Diogenes of Sinope (412 – 323 BCE) also known as Diogenes the Cynic, was born in Sinope, an Ionian colony in what is today North Turkey on the Black Sea. He is not Diogenes Laertius, the biographer of philosophers we have heard much from, nor is he several different Diogenes who are less famous Greek philosophers.
Legend has it that Diogenes’ father was a banker in charge of the mint, making coins for the government, but Diogenes “defaced the currency” and was banished. One source says that Diogenes went to the Oracle at Delphi, and the pythias told him to deface the currency. Large numbers of coins have been found in the region that have been defaced, some with Diogenes’ father’s name on them as the minter. While some believe that Diogenes and his father were involved in counterfeiting, it is likely that this is a metaphor for Diogenes’ rejection of traditional life, the “way of his father”, the common currency used in the marketplace. Diogenes believed that people were corrupted by society, and should return to a simple life. It is also true that there were, understandably, warring factions of pro-Greek separatists and pro-Persian loyalists fighting over authority of the city, and the coins may not have involved Diogenes but rather political infighting. If this is true, the story stuck to Diogenes as a metaphor after the fact. Either way, sources tell us that Diogenes moved to Athens, where he became famous for his lifestyle and amusingly cynical interactions with others.
In Athens, Antisthenes (445 – 365 BCE), a student of Socrates, was the first to make Cynicism a distinct philosophy. Socrates did prefer the simple life, and despised wealth and excess. Diogenes became the most famous and emblematic cynic. While later cynics believed that Diogenes studied with Antisthenes, this is questionable. According to the story, Diogenes heard Antisthenes in the marketplace, and offered to become his disciple. Antisthenes tried to chase him away, beating him with his staff, and Diogenes replied that he was going nowhere, there being no staff hard enough to drive him away from Antisthenes’ wisdom. Diogenes admired Antisthenes for being the antithesis of the average Athenian, who increasingly had come to indulge in luxury and excess as Athens had become the wealthy center of the newly independent Delian League.
Diogenes when asked said he was a citizen of the world, literally a ‘cosmopolitan’ (like the socialite, not the beverage). Diogenes is thought by some to have invented the term by use of this expression. This was also a radical rejection of tradition, as most identified with their city and saw outsiders as barbarians.
None of his writings survive, but anecdotes about his life are found in the writings of others, particularly Diogenes Laertius (again, a different Diogenes). His life is quite famous. Many famous paintings from the Renaissance and in the realist style before impressionism of the late 1800s feature Diogenes and stories of his life.
Diogenes begged for a living, sleeping in a large jar on its side in public. He meant for his life to be seen in the center of town, hoping that his example would inspire others, and bragged about his immunity to the weather, unlike someone used to comfort and fine living. Diogenes would walk barefoot in snow and roll in hot sand to toughen himself. When asked if he was being too extreme, he replied that he was the lead singer of a chorus, who must sing louder than the others to give them the right note. When asked why he begged for his food, Diogenes said it taught people. When asked what it taught them, he replied, “Generosity”.
Someone in the biological sciences must have had an appreciation of Greek cynicism, as well as a decent sense of humor. ‘Diogenes’ is the genus of hermit crabs, those crabs that live like Diogenes the hermit, in a vessel they find and come to inhabit.
Diogenes originally owned a wooden bowl which he used to eat and drink, but smashed it after seeing a poor boy drinking from his cupped hands. He would eat in the marketplace, even though this was indecent according to Athenian custom, saying it was the only place he felt hungry. Clearly, the joke is that markets cause appetites.
In one of the most famous stories, Diogenes carried a lamp in the daytime around Athens and said he was looking for an honest man, the joke of course being that one could not be found in plain sight during broad daylight. This is very similar to Socrates, who wandered Athens in search of someone who truly knew something but could find no one.
