in the edition of the papyri that had been acquired by the Berlin Museum. Together with Wilhelm Schubart (1873-1960) he published the commentary of Didymus to the Philippic speeches of Demosthenes and an anonymous commentary to Plato’s Theaetetus (1904).

    From his schoolboy days he had an interest in chemistry and studied all kinds of technical matters. In Berlin he included this in his scholarly work. To his Parmenides (1897) he added an appendix on Greek doors and locks (117-51). In 1913 he published in the Abhandlungen of the Berlin Academy a study on the discovery of alcohol in antiquity. When invited to give a series of lectures at the University in Salzburg in September 1912, he chose as subject matter ancient technology. These lectures formed the core of his book Antike Technik. In Sechs Vorträge (1914), apart from his scholarly purpose of explaining aspects of ancient technology, he wanted to show that, in its approach to technical progress, antiquity came closer to the modern age than the Middle Ages did. He saw the hostility of modem natural scientists to antiquity that characterized the nineteenth century and was still influential in the beginning of the twentieth as based partly on their ignorance of antiquity and partly on the narrowness of the classicists themselves. Diels expressed (in the preface) the strongest criticism of the humanists who, caught in nebulous idealism, did not know enough about the real world of antiquity and therefore misunderstood its connection with the reality of modem times. Diels was particularly interested in the mutual relationship of ancient technology and science. He not only used literary sources but drew on archaeological material as well. In this area, again, he went beyond antiquity, when he pursued, for instance, the development of ancient siege machines into the cannons of modern times (111ff.). This booklet on ancient technology proved so successful that already in 1919, in spite of the difficult time after the First World War, a second edition was published to which Diels added an additional chapter. A third edition appeared in 1924 after his death. Together with Erwin Schramm (1856-1935), Diels published an edition with German translation of Hero’s Belopoiika and Philo’s Belopoiika (Transactions of the Berlin Academy, 1918).

    In 1920, after twenty-five years, Diels resigned as secretary of the philosophical-historical section of the Academy. In the same year he retired as professor and on 4 June 1922 he died of heart failure.

    Diels’s last works were an edition and a translation of Lucretius, which both appeared after his death. The edition was dedicated to Wilamowitz. It stands out for two reasons: It provided the fullest critical apparatus published to that date, and it recorded in the most complete way the quotations from and references to Lucretius’ work. As an editor Diels restored archaic forms in the transmitted text. He tried to emulate the style of the original through various poetical devices, at the same time keeping a freshness that did not smell of translation. Albert Einstein wrote the introduction, praising the clarity of Diels’ version. However, Diels’s textual decisions have not regularly been accepted by later editors. His metrical translation of Lucretius’ poem was not altogether completed at his death; his pupil Johannes Mewaldt (1880-1964) had to revise it.

    The lasting achievement of Hermann Diels is his edition of Die Fragmente der Vorsokratiker, which made the scattered material of presocratic philosophy available and put the study of this important area on a firm basis.

  • Sources:


    Kleine Schriften: xiv-xxvi; see Kern, below: 136-146.


    H. von Arnim, “Nachruf H. Diels.” Almanach Österreichische Akademie der Wissenschaften 73 (1923) 206-11; E. Bickel, “Hermann Diels.” Nassauische Lebensbilder 5 (1955) 253-59; Jürgen Dümmer, “Hermann Diels’ ‘Colloquium über antikes Schriftwesen.’ ” Philologus 121 (1977) 150-6; W. Jaeger, “Hermann Diels. Zum goldenen Doktorjubiläum am 22. Dezember 1920.” Internationale Wochenschrift 15 (1921) 133-46; O. Kern, Hermann Diels und Carl Robert. Ein biographischer Versuch Jahresbericht über die Fortschritte der klassischen Altertumswissenschaft. Suppl. 215 (1927); Wolgang Rosier, “Hermann Diels als Kartograph.” RhM 115 (1972) 92-3; Emile de Strycker, “Der Nachlass von Hermann Diels.” Philologus 121 (1977) 137-45; U. von Wilamowitz-Moellendorff, “Gedächtnisrede auf Hermann Diels,” Sitzungsberichte der preussischen Akademie der Wissenschaften zu Berlin (Berlin, 1922): cv-cviii.


    Hermann Diels und Ulrich von Wilamowitz-Moellendorff: Briefwechsel 1869 bis 1921, ed. W. M. Calder III and D. Ehlers (Berlin, 1991); Hermann Diels und Hermann Usener: Briefwechsel, ed. D. Ehlers (Berlin, 1990); Hermann Diels und Eduard Zeller: Briefwechsel, ed. D. Ehlers (Berlin, 1990).

  • Author: Eckart E. Schutrumpf