Diogenes of Sinope is often considered one of the more eccentric, or at the very least untraditional, of the ancient Greek philosophers. He is credited as being one of the founders of cynicism and practiced these ideals through the eccentricities that filled his life.
It was his belief that all artificial growths of society, such as status and wealth, were unimportant, and could, in fact, be damaging to men’s souls. Diogenes held open contempt for abstract ideals such as reputation, property rights, or patriotism to any city-state.
He is often credited with the first use of the word “cosmopolitan” when he stated: “I am a citizen of the world (cosmopolites).”
While living in Athens, it is said that he resided in a large ceramic jar on the outskirts of the marketplace. He made a career out of begging and lying about; all while surviving on a steady diet of discarded onions. During the day, he wandered the streets with a lantern because he was “looking for an honest man”.
Diogenes was constantly dirty, disheveled, and often smelled of filth. He urinated and defecated in public, and it was not uncommon for him to literally spit in the faces of those who disagreed with him. For this reason, Diogenes was sometimes referred to as “Diogenes the dog”.
Rather than being offended, Diogenes reveled in the idea of being more like a dog. A dog, he believed, was more in touch with nature and therefore more closely in tune with true happiness. The dog does not care for social status or material possessions; the dog does not make himself a slave to the superficial desires that so plague the hearts of men. The dog lives life in the present and does not concern itself with abstract notions that might damage the soul.
The philosopher believed very firmly that man is not above nature. We are inescapably a part of it, and the further we retreat from this truth, hiding behind our lavish houses and material treasures, the further we withdraw from true virtue.
Whatever lessons you wish to learn about cynicism from Diogenes, you will have to do so indirectly. Although it is claimed he authored several books, letters and tragedies; none of them have survived.
So, it is left to us to learn through the anecdotes of his life.
Fortunately, there seem to be no shortage of interesting stories regarding Diogenes of Sinope. One rather intriguing tale that demonstrates Diogenes’ particular brand of philosophy regards an altercation with Plato and a disagreement on the definition of “man”.
As we’ve said, Diogenes disapproved of abstract philosophy, and thus was a harsh critic of Socrates and Plato. At this particular time in Athens, Plato had given Socrates’ definition of a man as a “featherless biped”. This description was highly praised and admired by Athenian intellectuals and commoners alike.
The only person who wasn’t impressed, it would seem, was Diogenes. It is accounted that upon hearing it; Diogenes promptly plucked a chicken of its feathers, visited Plato at his academy, and then threw the featherless bird at the man’s head.
Diogenes declared, “Behold! I give you Socrates’ man!”
It has been told that Plato was so shocked by this “counter argument” that he immediately added to his definition “…with broad, flat fingernails”. The event stuck with Plato and he would later describe Diogenes as ‘Socrates gone mad’.
While Diogenes did not care for Plato or his fascination with intangible philosophy, it appears he held even more contempt for ideas like material wealth and power. And he was not afraid to defy anybody who represented these ideas, even if that person was the most powerful man in the world.
Alexander the Great met with Diogenes one morning in Corinth. The conqueror had heard stories of ‘Diogenes the dog’ and wished to meet the filthy philosopher. The legend goes like this: while Diogenes was bathing in the morning sunlight, Alexander appeared before him. The King of Macedonia asked Diogenes if there was anything he (a man who seemingly had everything) could do for him.
The philosopher responded, “Yes, stand out of my light”.
Alexander was said to have been so impressed with the remark that he then stated “If I were not Alexander, I would wish to be Diogenes”.
Now there are a few interpretations to this story. Maybe Diogenes was sun bathing and did not appreciate the unwarranted shadow that Alexander cast. Or perhaps it means that Alexander, the man who exemplified the ideas of status and material wealth, was standing in the way of Diogenes finding his truth, his light.
Despite the historical setting, the teachings of Diogenes have not been lost to the ages. While the man has long been dead and buried, his spirit is very much alive today.
It is not unreasonable to draw a parallel between the ideas of Diogenes and modern cynics today. Diogenes’ rejection of modern values and material wealth is not unlike the hippy revolution of the late 1960’s.
At the time the social experiment known as “The summer of love” rocked the social and political climate of the United States. It was fueled by a defiant generation that made it a mission to rebel against the conformist values of the Cold War era. And while these modern-day Diogenes’ took strides to find happiness in ‘free love’ and returning to nature, the rest of the world looked on in disbelief.
The ideals of Diogenes can be found in modern writers who have fueled what is sometimes referred to as “The hipster movement”. One of these authors is Charles Bukowski; a man who lived his life trapped in back alleys and seedy bars. Through his writings he seamlessly sews the spirit of Diogenes within the pages of books about degenerates and losers who refuse to care about modern expectations and find their solace in a modern-day ceramic jar and a steady diet of whiskey.
Jack Kerouac and his hipster anthem On the Road could also be considered a modern take on the life of Diogenes. Kerouac writes of young people who sought a life of free exploration, unfettered by the modern aspirations of status and wealth. It is not hard to see the essence of Diogenes reborn when Kerouac states, “Man lowers his head and lunges into civilization, forgetting the days of his infancy when he sought truth in a snowflake or a stick. Man forgets the wisdom of the child”.
The children of Diogenes are the modern nomads and poetic beggars that wander Greenwich Village. They are the aging hippies found on the corner of Haight and Ashbury. They seem content enough to sit all day playing guitar and writing poetry on the terrible state of humanity.
And while some homeless individuals have found their status in life through unfortunate circumstances, there are others who live the way they do very purposefully. They sleep when they want, and eat when they can afford it. They are not concerned with living in an upscale area or finding a job with good benefits.
They wish only for their peace and ask that we stay out of their light.
“Diogenes of Sinope and the Modern Cynics” was written by Van Bryan