Diogenes was against complicated theory, believing that true wisdom was rather found in the practice of a simple life ruled by reason and moderation. With Parmenides, it was already mentioned that when Diogenes was approached by a Parmenidean who argued that motion is impossible, Diogenes got up and left. This is both a refutation of the Eleatic challenge and an example of putting practice over theory.
Called “Diogenes the Dog”, it is unknown whether this was an insult that he came to accept as a badge of honor or he came up with the concept himself. The word ‘cynic’ comes from the ancient Greek kynikos, ‘dog-like’. Diogenes noted that dogs sleep anywhere, eat anything, and do their natural bodily functions in the open without shame. Dogs are honest and free of human anxieties, and so Diogenes believed people should study dogs to learn how to live. Diogenes said that while dogs bite their enemies, he bites his friends, shocking them to teach them about life.
Diogenes said that wealth was inferior to courage, custom inferior to nature, and passion inferior to reason. Several stories involve Diogenes being obscene, further rejecting custom and tradition to show people that they were attached to things that were meaningless. He said that if one walked around with one’s pinkie extended all day, no one would be offended, but if you walked around with your middle finger extended all day, everyone would be outraged. “What difference does one finger make?”, he asked. He was known for frequently flipping people ‘the bird’, a gesture which still means today what it meant in ancient Athens.
Adding to his reputation as a dog, he is said to have defecated in the theater and urinated on people who insulted him. In one tale, Diogenes was invited to a rich man’s party, but his behavior attracted the anger of one of the guests who began to call him a dog and throwing bones at him. Diogenes walked up to him, lifted his robe, and peed on him. Once, when invited into a man’s home and told not to spit on the floor, he cleared his throat and spit in the man’s face. Another time, when the Athenians had outlawed masturbation, he stood in the marketplace masturbating, calling on all honest men to join him. When asked later about this, he said that he wished it were just as easy to cure hunger by rubbing one’s empty stomach. This technique, like his walks with the lamp, failed to find an honest man in broad daylight.
Later cynics, who looked back to Diogenes for inspiration, would do all these things, go barefoot, urinate, have sex in public, and generally not give much of a damn about social conventions. This is similar to the dada artists of the early 1900s, the beatniks of the 1950s and the hippies of the 1960s. Opposed to a society engaged in war and commercialism, these countercultural movements rejected acceptable societal norms and brought obscenity and sexuality to the fore, hoping to shock traditional people into greater awareness of the situation.
Marcuse, a German philosopher popular with the hippies who rejected the commercialism of ‘the Establishment’, argued that female genitalia is not obscene, but rather war and poverty that are obscene. The modern French philosopher Foucault, also influential to hippies, read Diogenes to resist power and authority. Sloterdijk, in his Critique of Cynical Reason (1987) argued we must return to Diogenes for inspiration today, and that actors who portray the obscene and terrible are engaged in the rejection and criticism of authority and tradition, just like Diogenes.
In Athens, Diogenes was said to have interrupted Plato’s lectures on more than one occasion, arguing against Plato’s interpretation of Socrates. Diogenes believed, perhaps correctly, that Antisthenes was Socrates’ true heir, and Plato had hijacked his legacy. Plato said that Diogenes was “Socrates gone mad”. Once, after Plato had argued that humans should be classified as featherless bipeds, Diogenes plucked a chicken and brought it to Plato during a lecture, saying, “Behold! I bring you a man”. One source says Plato changed the definition to include broad flat nails after this, though he may as well have gone with beak-less.
According to another story, Plato was teaching about ideal forms and pointed to several cups on a table, arguing that there were many physical cups, but only one idea and form of the cup, which was in the mind, superior to the physical copies. Diogenes, heckling Plato from the gathered crowd, said that he can see the cups, but not this superior ideal form. Plato replied that we can have it in our mind. Diogenes picked up a cup, noted that it was empty, and asked Plato where the emptiness of the cup comes from. Plato paused, unsure of the answer. Plato, like Parmenides, did not believe void to exist, as it had no form. Diogenes walked up to him, tapped him on the forehead, and said, “I believe that you can find the emptiness here, Plato”.
