Diogenes

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Diogenes of Sinope (c. 412 B.C.E. - 323 B.C.E.)

Some think Diogenes was born in 399 B.C.E., but according to Diogenes Laërtes, his death occurred on the day that Alexander the Great died at Babylon.

Born in Sinope, Pontus, he moved to Athens, became fascinated by the teaching of Antisthenes, and started the life of an austere ascetic. His unconventional behavior - such as searching with a lantern in daylight for an honest man - was intended to portray the ideal of a life lived according to nature.

When Diogenes pleaded with Antisthenes to teach him, the older man took a disliking to him and tried to beat him with his stick. But Diogenes refused to move, saying he wanted the wisdom which Antisthenes had to give. He wanted to do as his jailed father had done, deface the coinage because stamps were false and the men stamped upon them were, as Bertrand Russell described, “base metal with lying superscription.”

Diogenes believed virtue could be found in living the simple life, so he discarded eating utensils, drank from his hands, and lived like a dog - “cynic” means “canine.” Like fakirs, he begged.

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Unlike most, he considered animals as well as humans his brotherhood. Worldly goods were of no account to him, for virtue and moral freedom came when one learned to free himself from desire. Prometheus, he proclaimed, was justly punished, for he erred by bringing man the arts and what has led to modernity. His home, for example, consisted of a tub-like burial pitcher.

When Alexander the Great inquired what he could do for him, Diogenes retorted, “Only step out of my sunlight.”

His refusal to accept ordinary conventions led to many stories about his eccentricities. For example, to show contempt for his generation and times, he carried a lantern during daylight hours, explaining he was looking “for an honest man.” He was known to embrace statues during the winter. Upon cracking a louse on a temple’s altar rail, he said, “Thus does Diogenes sacrifice to all the gods at once.” When chastised for masturbating in public, he replied, “Would that hunger could be alleviated by rubbing one’s belly.” Passing by a tree from which female prisoners had been hanged, he observed, “Would that all trees bore such sweet fruit.”

He lived in a wine barrel, tried to eat his meat raw, advocated public masturbation, and reportedly urinated on individuals he disliked. Like the academic skeptics, he held that nothing can be known solely by our senses or our reason, and his views led to people’s illustrating how easy it is to do without material wealth, how happy one can be eating simple food, how warm one can keep without expensive clothing, how silly it is to love one’s native country, how futile to cry when friends or even one’s own children die.

Diogenes held that nothing is produced from nothing or reduced to nothing, that the earth is round and received its shape from whirling, and he made no distinction between mind and matter. As Russell in his History of Western Philosophy remarks,

  • One wonders who appreciated such views; “Was it the rich, who wished to think the sufferings of the poor imaginary? Or was it the new poor, who were trying to despise the successful businessman? Or was it sycophants who persuaded themselves that the charity they accepted was unimportant?. . . Popular Cynicism did not teach abstinence from the good things of this world, but only a certain indifference to them. In the case of a borrower, this might take the form of minimizing the obligation to the lender. One can easily understand,” adds Russell, “how the word ‘cynic’ has acquired its present meaning.”

According to N. C. Denyer of Trinity College, Cambridge,

  • [Diogenes] seems to have held that only the distinction between virtue and vice matters, and that other conventionally acknowledged distinctions (e.g., between public and private, Greek and barbarian, raw and cooked, yours and mine) should be disdained. He prepared these views, occasionally by argument ('All things belong to the gods, the gods are friends to the wise; friends hold in common what belongs to them; so all things belong to the wise'), but much more frequently by action: a Characteristic anecdote records that he once masturbated in the market-place, remarking to passers-by 'If only it were as easy to get ride of hunger by rubbing my stomach'. His flamboyantly disgusting actions and savage repartee earned him the nickname 'Dog'; his followers were called 'Cinics', or 'Doggies'.

{CE; EU; OCP; TYD}