Ancient History: Diogenes the Dog, Your New Favorite Philosopher

I think it’s safe to wager that the average person probably doesn’t know enough about philosophers to have a favourite one. Most people – unless they are actively in academia or politics – probably don’t know enough about philosophers to name more than one or two.

And that’s not an insult to anyone that second statement applies to. Philosophy is a very dense and complicated subject to learn about. There are dozens of activities more easily accessible or simply more entertaining to do with what limited free time most people have.

If this is you, then I’d like to offer up a great candidate to be your favourite philosopher: Diogenes. He is one of the most interesting philosophers ever to live, and he is quite possibly the funniest. Diogenes was an ancient Greek philosopher with a wit sharper than any hoplite’s sword. He would be a great choice to name if you find academics swarming you at a social gathering.

But you’re going to need to know a little bit about him to back up that claim. So don’t worry; I’m here to cover the bases for you. First, I’ll dive into the man himself, his core beliefs, and finally some of the best anecdotes about him.

The Life of Diogenes

A painting of Diogenes, sitting in his barrel and working on a lantern. He is watched by a handful of dogs.
Jean-Leon Gerome’s “Diogenes” (1860). Image retrieved from Flickr.

We know very little about Diogenes’ early life. The first thing we know is that he was born in Sinope in 412 BCE. The next thing we know is that as an adult, Diogenes got himself exiled from Sinope for tampering with the city’s coins in some way. How? Historians aren’t sure. It’s not even a certain fact that Diogenes was the one to do the tampering – there is a chance it could have been his father, and Diogenes just got caught up in the legal crossfire.

Whatever the case, Diogenes had to leave his birthplace. He left for Athens, but before he arrived, he sent word to his friend in the city, asking that he find housing for him. But his friend had not been able to find a place for him before he reached the town. Upon realizing this, Diogenes decided to move into an oversized wine casket that sat outside a temple. A tad dramatic perhaps, Athens was a large enough city at the time that it wouldn’t have been that hard to find a room. But it worked out well enough for Diogenes in the end.

Diogenes the Philosopher

In Athens, he met the man who would influence much of his own beliefs: Antisthenes. Antisthenes was a philosopher in his own right who believed in self-control and living simply, as noted by the World History Encyclopedia. Diogenes was enamoured by the philosopher’s teachings and tried to get himself a spot at his school. Antisthenes adamantly did not want this at first and repeatedly chased the other man away. He even went as far as to try and beat the other man with a stick!  But Diogenes was nothing if not stubborn, and he was relentless in his persistence. Eventually, Antisthenes would allow him into his school.

Diogenes took Antisthenes’ beliefs and expanded upon them, pushing them into a more radical direction. Eli Kramer, in his paper, writes that Diogenes lived on the streets of Athens, owning next to nothing and earning no money. He ate, slept, and relieved himself in public. His behaviour led to the citizens of Athens giving him the nickname “Diogenes the Dog.” The name did not bother the man in the slightest, however, and he would often lean into this identity to prove his points.

Diogenes spread his teachings often, but not in a traditional school setting like what was standard at the time. In fact, he had a strong dislike for the schools run by his contemporaries. So instead, he preached his beliefs on the streets of Athens to anyone who would listen. And if one wouldn’t listen, Diogenes would show them through actions or quips at their expense. No passerby in Athens was safe from his scathing remarks and judgement.

Death in 323 B.C.E

Diogenes continued to live in his casket and be a general menace to his fellow philosophers and the Grecian elite for many decades.

How he died is uncertain, and a few possible outcomes are floating around. Some say he died of food poisoning or rabies. On the other hand, his pupils and friends were adamant that Diogenes simply grew tired of living and held his breath for long enough that he died.  While it seems absurd, it is admittedly not too out of character for the philosopher.

Diogenes’ Beliefs

A painting of Diogenes walking through the streets, holding his lantern.
J. H. W. Tischbein’s “Diogenes Searching For An Honest Man” (c.1780). Image retrieved from Wikipedia.

