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Brief Lives

Diogenes the Cynic (c.404-323 BC)

Martin Jenkins recalls what we know for sure about the philosopher in the barrel.

Socrates notoriously never wrote anything down, but we at least have dialogues written by his contemporaries Plato and Xenophon claiming to record what he said. Diogenes may or may not have written something: later sources quote the titles of lost works attributed to him. We also have letters alleged to be by him, although these are generally agreed to be fakes. But he had no contemporary recorder of his thoughts. We have to reconstruct his life and ideas from quotations and anecdotes in sources long after his lifetime. Some are probably genuine, others less so. It’s like trying to do a jigsaw puzzle without a picture to work from, knowing that you probably don’t have all the pieces, and that some of the pieces that you do have might not belong to the puzzle at all.

Let us start with what seems to be reasonably certain. Diogenes the Cynic was born in the Greek city of Sinope, on the southern shore of the Black Sea, at the very edge of the Hellenic world. Go any further east and you encountered the Scythians, horse-borne nomads whom the Greeks considered barbarians. Sinope was a major trading centre. It lay at the end of a trade route from Mesopotamia and forwarded luxury goods to the heart of the Hellenic world.

Diogenes’ father Hikesias was a banker and also in charge of the Sinopean mint. This led to a scandal involving either Diogenes or his father, or both. It is usually said that someone ‘re-stamped’ the currency. Later, Diogenes would describe his aim as to ‘re-stamp’ human beings. Has this term been read back into the scandal, or did he adopt the term in remembrance of the scandal? The latter would be perfectly in character. In any case, Diogenes was exiled from Sinope. This gave rise to the first great one-liner attributed to him: when someone said, “The Sinopeans have condemned you to exile”, he allegedly replied, “Yes, and I’ve condemned them to stay where they are.”

Diogenes went into exile at Athens, then the intellectual centre of the Hellenic world. He studied under Antisthenes, a follower of Socrates. Antisthenes has a walk-on part in Xenophon’s Symposium and is recorded as not being ‘of pure Athenian birth’ – so, like Diogenes, he was something of an outsider. He was also reluctant to take on pupils; but, the story goes, when Diogenes insisted and Antisthenes threatened him with his stick, Diogenes replied, “Strike me if you wish, I’ll offer you my head, but you’ll never find a stick strong enough to drive me away from your discourses.” “And,” says the biographer Diogenes Laertius, “from that time forth he became his pupil, and being an exile, strove to live a simple life.”

Socrates, who died when Diogenes was an infant, had also tried to live a simple life. He usually went barefoot (although he would wear sandals when the occasion demanded it) and he wore shabby old clothes; but he had a house and a family. Walking through the market, Socrates famously said, “How many things I don’t need!” Diogenes took Socratic simplicity to its logical conclusion, so much so that Plato, Diogenes’ contemporary, allegedly called him ‘Socrates gone mad’. The story goes that Diogenes saw a mouse eating the crumbs from the coarse bread on which he had been dining, and was inspired to reduce his own life to the bare minimum. So he reduced his clothing to a single cloak that he could fold in two, making him cool in summer and warm in winter. He consistently went barefoot. He carried a knapsack for such possessions as he needed – basically his food. He lived by begging, but was willing to be invited to dinner – though he once refused to dine a second time with a host whom he felt had not been properly grateful for his presence the first time round. He had no house, but notoriously slept in a large ceramic jar (which has often been called a ‘barrel’). Another story about his austerity is that he had a wooden cup but threw it away when he saw a lad drinking out of a cupped hand, and realised that he already had what he needed for drinking.

One of the better-attested stories about Diogenes is that he acknowledged his need for sexual relief, which he met by himself, yet often in public. (But he also allegedly criticised a victorious wrestler for staring too long at a beautiful woman, saying, “Look at that, the athlete has been caught in a neck-lock by a slip of a girl.”) Not surprisingly, for his ‘natural’ or ‘animal’ behaviour he became known as Diogenes ‘the Dog’, and his philosophy was called ‘doglike’, or ‘cynical’, from the ancient Greek kunos meaning ‘dog’.

Diogenes meets Alexander by Langetti c1650

Diogenes’ Philosophy

But what, and how, did Diogenes teach? The ‘how’ is easier to answer. He set out to teach by example, by the way he lived.

Diogenes put forward not a systematic philosophy but a systematic challenge. The challenge was to the assumptions of civilised Greek society. Yet another story about him was that he lit a lamp in full daylight and walked around with it, saying, “I’m searching for an honest man.’’ He meant that he was looking for an individual, someone who would think and act for himself rather than follow the instincts of the crowd. As Diogenes was coming out of the baths, someone asked if there were many men bathing in there and he said “No”; but when asked if there was much of a crowd, he said, “Yes indeed.’’ (In Athens at that time individualism was only available to house-owning males.)

His attitude towards religion was, to say the least, sceptical. He delighted in pointing out where it conflicted with morality: “When the Athenians urged him to have himself initiated, and said that initiates obtain a privileged position in Hades, he said, ‘It would be absurd if Agesilaos and Epaminondas are to lie in the mud while utterly worthless people, just because they have been initiated, are to dwell in the Isles of the Blest’.’’ (Diogenes the Cynic: Sayings and Anecdotes, Robin Hard, 2012. This is the source of all the quotes and stories here.)

