Diogenes of Sinope

Diogenes was an ancient Greek philosopher born in Sinope (a city in what is now Turkey) in 404 BC. As one of the founders of Cynicism, he used his lifestyle and actions to criticize the customs, social values, and institutions of Athens. He believed Athenian society had been corrupted by vanity, self-deception, and artificiality. In contrast, Diogenes embraced virtue as the goal of life, rejected laws and customs (nomos), and sought to live according to the laws of nature (physis). He embraced poverty and hardship, lived as a beggar, and slept in a tub. He became known as Diogenes the dog (cynic is Greek for dog), a title which he embraced, saying “I fawn upon those who give me anything, and bark at those who give me nothing, and bite the rogues.” He is famous for walking through the streets of Athens with a lamp, saying that he was “looking for an honest man.” He would criticize Plato’s abstract philosophy, seeing it as a perversion of Socrates’ teachings.

Diogenes left Sinope after being accused of defacing the currency, saying “The Sinopeans have condemned me to banishment; I condemn them to stay at home!” He traveled to Athens where he became a follower of Antisthenes. Antisthenes lived a life rooted in Socrates’ ethics, seeing virtue as the ultimate goal and actions as more important than words. Diogenes embraced these principles, as well as the ascetic lifestyle of a Cynic. Diogenes believed that people were not really concerned about how they acted, but were simply following conventions. By living a simple life and rejecting those things which the Athenians considered important, he sought to show them the folly of their ways.

Diogenes stands in direct contrast with traditional Athenian values. While Socrates was the first to call himself a citizen of the world (cosmopolitan), he also considered himself a citizen of Athens. In contrast, Diogenes did not identify with any city. He slept in a tub in the marketplace and embraced poverty as a virtue. Once upon seeing a child drinking from his hands, he broke his sole possession a wooden bowl, exclaiming “A child has beaten me in plainness of living.” As a Cynic, he practiced shamelessness, the belief that anything which is virtuous in private is likewise acceptable to do in public. Against convention, he would eat in the marketplace, explaining “it was in the marketplace that I felt hungry.” When called a dog, he replied “It is you who are dogs, when you stand around and watch me eat my breakfast.”

Like Socrates, Diogenes was critical of the Sophists, those who claimed to be able to teach virtue for money. He considered their teachings absurd, responding to the claim that motion is impossible by walking around. As a Cynic, Diogenes truly lived his philosophy and therefore held in contempt those philosophers and teachers of virtue who merely spoke words. When one of his students asked to borrow a book, he replied “If you wanted figs you wouldn’t be satisfied with painted ones. But you take no notice of the practice of virtue and study only those who write about it.” When approached by a young man uninterested in philosophy, he said “Why then do you live, if you do not care to live well?”

Diogenes was also critical of Plato, whose abstract metaphysical philosophy he saw as a perversion of Socrates’ original ethical teachings. Plato once defined man as a “featherless biped.” Diogenes excitedly brought a plucked chicken to the Academy and exclaimed “Behold. Here is Plato’s Man.” Diogenes was especially critical of Plato’s Theory of Forms. While Plato was discussing “tablehood” and “cuphood,” Diogenes remarked “Table and cup I see; but your tablehood and cuphood, Plato, I can nowise see.” In another instance, Plato told Diogenes, “If you had paid your respects to Dionysus, you would not be washing lettuces now” to which Diogenes replied, “If you had washed lettuces, you would not have had to pay your respects to Dionysus.” Plato shared his frustrations with Diogenes, who trampled one of his nice rugs when invited over for dinner exclaiming “Thus I trample on the pride of Plato.” Plato responded by saying, “How much pride you expose to view, Diogenes, by seeming not to be proud.”

Diogenes actively defied social conventions. When approached by a potential student, he told him to follow him around carrying a tuna fish. When the young man threw it away, Diogenes laughed saying “The friendship between you and me was broken by a tuna.” He said that “blushing is the color of virtue.” When asked about the Gods, he replied “I do not know whether there are gods, but there ought to be.” He is said to have once ended a philosophical conversation by emptying his bowels within hearing range.

As a Cynic, he believed one’s philosophy should be consistent with one’s actions, and one’s actions should be guided by reason. He remarks “”Of what use is a philosopher who doesn’t hurt anybody’s feelings?” When asked why people give to beggars but not philosophers, he explained “Because they think they may one day be lame or blind, but never expect that they will turn to philosophy.” He believed “all things are property of the wise,” and explains that “he has the most who is most content with the least.” Like Socrates, he embraced friendship, explaining that it is “better to have one friend of great value than many friends who were good for nothing.”

Diogenes was known for his cutting satire. Once while watching a poor archer he went and sat by the target, saying he thought it was the safest place. Upon seeing a prostitute’s son throwing rocks at a crowd that had formed, he said “Careful son. Don’t hit your father.” When asked how he wanted to be buried, he replied “face down” because the Macedonians were rising to power so quickly soon the whole world would be turned upside down. Asked which type of wine he preferred, he said “That for which other people pay.” When questioned if he believes in the Gods, he said “How can I when I see a god-forsaken wretch like you?” When told from the man he was begging that he would only be given money if he could be persuaded, Diogenes replied “If I could have persuaded you, I would have persuaded you to hang yourself.”

Diogenes was eventually captured by pirates and sold as a slave. He was fine with this, explaining that “lions are not the slaves of those who feed them, but rather those who feed them are at the mercy of the lions.” He would spend the rest of his life in Corinth, where he is said to have met Alexander the Great. Once while relaxing in the sun, Alexander, excited to meet the philosopher, asked Diogenes if he could do anything for him. Diogenes responded, “Yes, stand out of my sunlight” to which Alexander replied, “If I were not Alexander, then I should wish to be Diogenes.” Diogenes then asked Alexander what were his plans. Alexander said he planned on conquering Greece. Diogenes asked what then? Alexander said he wanted to capture all of Asia Minor. Diogenes asked again, what then? Alexander replied, I will conquer the whole world. When Diogenes asked what Alexander would then do, he replied that he would relax and enjoy himself. Diogenes said, “Why not save yourself a lot of trouble by relaxing and enjoying yourself now?”

When Diogenes became old, he was told to rest more. He replied, “What, if I were running in the stadium, ought I to slacken my pace when approaching the goal? Ought I not rather put on speed?” When asked if he would mind if his body was thrown over the city walls to be devoured by wild animals, he said “Not at all, as long as you provide me with a stick to chase the creatures away!” When it was asked of him when he could do with a stick if he lacked awareness, he said “If I lack awareness, then why should I care what happens to me when I’m dead?”

Throughout his life, Diogenes the Cynic criticized that which he thought was ridiculous. In Corinth, he passed on his teachings to Crates, who in turn would become the teacher of Zeno of Citium, the founder of a school of philosophy known as Stoicism. Diogenes’ Cynicism is directly contrasted by the Cyrenaics, who sought a life of hedonistic pleasure. In a time of abstract philosophy, idealism, and lofty speech, Diogenes stands out as someone who truly lived his philosophy.