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Diogenes of Sinope

Greek: Διογενης ο Σινωπευς
Who: Philosopher.
Born: 412 BC
Died: 323 BC (81 years old)

Diogenes by John William Waterhouse,  depicting his lamp, jar, and diet of onions.

Diogenes by John William Waterhouse,
depicting his lamp, jar, and diet of onions.

Diogenes “the Cynic” was an ancient Greek philosopher who was born in Sinope (modern day Sinop, Turkey), a Greek state at the time.Diogenes was exiled from his native city and moved to Athens, where he is said to have become a disciple of Antisthenes, the former pupil of Socrates. Diogenes, a beggar who made his home in the streets of Athens, made a virtue of extreme poverty. He is said to have lived in a large tub, rather than a house, and to have walked through the streets carrying a lamp in the daytime, claiming to be looking for an honest man. He eventually settled in Corinth where he continued to pursue the Cynic ideal of self-sufficiency: a life which was natural and not dependent upon the luxuries of civilization. Believing that virtue was better revealed in action and not theory, his life was a relentless campaign to debunk the social values and institutions of what he saw as a corrupt society.

In his new home, Athens, Diogenes’ mission became the metaphorical adulterating/defacing of the “coinage” of custom. Custom, he alleged, was the false coin of human morality. Instead of being troubled by what is really evil, people make a big fuss over what is merely conventionally evil. This distinction between nature (“physis”) and custom (“nomos”) is a favorite theme of ancient Greek philosophy, and one that Plato takes up in The Republic, in the legend of the Ring of Gyges. Unlike the other citizens of Athens, he avoided earthly pleasures. This attitude was grounded in a great disdain for what he perceived as the folly, pretense, vanity, social climbing, self-deception, and artificiality of much human conduct.

At the Isthmian Games (in Corinth), he lectured to large audiences. It may have been at one of these festivals that he met Alexander the Great. The story goes that while Diogenes was relaxing in the sunlight one morning, Alexander, thrilled to meet the famous philosopher, asked if there was any favour he might do for him. Diogenes replied, “Yes: Stand out of my sunlight.” Alexander still declared, “If I were not Alexander, then I should wish to be Diogenes.” In another account, Alexander found the philosopher looking attentively at a pile of human bones. Diogenes explained, “I am searching for the bones of your father but cannot distinguish them from those of a slave.”

There are numerous accounts of Diogenes’ death. He is alleged variously to have held his breath; to have become ill from eating raw octopus; or to have suffered an infected dog bite. When asked how he wished to be buried, he 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?” At the end, Diogenes made fun of people’s excessive concern with the “proper” treatment of the dead.

Unsung Philosophers: Diogenes:

 

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