|Picture Credit/ATTRIBUTION: John William Waterhouse, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons|
The Ultimate Polemicist
Diogenes (also known as Diogenes the Cynic) was a Greek philosopher born in Sinope, an Ionian colony on the Black Sea coast of modern-day Turkey, in 412 or 404 BC and died at Corinth in 323 BC. He was one of the founders of Cynic philosophy. You might say he was the ultimate polemicist – arguing, criticising and taking an opposite view on almost everything. Mr Disputatious would be an appropriate 21st century name for him.
Controversial but Honest
It is an understatement to say that Diogenes was a controversial figure. His father minted coins for a living, and Diogenes was banished from Sinope when he took to debasement of the currency. After being exiled, he moved to Athens and pursued criticism of the many cultural conventions of the city. Diogenes began practising what may best be described as extreme anti-conventionalism. He modelled himself on the example of Heracles and believed that virtue was better revealed in action than in theory.
He used his simple lifestyle and behaviour to criticise the social values and institutions of what he saw as a corrupt, confused society. He had a reputation for sleeping and eating wherever he chose in a highly non-traditional fashion and took to toughening himself against nature.
When Plato was asked what sort of man Diogenes is, he responded, “A Socrates gone mad”. MentalFloss suggest that 21st century historians have compared Diogenes’ life to “one long Monty Python sketch.”
Plato’s label is representative, for Diogenes’ adaptation of Socratic philosophy has frequently been regarded as one of degradation.
Diogenes declared himself to be a cosmopolitan and a citizen of the world rather than claiming allegiance to just one place. There are many tales about his dogging the footsteps of Antisthenes and becoming his “faithful hound”.
Diogenes made a virtue of poverty. He begged for a living, and his sleeping chamber was a large ceramic jar, or pithos, in the marketplace. He became notorious for his philosophical stunts – he is best known for holding a lantern (or candle) to the faces of the citizens of Athens claiming he was searching for an honest man. He rejected the concept of “manners” as a lie – instead advocating complete truthfulness at all times and under any circumstance whatsoever.
He was known for brutal honesty in conversation and paid no attention to any kind of etiquette regarding social class and seems to have had a problem in matters of toiletry, engaging openly in doing things in public what others (he claimed) did furtively in private.
Diogenes criticised Plato, disputing his interpretation of Socrates, and sabotaged his lectures, sometimes distracting listeners by bringing food and eating during the discussions. He was also noted for having mocked Alexander the Great (see below).
Diogenes was as bizarre as one could get in the ancient Greek world. Some say he was a raving lunatic. He was undoubtedly brash, coarse, crass, unruly, and obscene. He took great pride in his disregard of the thoughts and esteems of others. Yet, even today, Diogenes is highly regarded for his commitment to truth and living according to his beliefs.
The word cynic comes from the Greek word for dog (Kyon), and Diogenes is a name that means “the man from God”. Hence, Diogenes was also called Diogenes the Dog meaning “the man from God who acted like a dog”. Diogenes was one of the founders and most famous members of the philosophical movement known as cynicism. It’s been defined in several ways. One definition is: ‘Cynicism—the belief that people are generally morally bankrupt and behave treacherously to maximise self-interest.’
The first philosopher to outline these themes was Antisthenes, a former pupil of Socrates in the late 5th century BC. He was followed by Diogenes, who took cynicism to its extremes and came to be seen as the archetypal Cynic philosopher. He was followed by Crates of Thebes, who gave away a large fortune to live a life of Cynic poverty in Athens.
Cynicism gradually declined in importance after the 3rd century BC, but it experienced a revival with the rise of the Roman Empire in the 1st century. Cynics could be found begging and preaching throughout the cities of the empire, and similar ascetic and rhetorical ideas appeared in early Christianity. By the 19th century, emphasis on the negative aspects of Cynic philosophy led to the modern understanding of cynicism to mean a disposition of disbelief in the sincerity or goodness of human motives and actions.
Diogenes meeting Alexander of Macedonia
Diogenes was accused of mocking Alexander the Great. For centuries of European art, it was one of the most frequently portrayed moments from classical antiquity. On Wikimedia Commons, there are more than fifty artistic renderings of an apocryphal meeting of the young Alexander of Macedonia (later to be known as “the Great”) and the much older Diogenes of Sinope (later to be known as “the Cynic”).
It is hard to imagine a more unlikely pair. Alexander was the brash young king of Macedonia who had conquered Greece and was on his way to conquering the world. He can be assumed to have been dressed at the time of the meeting in regal attire befitting his status and to have been accompanied by a retinue of attendants. Quite different to the appearance of Diogenes, whose home was a discarded clay wine barrel and who rejected all of the formalities of civilised behaviour – contemptible for the conventions of society.
Caricatures of Diogenes in later times often included a lighted lamp that he is said to have carried even in the daytime, as he went in futile ‘search for an honest man’.