As mentioned earlier, some of Diogenes’ core beliefs revolved around living simply and naturally. He was also a big believer in the idea of self-sufficiency and virtue. Diogenes continuously mocked the rich and the extravagant. He believed society had become too self-absorbed. People had become too complacent with being cruel to their fellow man.

Most of what Diogenes would quip at people might also be considered cruel, mind you. But as Kramer quotes in his work, “(Diogenes) used to say he was imitating the chorus trainer; for they would set their pitch a little sharp so that everyone else hits the right note.” So Diogenes went with nothing so others may reflect and consider what they truly need. He mocked ruthlessly so others would think about the effect of their own words more carefully.

Diogenes is one of the prominent figures scholars point towards in establishing Cynicism as a school of philosophy. The Internet Encylopedia of Psychology notes that Cynicism as a school doesn’t have any official rules. Still, its central values revolve around living simply and self-sufficiently in tune with nature. As a result, cynics typically look down upon the ideas of hoarding wealth or possessions.

Diogenes embodied these ideas to their most radical extremes. Later Cynics would follow in his footsteps, sharing and practicing their teachings in public settings.

Cynicism would continue to be practiced and taught by philosophers into the height of the Roman Empire before eventually declining in the 5th century C.E.

Anecdotes

A painting of the meeting of Alexander the Great and Diogenes. Diogenes is sitting down, and he is surrounded by Alexander and his men.
Casper de Crayer’s “Alexander and Diogenes” (c.1650). Image retrieved from Wikipedia.

If I included every single story shared about Diogenes, this article would be terrifyingly large. So instead of covering everything, I’ve selected only the highlights to go through in this section. If you’d like to read about these stories along with the ones I didn’t mention as recorded by a historian from thousands of years ago, you can check out this link.

Whether or not all these anecdotes really happened is another thing entirely. Diogenes was a real person, but he’s become something of a semi-mythological figure over the hundreds of years since he lived. One that people told stories about and depicted in their artwork.

Some stories may be based on fact but exaggerated over time. Others could be entirely false. Maybe some are complete and utter fact despite sounding absolutely improbably. I’ll leave the designations for each up to you to decide for yourself.

Diogenes and the Pirates

Later in his life, Diogenes was plucked off the streets of Athens by pirates and taken prisoner. He was taken to Corinth, another Greek city, to be sold as a slave. His captors asked him what he was capable of, to which he responded that he could “Govern men.” He went on to claim that no one looking for a slave would be happy with him. “But if anyone wants to purchase a master,” he said, “There is one here for him.”

When his captors attempted to try and sell him, Diogenes proclaimed that only Xeniades, another philosopher, should buy him. He repeated his stance with such fervour and force that his captors sent someone to fetch Xeniades, who agreed to purchase him.

Diogenes became a tutor for Xeniades’ sons and lived out the rest of his life in Corinth.

Diogenes and his Fellow Citizens

The philosopher was not one to shy away from voicing his opinion, so the people around him would hear said opinions often.

Once, Diogenes was invited into the home of a rich man. The man informed the philosopher that it was forbidden to spit anywhere that touched the floor of his house. After hearing this, Diogenes promptly spat in the man’s face.

Others were not exempt from his scathing remarks either. Once, Diogenes happened upon an archer attempt to practice but doing rather poorly. Diogenes walked over to the target and sat down, saying that “Now I shall be out of harm’s way.”

In another instance, Diogenes was walking around the city of Athens, asking officials to construct a statue of him. When someone questioned why he was doing this, he responded he was practicing disappointment.

His most famous antic involved him wandering around the streets of Athens in the middle of a sunny day with a lantern. He would say he was searching the city in pursuit of an honest man. He, of course, would never find one.

Diogenes and Alexander the Great

Diogenes’s life happened to overlap with another of Ancient Greece’s most famous figures: Alexander the Great.

