Diogenes of Sinope was the embodiment of his teacher’s cynical way of life. He rejected social norms, politics, and luxury; but instead, promoted multicultural appreciation and communal anarchy. To put it simply he was a woke, anarchist hobo-philosopher which may just be, the best kind of philosopher.
“It is the privilege of the gods to want nothing, and of godlike men to want little.” -Diogenes of Sinope
Diogenes of Sinope (404-323 BCE) is a lesser-known Greek philosopher compared to the likes of Aristotle and Plato. He is, nonetheless, one of the most ridiculous figures in history.
Archival records on the philosopher are few or, if not, completely nonexistent yet his philosophical ideals were so profound that they single handedly cemented him in the history books.
Diogenes was unique among this fellow Grecian philosophers. In exile, he chose to reject societal norms like “manners” and ignored the opinions of others, meanwhile advocating for complete truthfulness, always and under all circumstances. For Diogenes, this was the secret to freedom.
At one point in his life, his father, who was a minter of coins in the city, was accused of defacing currency and sentenced to exile for which Diogenes followed his father to Athens.
Diogenes began his career as a student of a similarly wacky individual, the philosopher Antisthenes (445-365 BCE) who was a former student of Socrates, and it has been alleged that Plato referred to him as “A Socrates gone mad.”
Born into a wealthy family, Antisthenes’ philosophy was influenced by the contradictions and injustices he observed within society. Diogenes quickly took to these lessons and applied them into his own ideology.
A Search For An Honest Man
Although originally from Sinope, the majority of Diogenes history has been recorded in Athens. In order to follow his own philosophy, Diogenes chose to be homeless, at least in the traditional sense. For him “home sweet home” was a ceramic tub or pithos. His house truly gave a new meaning to the phrase “humble abode.”
Early on in his life, he realized that he had no need for conventional shelter or other “dainties” after he witnessed a mouse adapt to different living situations with ease. Observing the mouse taught him that he too could adapt himself to fit into any circumstance, this lesson became the origin of his famous askēsis, or intense self-discipline.
Diogenes chose to live self-sufficiently and close to nature. He rejected materialism and egotism and wandered the Greek Empire for decades, carrying nothing but a knapsack, a staff, and the cloak around his shoulders.
Diogenes’ absurdity and bizarre behavior were what made him incredibly notorious; he was known for walking backwards in Athens, holding a lantern in broad daylight, insisted that he was in search for an “honest man.” Diogenes disregarded conventionality completely, he masturbated, defecated, urinated, and even participated in intercourse, in public.
The citizens of Athens began referring to Diogenes as “κύων” (kýon) – the Greek word for “dog.” Ironically, what was intended as an insult for Diogenes turned out to be a perfect representation of his philosophy. Even the Greek word for cynic (κυνικός) or “kynikos” means “dog-like.”
Diogenes understood that dogs weren’t burdened by concepts like social standing, wealth and vanity. They were therefore, freer than man. It was in Athens that Diogenes began his “search for an honest man” as his way of revealing the hypocrisy of polite societal conventions. The shameless philosopher was seen as an extreme version of the Socratic philosophy which provided a captivating, if not unrefined time in Greek history.
According to legend, an old and wise Diogenes even encountered the young and brash Alexander of Macedonia also known as Alexander the Great at one point in his life. At the time of the encounter, Diogenes was well-known and it was likely that the great conqueror had heard of the famous Cynic, especially since Diogenes was allegedly taken captive by Alexander’s father earlier before Alexander took up the campaign against the Greeks.
Diogenes was asked by Alexander’s father, King Phillip II, if he was a spy, to which the philosopher replied, “I most certainly am a spy, Philip. I spy on your absence of wisdom and common sense, which is the only thing forcing you to go and gamble your kingdom and your life in a single moment.”
Such a retort earned him a “vacation” in a Greek prison.
Accounts differ but years later during Diogenes’ encounter with Alexander, it is believed that the philosopher was sleeping when Alexander approached him and asked Diogenes what he could do for him. The response was, “Stand aside to stop blocking the sun.”
To insult the great conqueror could have resulted in his capture again or even his death but Alexander was not displeased. Instead, he said, “If I were not Alexander, I would want to be Diogenes.”
“If I were not Diogenes, I would also wish to be Diogenes,” he responded.
The First Cynic
Cynicism is a philosophy that stems from a relocation of societal convention, in essence it ranks below nature and reason. If a specific act is not disgraceful or humiliating in private, then it mustn’t be in public.
It is this very philosophy that resulted in his label as a mad man. His disregard for convention made him a pariah, but Diogenes held strong to his belief and explained that it is not him but the conventions that lack reason:
“Most people,” he would say, “are so nearly mad that a finger makes all the difference. For if you go along with your middle finger stretched out, someone will think you mad, but, if it’s the little finger, he will not think so.” (Diogenes Laertius, Lives of Eminent Philosophers, Book 6, Chapter 35.)
It’s easy to simply categorize Diogenes as a negative individual with a pessimistic philosophy to boot, but that would be ignoring the larger picture of his teachings. Although Diogenes was absurd but it didn’t stop him from earning the respect of his fellow philosophers including Alexander the Great.
Diogenes believed that the way to achieve ευδαιμονία, or ευτυχία (happiness) was to live in accordance with nature. By enjoying the little things like jumping into the water on a hot day, feeling the sun on your skin, listening to the wind and birds chirp in the early morning, or taking the first bite of a juicy fruit from a tree.
That was what a good life meant to Diogenes. As strange as he was, there is still much to learn from him.