Like Socrates, Diogenes was basically a moralist. He was asking the question, How should human beings live? But he offered a far more radical solution than Socrates ever contemplated; and he answered it not by talking, but by doing and showing. Perhaps the showing went a bit too far, as he was often accused of reverse vanity. A saying about him attributed to Plato is, “How charming your unaffectedness would be, if only it were not so affected!” Still, he was a master of the put-down – especially when it involved things which in his judgement were irrelevant to how people should live:

“An astronomer was pointing in the market place to a diagram representing the stars, and was saying that ‘these here are the wandering stars’ [the Greek planetes means ‘wanderers’, so, our planets]; on hearing this, Diogenes said, ‘Don’t lie, my friend, it’s not these that are wandering astray, but those over there’ – pointing to the people standing around.”

So far, so plausible. It is when he leaves Athens that the stories about him become more questionable. One tells that while sailing to Aegina he was captured by pirates and sold into slavery (a common pitfall of travel at the time, it once happened to Plato too). Allegedly Diogenes’ response to this treatment was to say, “How extraordinary it is that if one has pigs or sheep which one is intending to sell, one fattens them up with choice food until they are plump, and yet when one has charge of that finest of creatures, a human being, one lets him starve and constantly keeps him short of food until he has been reduced to a skeleton, and then sells him for a song.” This logic convinced the pirates to feed him and his fellow captives well until they reached the slave market at Corinth. The story may be apocryphal; but the argument is worthy of Diogenes, in that it points out the irrationality of his captors’ behaviour.

Arriving at Corinth, the story goes, he was put up for sale. The auctioneer asked, “What do you know how to do?” Diogenes answered: “How to govern men.” “Then I’ll do excellent business, if anyone wants to buy a master!” But apparently someone called Xeniades did; and Diogenes did proceed to tell Xeniades how he should conduct himself and run his household.

It’s important for the legend of Diogenes that he should get to Corinth because that’s the only way of explaining the most famous encounter of his life, with Alexander the Great. According to this (rather dubious) story, Diogenes was sunning himself in a grove near Corinth when Alexander, having heard of his reputation as a sage, came out to meet him. Standing over him, Alexander said, “Ask whatever you wish of me!” Diogenes replied, “Stand out of my light.” This ambiguous phrase can mean, “Stop blocking my sunlight”, but it can also mean, “Don’t block the light I am giving to the world.” Allegedly Alexander said, “If I were not Alexander I would be Diogenes.” But Alexander, who was committed to conquering Asia, could never been a Diogenes, who was content with nothing.

If Diogenes ever wrote anything it was probably at Corinth, where as a house slave he would have had easier access to writing materials. His biographer cites the titles of thirteen dialogues and, improbably, seven tragedies (Diogenes called tragedies ‘big puppet shows for fools’). One of the dialogues was apparently entitled Pordalos – roughly, Fartery – which sounds like the kind of thing that Diogenes would have written, if he wrote anything.

Corinth also provides an anecdote which perhaps sums up Diogenes as no other story could: “When it had been reported that Philip [of Macedon] was about to attack Corinth, and all the citizens were hard at work and absorbed in their tasks, Diogenes began to roll his jar back and forth; and when someone asked, ‘Why are you doing that, Diogenes?’ he replied, ‘Because when everyone is toiling away, it would hardly be proper for me to do nothing; so I’m rolling my jar, having nothing else to turn my hand to.” To put it another way: everybody else is indulging in the crowd mentality of meaningless activity, so I too will undertake some pointless activity. This story, however, seems more appropriate to Athens than to Corinth. Athens was Philip’s main opponent and target; and presumably at Corinth Diogenes lived in his owner’s house rather than in a jar.

Diogenes by Talimonov
Cartoon © Alexei Talimonov 2022

Cynical Conclusion

Diogenes sought to show by example how to live an honest and autonomous life by keeping as self reliant and close to nature as possible. It is an aspiration that becomes ever more relevant. But if we cannot go to his extremes – and maybe should not – we should at least ask how far down this road we should follow him.

Diogenes’ followers did ask this question, and on the whole did not follow him all the way. However, there was also a Cynic school of philosophy which later greatly influenced the Stoics. They too were deeply committed to the importance of the individual and his/her autonomy and choice.

The death of Diogenes is again shrouded in legends. One of the milder ones is that he died on the same day as Alexander. According to one version he committed suicide by holding his breath; another says that he died after eating raw octopus to prove that there is no need for cookery. A variant has it that he was cutting up the octopus to feed to some dogs, and one of the dogs bit him on the foot. This would be doubly elegant: Diogenes ‘the Dog’ killed by a dog, and, like the hero Achilles, by a wound to the foot.

He is said to have left instructions that he should not be buried but that his body be thrown into the river Ilissos. But, says Pausanias in his Guide to Greece: “As one approaches Corinth, one sees among other memorials alongside the road that of Diogenes of Sinope, who is buried near the gate, and is known among the Greeks as the Dog.” Buried? And a monument raised to him? Probably the Corinthians did it, knowing how much it would have annoyed him. It’s called getting your own back.

© Martin Jenkins 2022

The late Martin Jenkins was a Quaker, a retired community worker, and a frequent contributor to Philosophy Now.

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