Alexander was the young king of Macedon. He was a brilliant strategist and waged many successful wars, greatly expanding his territory in only a few years.

His father, Phillip, was also a great warrior-king in his own right. On one afternoon, Diogenes would devote hours of his time to digging around the ground searching for the late kings’ bones. He would have no success because, as he declared, there was no difference between the bones of a king and the bones of a slave.

Diogenes had the chance to meet Alexander face to face. The young king was making an appearance in Corinth, and many locals turned out to greet him – probably because it isn’t a good idea to ignore the man who has full authority over your hometown.

Politicians, merchants, and philosophers met with Alexander, but missing from their numbers was Diogenes.

Alexander had caught wind of the stories about the barrel-dwelling man, and he found himself rather curious. He decided to pay the philosopher a visit.

Diogenes had been enjoying the afternoon sun when the figures of Alexander and his closest generals suddenly loomed over him.  

“I am Alexander the King of Macedon,” said the warrior.

“I am Diogenes the Dog,” replied the philosopher.

“Is there anything that I can do for you?” asked Alexander.

Diogenes looked the other man up and down. “Yes,” he finally decided, “stand a little out of my sun.”

Alexander’s generals burst into laughter upon hearing the remark, though Diogenes was unfazed. Alexander, however, admired the other man’s confidence and said, “That if I weren’t Alexander, I would want to be Diogenes. “

Diogenes & Plato

I’d wager that two people have never hated each other more in all of history than Diogenes and Plato. These two loathed each other in every sense of the word.

Their philosophies were not very compatible, and the two men argued constantly. Plato often referred to Diogenes as a madman, while Diogenes thought Plato’s teachings completely useless.

A popular subject of conversation for academics during their time was the ongoing attempt to find a way to define man.

Plato came up with the short definition of humans as “Featherless bipeds.” This earned him plenty of praise from his peers. Diogenes, however, was not very impressed. Upon hearing of Plato’s definition, Diogenes burst into Plato’s school while he was teaching, holding a plucked chicken in his arms. He shouted “BEHOLD, A MAN,” and threw the animal into the middle of the lecture. 

Plato quickly changed his definition of humanity to ” Featherless bipeds with flat nails” after the incident.

You’re a Diogenes Expert!

A painting of Diogenes sitting in his barrel as a trio of women attempt to talk to him.
John William Waterhouse’s “Diogenes” (1882). Image retrieved from Jwwaterhouse.net.

So there you have it! Now you know a bit about Diogenes the person, his philosophical beliefs, and some of the best anecdotes about him. You’re all set to proclaim him as your favourite philosopher if a philosophy major ever asks you at a party. And if they disagree with your stance on how awesome he is? Well, you can always take inspiration from Diogenes the Dog and spit in their face.

Resources and Further Reading

“Diogenes (412 B.C.-323 B.C.).” Encyclopedia of World Biography, Gale, 1998. Gale Academic OneFile, link.gale.com/apps/doc/A148418551/AONE?u=ko_acd_ac&sid=ebsco&xid=62f3e603. Accessed 14 July 2021.

Bryan, Van. “Diogenes of Sinope (404-323 BCE).” Classical Wisdom Weekly, 17 July 2013, classicalwisdom.com/people/philosophers/diogenes-of-sinope-404-323-bce/.

Kramer, Eli. “Philosophical Wandering as a Mode of Philosophy in Cultural Life: From Diogenes of Sinope to Cornel West.” Eidos. A Journal for Philosophy of Culture, vol. 2, no. 3, Nov. 2018, pp. 51–73. EBSCOhost, doi:10.26319/5815.

Mark, Joshua J.. “The Life of Diogenes of Sinope in Diogenes Laertius.” World History Encyclopedia. World History Encyclopedia, 06 Aug 2014. Web. 13 Jul 2021.

Piering, Julie. “Cynics.” Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, iep.utm.edu/cynics/.

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