Diogenes of Sinope (aka Diogenes the Cynic) (c. 412 – 323 B.C.) was a Greek philosopher of the Socratic (or Classical) period. He was one of the founders (and the archtypical practitioner) of the ancient Greek philosophical school of Cynicism.
He lived as a beggar in the streets of Athens and made a virtue of extreme poverty. He taught contempt for all human achievements, social values and institutions. But his sharp wit and stinging satire was very effective in highlighting the decadence, irrationality and double standards of Athens society.
Diogenes (pronounced die-O-jen-ees) was born in about 412 B.C. (or 404 B.C., according to some sources) in Sinope (on the Black Sea coast of modern-day Turkey), the son of Tresius, a rich money-changer. It is likely that he was exiled from Sinope for adulterating the coins his father minted with base metals, and made his way to Athens with a slave named Manes, who abandoned him shortly thereafter. He lived as a beggar in the streets of Athens, living semi-naked in a tub by the temple of Cybele, making a virtue of his extreme poverty.
He was attracted by the Ascetic teaching of Antisthenes (c. 445 – 365 B.C.), a student of Socrates. Diogenes became Antisthenes’ pupil, despite the brutality with which he was received, and rapidly surpassed his master both in reputation and in the austerity of his life. He avoided all earthly pleasures, and openly disdained what he saw as the folly, pretense, vanity, social climbing, self-deception and artificiality of much human conduct.
Most of what we know of his life has come to us in the form of anecdotes, especially from the “Lives and Opinions of Eminent Philosophers” of the 3rd Century historian of the ancient Greek philosophers, Diogenes Laërtius. For instance, he destroyed his only possession, a single wooden bowl, on seeing a peasant boy drink from the hollow of his hands. He used to stroll about in full daylight with a lamp, because he claimed to be looking for an honest man. He lavishly praised the virtues of dogs (which eat anything, make no fuss about where to sleep, perform natural bodily functions in public without unease, and know instinctively who is friendand who is foe), all of which makes them superior to humans in his view. At one time, he poured scorn on Plato‘s characterization of man as a featherless biped, by bringing a plucked chicken into the lecture room. He is also credited with the first known use of the word “cosmopolitan”, claiming to be a “cosmopolites” (“citizen of the world”).
He showed his rejection of “normal” ideas about human decency by eating in the street, urinating on those who insulted him, defecating in the theatre, and pointing at people with his middle finger. He was a self-appointed public scold whose mission was to demonstrate to the ancient Greeks that civilization is regressive.
As the stories have it, Diogenes was captured by pirates and sold as a slave in Crete to a Corinthian named Xeniades, who was impressed with his wit and vision and employed him as tutor to his two sons. He lived in Corinth for the rest of his life, which he devoted to preaching the doctrines of virtuous self-control. At one point, he supposedly met Alexander the Great in Corinth, and impressed the great leader with his ingenuity and wisdom, causing Alexander to remark, “If I were not Alexander, then I should wish to be Diogenes”.
He died in 323 B.C. at Corinth, alleged variously to have held his breath, to have become ill from eating raw octopus, or to have suffered an infected dog bite. He left instructions to be thrown outside the city wall on his death, so wild animals could feast on his body. The Corinthians erected to his memory a pillar on which rested a dog of Parian marble.
No writings of Diogenes have survived even though he is reported to have authored several books. All we have is a number of anecdotes concerning his life and sayings attributed to him in a number of scattered classical sources, none of them definitive. (For a comprehensive list of some of Diogenes’ wittiest sayings, go to the Diogenes the Dog website.)
Along with Antisthenes (c. 445 – 365 B.C.) and Crates of Thebes (c. 365 – 285 B.C.), Diogenes is considered one of the founders of the school of Cynicism. The doctrine of Cynicism holds that the purpose of life is to live a life of Virtue in agreement with Nature (which calls for only the bare necessities required for existence). This involves rejecting all conventional desires for health, wealth, power and fame, and living a life free from all possessions and property.
Although Antisthenes preached a life of poverty, and Crates even gave away a large fortune to live a life of poverty in Athens, Diogenes took Cynicism to its logical extremes and dominates the story of Cynicism like no other figure. He dedicated his life to self-sufficiency (“autarkeia”), austerity (“askesis”) and shamelessness(“anaideia”), and was famed for his biting satire and wit. His rather shocking lifestyle and habits were never gratuitous, but were used to subtly illustrate his contempt for human achievements, social values and institutions, and to point out the irrationality of accepted conventions.
Like Socrates, Diogenes believed that he could function as doctor to men’s soulsand improve them morally, while at the same time holding contempt for their obtuseness. Plato once described him as “a Socrates gone mad”. Diogenes, in return, was a particularly harsh critic of Plato and his metaphysical pursuits. In his anti-Platonic insistence that reason should replace authority in guiding human affairs, and his vision of a free community without government, Diogenes can also be considered a proto-Anarchist.
As a philosopher, Diogenes was taken surprising seriously, despite his shock tactics. He apparently proved to the satisfaction of the Stoics who came after him that happiness has nothing whatever to do with a person’s material circumstances, and they claimed him to be a “sophos” or wise man. An exile and an outcast, a man with no social identity, Diogenes certainly made a mark on his contemporaries, and his story continues to fascinate students of human nature.