Diogenes of Sinope - The Cynic - Greek Philosopher - The Original Anarchist -The Ultimate Activist

Diogenes by Jules Bastien-Lepage (1873)
Diogenes by Jules Bastien-Lepage (1873)

Diogenes, a Greek master of philosophyborn into the Ionian, Greek-speaking colony of Sinope, on the shores of the Black Sea, Turkey in 412 BC, was no ordinary, run of the mill, wise old man of ancient Greece.

Diogenes of Sinope. Spent his days searching Athens for an honest man. Never found one.  Sinop Turkey. By Ferhan Balırak
Diogenes of Sinope. Spent his days searching Athens for an honest man,he never found one.
 Sinop Turkey. By Ferhan Balırak

Diogenes, one of the cynic philosophers, a controversial figure, who lived his wretched life in a ceramic wine jar,  known for his wit and satire, and his disregard for anyone and anything, had many labels;

 “A Socrates gone mad”, declared Plato, “Diogenes the Dog”, or Diogenes the cynic, exclaimed fellow Athenians, others, less polite, called him a lunatic.

1882 John William Waterhouse
1882 John William Waterhouse

Today’s labels for Diogenes would most likely include;
Fanatic, extremist, bigot, activist, anarchist and yes, lunatic!

Born into an affluent family, his father, Tresius, a rich money-lender, owned the local mint, Diogenes was exiled from Sinope for debasement of currency (Issuing coins of a certain face value, but with less metal content than previous issues).

After being thrown out of Sinope, Diogenes made his way to Greece, with his man servant, Manes, who, on arrival, promptly deserted him.

Diogenes, having no idea what to do with the rest of his life, decided to consult Pythia, the oracle at Delphi, to see if she could enlighten him.

Pythia, the Delphi Oracle . J. Augustus Knap
Pythia, the Delphi Oracle -  J. Augustus Knap

Pythia did not give Diogenes the answer he expected, but rather, advised him to deface the currency;

 “Well’, thought Diogenes, “I tried that, and look where it got me!
Surely she means deface the political currency, I’ll head off to Athens to provoke the people there, challenge their values and way of life, and I’ll stir them up big time!”

 Once in Athens, Diogenes was drawn to Antisthenes, a philosopher of the day, and his ascetic teachings, known today as cynicism, a school of ancient Greek philosophy.

The School of Athens Raphael
The School of Athens - Raphael

Today, the word cynic conjures up images of grumpy old men, or pessimists, but back in the fifth century B.C, cynic meant something entirely different, and was used as an insult against Diogenes and his followers.

The word “cynic" comes from the Greek word kynikos, (κυνικός), "dog-like", which derives from the word, kyôn (κύων or kynos), meaning dog, and was used to describe the dog-like behavior of Diogenes, who lived in the streets, ate raw meat, and performed his natural bodily functions in public like a shameless animal.

 Alexander and Diogenes, Sir Edwin Landseer 1848.
 Alexander and Diogenes -Sir Edwin Landseer 1848.

No works of Diogenes exist today, as he believed his teachings were better understood through actions and conversation, rather than through the reading of books.

The philosophy of Diogenes, cynicism, was to live a life of virtue, to avoid earthly pleasures, to live in poverty, as simply as possible and to achieve EUDAIMONIA, through living life in accordance with nature, to enjoy the simple things, to be happiest with the least; a sip of cool water on a hot day, the feel of the sun on your skin after winter, to live life in the now, to live the good life.

Jean-Leon Gerome - Diogenes
Jean-Leon Gerome - Diogenes

To bring about this state of simple happiness, Diogenes, insisted the masses, of which he had a low opinion, calling them ignorant, obedient sheep, who were corrupted by socialization, by conforming blindly to customs, laws and ideals, should break free from their chains of social norm, reject wealth, sex and power, and get rid of their possessions.

Diogenes practiced what he preached, lived in a wine jar, and owned nothing. (After seeing a young boy using his cupped hands to drink water from a river, he even threw away his wooden bowl, exclaiming; "A child has beaten me in plainness of living").

Diogenes in a Landscape, by Nicolas Poussin (17th century).
Diogenes in a Landscape, by Nicolas Poussin (17th century).

 Diogenes, the first to call himself a “cosmopolites”, a citizen of the world, and who retorted “I am not mad, I’m different from you” when called a lunatic, spent his days generally getting up the noses of fellow Athenians, spouting off in the market place, pulling stunts, such as carrying a lantern in broad daylight, in order to find an honest man.

Jacob Jordaens - Diogenes seeks people at the market using his lamp
Jacob Jordaens - Diogenes seeks people at the market using his lamp

He ridiculed customs and traditions, stating that anyone who attended the famous Dyonisian celebrations were fools, Diogenes tried to force his ideas and way of living on whoever crossed his path.

Diogenes had total disrespect for the philosophers of Athens, thinking them hypocrites, and loved nothing better than to criticize and embarrass his contemporaries, he called Plato’s lectures a waste of time and after hearing Plato define Man as an animal, biped and featherless, Diogenes plucked a fowl and brought it into the lecture-room with the words;

"Behold here is  man."

Illustration by Eric Drass   (Shardcore)
Illustration by Eric Drass   (Shardcore)

More sayings and anecdotes of Diogenes include;

On watching a bungling bowman at an archery contest, Diogenes went and sat right next to the target, explaining that it was the only place where he felt safe.

When Diogenes was asked which wine he preferred, he replied;

 "That for which other people pay."

Diogenes the Dog
Diogenes the Dog

Diogenes requested that when he died, he be buried 'face downwards', because the Macedonians were rising in power so quickly that the world would soon be turned upside down and he would then be the right way up.

Diogenes noticed a prostitute's son throwing stones at a crowd, and said to him;

 "Careful, boy, you might hit your father."

After being reproached for masturbating in public, Diogenes answered;

 "If only it was as easy to banish hunger by rubbing the belly as it is to masturbate."

The sculptural work, entitled Dog is a contemporary rendition of the legendary philosopher Diogenes of Sinope. Andy Lendzion

"Diogenes showed his rejection of "normal" ideas about human decency by eating in the street, masturbating in the marketplace, 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."(Philosophy Basics.com)

The sculptural work, entitled Dog is a contemporary rendition of the legendary philosopher Diogenes of Sinope. Andy Lendzion

Diogenes ended his days in Corinth, said to have been taken there when kidnapped by pirates while sailing the Aegean.
He was sold as a slave in Crete, to a Corinthian named Xeniades, who was so enamored of Diogenes; he employed him as tutor to his two sons.

Whist in Corinth, Diogenes is said to have been visited by Alexander the Great, who had heard of his reputation, Alexander offered Diogenes anything his heart desired, to which Diogenes answered “Move a little to the right, you are blocking my sun”

Gaetano Gandolfi, Alexander and Diogenes, 1792
Gaetano Gandolfi, Alexander and Diogenes, 1792

Diogenes death in Corinth 323 B.C, of course, could be nothing normal, after all, nothing in his life was classed as normal.

 There are various stories, one that he decided to die, so just held his breath, and that was that, another story has him dying from eating raw octopus,  and yet another, that he died   from an infected dog bite.

Statue of Diogenes with Alexander the Great in Corinth   Achilles Vasileiou
Statue of Diogenes with Alexander the Great in Corinth
 Achilles Vasileiou

Diogenes left instructions to be thrown outside the city wall on his death, so wild animals could feast on his body. 

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