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“Stand Out Of My Light”
Sophie Dibben watches Alexander the Great meet Diogenes the Cynic.
Today I will bathe in the sun and catch up on some sleep. Last night the dogs were barking, the birds were chirping, the whores were whoring, the drunkards were drinking, and this culmination of sounds seemed to echo around my jar, keeping me awake all night. I tried to sleep again in the morning, but alas, I received the usual shouts and spits from the chiton-wearers. They flaunt unnecessary and mannered garments which I rid myself of even as a young boy. After the chiton, I also rejected money and other human conventions, and any last crumb of ‘civilisation’. And as a sleep-deprived old man, I stay away from anyone who claims to be civilised. Or anyone who desires possessions; or anyone blames the gods for their own mistakes.
I will climb up to the mountain and sleep there. I am more content in my own company, with just a rabbit to roast.
Although they are desperate to be free from their masters, even the slaves turn their noses up at me. They do not see that the truest freedom is to develop a perfect mastery over oneself. Happiness cannot rely on your status, or how people perceive you. And although I receive disgusted looks from both the aristocrats and the slaves, I still believe that nothing done in private cannot be done in public.
As I climb the mountain my spirit soars. Like a child, I pretend to be a lion, imitating its movements, roaring at birds, and scratching the earth. Before the winds become too strong, I stop climbing. Like a lion again, I search for a spot to sleep. I find a spot to rest my paws, and doze off on a grassy patch against a wall.
Whilst I play like a lion, I champion the life of a dog. The lion sleeps eighteen hours a day, which is contrary to the dog’s infrequent sleeping habits. In his six waking hours, the lion is fighting for dominance, which I am also opposed to. But a dog lives a natural and unaffected life. Like me, a dog performs its natural functions in public, eats anything offered to him, and sleeps anywhere. He also live off instincts, has no anxieties, and is not weighed down by status. For this reason I often find myself growling or barking like a dog. I bite the ankles of those who are bad, and I urinate on the bones people throw at me at banquets. My philosophy is even called ‘dog-like’ [Kynikos. Ed]. But this lifestyle has brought me freedom. Many years ago, I was captured by pirates and sold at a slave auction in Crete. No master wants a slave reduced to a skeleton who feasts on dirt. So I starved myself and walked free of dominion and shame.
Now, I drink and bathe in the streams running down the mountain. The gods are on my side today as I see a fire still alight to smoke my rabbit over.
After feasting, I rub my belly and drift off again.
I awake to a great shadow lingering above me. I can only see a man’s outline through my sleepy eyes, haloed as he is by the sun’s light. He seems to be a tall, mighty fellow.
“I am Alexander, King of Macedon!” he declares. Does the man think he is some kind of god?
He clears his throat as if to insinuate I should arise before him. He is blocking my entire sun. In his shadow, I am now cold.
The shadow continues: “I heard rumours that you were in Athens, so I travelled there. There I met my old tutor, Aristotle, who mentioned you may be in Olympia at the Games. So I travelled there; to hear from the athletes that you were exiled from Olympia and now reside in Corinth. Getting to Corinth, I then followed word from the local slaves that you were up here on this mountain. It is great to finally meet you, O Diogenes!”
I can feel my eyes narrowing and my eyebrows lifting. I seem to be embarrassing him. I doubt he has ever been in that position before. As a king, he must be accustomed to people fawning over him.
“To what do I owe this pleasure?” I ask ironically.
His face lights up. I think the irony was lost on him.
“I am the most powerful man in the world. I have conquered all of Greece, Egypt, and Persia. I endeavour to reach the ends of the world and the Great Outer Sea. As Aristotle taught me, I believe this will only be possible by my fully immersing myself in the superior Greek moral and spiritual ethos. This is why I seek to converse with renowned Greek philosophers such as yourself. Ask me for anything, you shall have it.”
I don’t need any time to think about that: “Stand out of my light,” I reply.
He quickly moves to one side, even as his face flushes scarlet red. I can see one of his foot soldiers sniggering. As I am bathed in the warm sun again, I start to ease off a bit: “Look, Alexander, I have no desires at present except to sleep. I have no doubt that you have conquered lands beyond mortal reach and have reigned over them with a grandeur equivalent to Zeus. But to me, you are enslaved. Enslaved by insatiable ambition. I, however, am free.”
Alexander stutters some incomprehensible words. Then he composes himself: “Although I am of Macedonian descent, I was tutored by the great Aristotle of Athens, and have united lands far superior to any Greek leader –”
I raise my hand, exasperated in my old age by the so-called ‘unity’ of Greek identity: “I do not care whether you’re Greek or non-Greek, whether you’re a slave or free-born. What is that to me?”
There’s a look of shock in his eyes: “You claim no culture?”
“I am a citizen of the cosmos,” I reply.
He stares at me, his body and face fixed as still as a marble sculpture. The sun is, fortunately, blocking my ability to make eye contact. With his lion-skin belt and aristocratic stature, he resembles Heracles. I would never mention how dazzled I am by his beauty.
“I’ll be back, Diogenes.”
Alexander and Diogenes by William Rainey, 1910
He walks over to another grassy patch and sits down. His shield-bearer, guards, and companions join him instinctively, but Alexander orders them to leave him to think alone. Whilst I lie, legs spread-eagle, gently stroking the grass, he sits, shoulders tight and fists clenched. I am poorly clothed. He is dressed in regal attire, with gleaming chest plate, helmet and armour, and a purple tunic.
For too long have I been carrying a lantern to look into people’s faces, searching for an honest man – a man who does not hide behind a ‘mask of manners’ to shield any uncomfortable truth. I wonder if Alexander will have me killed for my honesty and spare all the liars. I will not run away or beg for forgiveness. I accept my fate. I believe this is the price I must pay.
As I feel my body drift off to sleep again, he returns.
“Diogenes, you scorn my offer to you, but I see that you do not desire anything. Nor do you have any shame, and for this reason, you are more powerful than I.”
I stroke my beard and nod. I live another day. I stay silent, following in the footsteps of my fellow cynic, Zeno of Citium, who said “the reason why we have two ears and only one mouth is so we might listen more and talk less.”
Alexander continues his monologue: “Over by that rock I felt the sort of shame you never experience. But you are right. My position is precarious, my authority threatened, my kingship mortal. But you, Diogenes, have complete self-sovereignty. Although I am the king of the world, you are more powerful than me.”
“I have felt shame before, Alexander. After following my master Antisthenes around for a year, he had to ward me off with a staff. I decided after that moment that I would never rely on anyone's judgement for my own self-assurance. It’s been more than fifty years now. I believe I’m living for so long because I do not rely on others.”
He beckons over his guards and entourage, and makes a grand proclamation to them: “Friends, if I were not Alexander the Great, I would like to be Diogenes.” I notice one companion note this down on his papyrus. Then Alexander bids me goodbye, and they march off. His cloak billows in the wind behind him: his tunic stained purple with murex, the dye so rare only a king can afford it.
“If a mouse can be satisfied with a few crumbs, why can’t I be happy with my little means?” I say to myself as I fall back to sleep.
© Sophie Dibben 2024
Sophie Dibben is 24-years-old and studied Classics at Trinity College Dublin. She now works in a prison but continues to study the lives of her favourite ancient legends. She loves Diogenes and thinks he was an underrated guy.’