Summary of Diogenes’ Philosophy Part 2

diogenes-and-alexanderWhat does the word cynical mean? Does it mean someone who is dubious about his fellow peers’ motives? And what about the stereotypical philosopher we are used to, as explained in my post “What is a Philosopher?” In Ancient Greece, there was a philosopher by the name of Diogenes who became the informal image of the philosopher and was cynical before it was even cool. He helped create a name for the Cynic philosophy and is partly responsible for the misrepresentation of the modern day philosopher. Back in the day, Diogenes was the most radical non-conformist who advocated the simple life in accord with nature, κɑτɑ φυσɩν.

Most of what we know about Diogenes comes in the form of amusing stories told by witnesses. It should be of no surprise that a man who gave up all of his worldly possessions to wander aimlessly should be surrounded by rumors and downright strange anecdotes. Diogenes purportedly sauntered down the streets accosting any stranger he wanted. The philosopher would reproach and make fun of them for not living authentically. James Garvey and Jeremy Stangroom suggest that the modern day definition of cynic comes from the fact that Diogenes, a Cynic, did not trust others[1]. Because he was such a notorious figure, Diogenes was made the butt of many satires and was criticized by later philosophers and public figures. Lucian of Samosata, a Roman satirist, portrayed Diogenes in his famous short story Philosophers for Sale as a scruffy and cranky old man wearing nothing but a cloak. Interestingly, Diogenes was the inspiration for the image of the stereotypical philosopher throughout history, as explained in my blog What is Philosopher? Remember that the archetypal philosopher is a hoary, rough, and mysterious figure who contemplates life in a mere shaggy cloak. Another interesting aspect of this is that Diogenes technically lead to the downfall of Greek philosophy: this stereotypical representation of the philosopher was easy to imitate, which meant that charlatans, or frauds (goes, γόης), could further ruin the reputation of philosophy. While on the streets, Diogenes would walk with a lantern in daylight on a quest to find a just person. It is safe to say that this was a fruitless task for Diogenes. At the end of the day, the Greeks went back to their homes after a long day, but Diogenes returned to his loyal, comfy jar. The simple shelter would do just fine. When Diogenes preached in favor of the simple life, did he stay true to his word? Again, you could say he took it a little too far. When he was not relaxing in his little jar, Diogenes would most likely be found creating chaos in the market. He and his students Crates and Hipparchia, husband and wife, would flaunt their total freedom no matter where they were. The Cynics were the best at not caring what others thought. The Cynic trio would make love, relieve themselves, and perform other actions that should best be kept to one’s self. Like any normal person, though he was far from normal, Diogenes ate and drank just like you and me. Diogenes preferred the mendicant life, and when he was not busy castigating people, he was begging; most of his food came from begging. His favorite meal was bread and water; hey, Epicurus had the same thing! One story says that after Diogenes saw a young child use his hands to drink water and use a piece of bread to eat his soup, Diogenes was beat, saying, “That child has beaten me in simplicity.” He then threw his cup and spoon away for good. His harshly ascetic way of life led to him being called a kynikos (κυνικός), or dog, by angry strangers. The school of Cynicism was accordingly based on doglike comportment. It seems, then, that Diogenes was pretty antisocial, almost misanthropic. That is not true, for Diogenes had several celebrity encounters, all of which ended… yeah, nevermind, he did not like people. Plato, yes that Plato, had a lot of great things to say about Diogenes. He allegedly called Diogenes “Socrates gone mad,” for he took Socrates’ asceticism to a whole new level. Diogenes was a huge fan of Plato, so much so that he crashed two of his events. One time, he interrupted Plato’s symposium (not the famous one) and trashed his house. Another time, he crashed one of Plato’s lectures and playfully made fun of his doctrines. But Plato was not big enough; Diogenes needed someone even bigger. It just so happened that Alexander the Great, arguably the most brilliant and powerful figures in history, was a fan of Diogenes (What?!). Alexander, accompanied by his army, found Diogenes in his favorite jar and asked the philosopher if he wanted any favors. Diogenes, always one for a good conversation, replied with something along the lines of, “Yes: get out of my sunlight.” Luckily for Diogenes, Alex had a good sense of humor and took no offense. In fact, Alexander, as he was leaving, might have remarked, “If I were not Alexander I would be Diogenes,” because Diogenes was obviously a great role model. 

In conclusion, Diogenes the Dog was quite the philosopher. After reviewing his philosophy, I am not sure if he deserves an A++ for actualizing and bringing his philosophy to live, or an F- for frightening pretty much everyone. While he was a hated figure, there is something admirable about his, I apologize one more, doggedness and unparalleled enthusiasm. Today we have successfully disabused two common misconceptions: cynical does not mean untrusting or misanthropic, it means doglike; and the stereotypical philosopher, though incorrect, is based on the Cynic philosopher. All in all, Diogenes was an important figure in philosophy and will always be in our hearts.

[1] Garvey and Stangroom, The Story of Philosophy, pg. 108


For further info: The Great Courses: Practical Philosophy : The Greco-Roman Moralists by Luke Timothy Johnson (2002)
A History of Philosophy Volume 1: Greece and Rome by Frederick Copelston (1993)
The Story of Philosophy by James Garvey and Jeremy Stangroom (2012)
The Oxford Companion to Philosophy edited by Ted Honderich (1995)
1001 Ideas That Changed the Way We Think by Robert Arp (2013)
The History of Western Thought by Bertrand Russell (1972)
What is Ancient Philosophy? by Pierre Hadot (2002)


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