In another story, Diogenes was asked by some who had gathered if he could lead them to Plato. Diogenes led them to a deserted area of town, gestured into the empty air and said, “May I humbly present you the great philosopher Plato”. This is, of course, another jab at Plato’s idealism and putting theory and the ideal over the practical and the real.
In another, Plato came upon Diogenes washing vegetables in a stream. “Oh Diogenes”, said Plato, “If you only knew how to court kings, you would not have to wash vegetables”, to which Diogenes replied, “And Plato, if you only knew how to wash vegetables, you would not have to court kings”.
Diogenes was also said to have mocked Alexander the Great as he passed through Athens on his conquests, who was happy to have found the famous philosopher and offered to give him anything. Diogenes famously replied that Alexander could move so that he was no longer blocking his sunlight. This story contains a joke too, as Alexander had himself crowned a god and identified with the sun in Egypt, while Diogenes sees him as a hindrance to the sun. Alexander, impressed by Diogenes’ courage, said that, if he could not be Alexander, he would wish to be Diogenes. In another story, Alexander found Diogenes looking through a pile of bones, and when asked what he was doing Diogenes said that he was looking for Alexander’s father’s bones, but they seem no different than a slave’s. Alexander came from the North of Athens, and would have been considered a barbarian like Diogenes himself as well as Aristotle. It is likely these encounters never happened, but grew in later times after cynicism had become popular in lands formerly conquered by Alexander.
When he was near death, Diogenes told his friends that he wished to have his corpse thrown outside the city, where it would be eaten by birds and beasts. When some refused, Diogenes replied that he would not be aware of what was going on, so there was no problem. One source says that Diogenes died voluntarily by holding his breath, by our understandings today impossible as he would simply pass out and resume breathing involuntarily, but similar to accounts of Indian sages who could stop their breath and heart voluntarily when they chose to die. The ability to shut down one’s central nervous system at will would be a dramatic conquest of mind over body. Another source says that Diogenes died from a dog bite. The first seems to hold Diogenes in great esteem, the second an insult from a critic. Other sources say Diogenes died of old age.
As a philosophy, Cynicism held that happiness is found through being in accord with nature, simple and self-sufficient. Unnatural things such as power, fame and luxuries cause ignorance and discord with nature, which then causes unhappiness. This is quite similar to Democritus we just studied, who argued that if we are content with what we have we lose desire for what is excessive and unnecessary. As some scholars have noted, it is also very similar to Daoism of ancient China. Both body and mind must be disciplined such that they are tranquil and comfortable in the natural world, free of the bondage of desire. Diogenes said that bad people obey their desires as slaves obey their masters.
Later, Cynicism fed into Stoicism. Diogenes taught Crates in Corinth, who passed it to Zeno of Citium (a different Zeno than the student and possibly more of Parmenides), who turned it into Stoicism. Cynicism and Stoicism were both popular in ancient Rome at the height of the empire. Note that, just like with the beatniks and hippies, it is at the height of civilization that many turn away in disgust from excess and corruption. Some Roman critics called the Cynics “the Army of the Dog”.
As Christianity developed into a major religion in ancient Greece and Rome, it was influenced by both of these as well. Some scholars have argued that Jesus was a Jewish cynic, pointing to many details of his life and teachings. Mack and Crossan, two scholars who created the Jesus Seminar, argue that the historical Jesus was a Galilean who was influenced by Greek ideas and the Jewish prophetic tradition found in the Old Testament, and that later his life was turned into legend. If this is true, Empedocles might also have been an influence, as Jesus was a healer who taught that we are all divine. Some cynics were martyred in Roman lands for speaking out against authority, as Jesus and later Christians were. One major difference was cynic shamelessness, being naked and open about base matters. Christians, while embracing the poverty and simplicity of cynicism, did not approve of nudity and brute honesty, calling it immodesty and worthy of the label ‘dog’.