In the most famous exchange of the meeting, Alexander said to Diogenes, “Ask of me whatever in the world you would like.” Diogenes, who was enjoying the warmth of the autumn sun and had just been awakened from a deep slumber, answered, “Stand aside to stop blocking the sun.”
After meeting Diogenes, Alexander the Great is reported to have said: “Had I not been Alexander, I should have liked to be Diogenes.”
There are conflicting accounts of Diogenes’ death. Nobody knows for sure how it happened. His contemporaries alleged he had held his breath until he expired, although other accounts of his death say he had become ill from eating raw octopus; or to have suffered an infected dog bite.
When asked how he wished to be buried, Diogenes left instructions to be thrown outside the city wall so wild animals could feast on his body. When asked if he minded this, he said, “Not at all, as long as you provide me with a stick to chase the creatures away!” When asked how he could use the stick since he would lack awareness, he replied: “If I lack awareness, then why should I care what happens to me when I am dead?” To the end, Diogenes made fun of people’s excessive concern with the “proper” treatment of the dead. In memory of Diogenes, the Corinthians erected a pillar on which rested a dog of Parian marble.
Diogenes Syndrome (also known as ‘senile squalor syndrome’)
Diogenes’ name has been attached to a behavioural disorder characterised by apparently involuntary self-neglect and hoarding. The disorder afflicts the elderly and is quite inappropriately named, as Diogenes deliberately rejected common standards of material comfort and was anything but a hoarder. The name itself is also often criticised as Diogenes believed he was helping himself. The syndrome does not refer to the intelligence or the philosophies of Diogenes but instead refers to the way he lived.
The condition of Diogenes Syndrome was first recognised in 1966 and designated with that name by Clark et al. The name derives from Diogenes of Sinope, the ancient Greek philosopher, a Cynic and an ultimate minimalist. The eponym is considered a misnomer as not only did he not hoard, but he sought human company by venturing daily to the Agora (‘looking for an honest man’). Other possible terms are senile breakdown, Plyushkin’s Syndrome, social breakdown and senile squalor syndrome.
Diogenes syndrome is a disorder that involves hoarding of rubbish and severe self-neglect. In addition, the syndrome is characterised by domestic squalor, syllogomania, social alienation, and refusal of help. It has been shown that the syndrome is caused by a reaction to stress.
Quotations by Diogenes of Sinope
“It is not that I am mad. It is only that my head is different from yours.”
“Of what use is a philosopher who doesn’t hurt anybody’s feelings?”
“It is the privilege of the gods to want nothing and of godlike men to want little.”
“I am a citizen of the world.”
“The foundation of every state is the education of its youth.”
“It takes a wise man to discover a wise man.”
“I have nothing to ask but that you would remove to the other side, that you may not, by intercepting the sunshine, take from me what you cannot give.”
“Blushing is the colour of virtue.”
“In a rich man’s house, there is no place to spit but his face.”
When someone reminded him that the people of Sinope had sentenced him to exile, he said: “And I sentenced them to stay at home.”
When asked the proper time for lunch, he said: “If a rich man, when you will; if a poor man, when you can.”
“Dogs and philosophers do the greatest good and get the fewest rewards.”
“The art of being a slave is to rule one’s master.”
“Poverty is a virtue which one can teach oneself.”
“No man is hurt but by himself.”
“What I like to drink most is wine that belongs to others.”
“The only way to gall and fret effectively is for yourself to be a good and honest man.”
“Behold! I’ve brought you a man.”
“As a matter of self-preservation, a man needs good friends or ardent enemies, for the former instruct him, and the latter take him to task.”
“You are a simpleton, Hegesias; you do not choose painted figs, but real ones; and yet you pass over the true training and would apply yourself to written rules.”
“I am Diogenes the Dog. I nuzzle the kind, bark at the greedy and bite scoundrels.”
“If I gained one thing from philosophy, it is that at the very least, I am well prepared to confront any change in fortune.”
Sources and Further Reading
- YouTube Video: https://youtu.be/Utzym1I_BiY
- Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy: https://iep.utm.edu/cynics/
Antisthenes (445-365 BC) was a Greek philosopher and a pupil of Socrates. Antisthenes first learned rhetoric under Gorgias before becoming an ardent disciple of Socrates. He adopted and developed the ethical side of Socrates’ teachings, advocating an ascetic life lived in accordance with virtue. Source: Wikipedia, at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Antisthenes ↑
Source: mainly from Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cynicism_(philosophy) ↑
Source: Dudley, R. (1937), A History of Cynicism from Diogenes to the 6th Century A.D., Cambridge University Press ↑
See: Macmillan, D; Shaw, P. (1966). “Senile breakdown in standards of personal and environmental cleanliness”. BMJ. 2 (5521): 1032–7.