Diogenes (412 BC- 323 BC) was a Greek philosopher like no other. One of the founders of the cynic philosophy, Diogenes believed that people should live simple lives that reject all natural desires for wealth, power, or fame. Instead, he encouraged people to live a life of intentional hardship and not be bound by social conventions. And boy oh boy did Diogenes practice what he preached. And there are more than a few reasons for Plato thinking he was “A Socrates gone mad.”
Diogenes: A Cynic Connected with the Philosophy of Socrates
The cynics were a group of ancient Greek philosophers who were a separate branch of Socratic philosophy. They believed that nature offers the best indication of how to live a good life. And that people should strive for reason, self-sufficiency, and freedom. Social conventions, therefore, are a hindrance to a good life because adhering to society’s rules limits one’s freedom. Such conventions were often ridiculed by the cynics, who believed that only when one has freed oneself from social conventions, such as the desire to chase fame and fortune , can one truly be free.
Diogenes of Sinope, however, took these beliefs to an extreme. He was likely a student of the philosopher Antisthenes, who he met following his arrival in Athens. He was exiled from his hometown following a scandal that involved currency debasement, causing him to lose his citizenship and his move to Athens. Upon meeting Antisthenes, Diogenes asked to be enrolled in his school and become his student. At first, Antisthenes refused, but eventually, he was worn down by Diogenes’ persistence.
Both Diogenes and Antisthenes shared many common beliefs but mainly a belief in self-control and the pursuit of excellence in one’s own behavior, which included the rejection of all unnecessary things such as personal possessions and social status. Even so, Antisthenes must have been shocked at just how far Diogenes took things to live a life in accordance with these beliefs.
Diogenes was considered to be mad or crazy because he took the beliefs of the cynics to incredible extremes. (freshidea / Adobe Stock )
But Why was Diogenes Considered Mad?
Diogenes didn’t have a house, instead, he lived in a huge wine cask lying on its side. He had no possessions apart from a cup he used for eating and drinking, but he threw this away in disgust when he saw a boy drinking water from his hands and realized he didn’t even need a cup to sustain himself. He didn’t work either, instead, he chose to live off the charity of others. All of these things can be said with assurance, however, there are many rumors and legends about Diogenes that are hard to verify.
Despite the fact that these myths are impossible to verify, they do line up with Diogenes own personal beliefs. He believed that manners were simply lies used to hide the true nature of the individual. Given the importance of the cynics to live according to their beliefs, it is not hard to imagine that a lot of the myths about Diogenes are in fact true.
Given this disdain for manners, Diogenes was known for his brutal honesty in conversation. He had no regard for social etiquette whatsoever and was known to frequently urinate and masturbate in public. When he was criticized for this, he pointed out that what he was doing was normal, and that everyone engaged in these activities, but hid in private what he did openly. These social norms , he believed, were completely artificial and had no real use in making someone a good person. If an act was not shameful in private, then it should not be shameful in public.
And that brings us to one of the most famous stories about this mad philosopher. Diogenes walked around Athens, holding a lit lantern up to the face of everyone who passed him, claiming he was searching for an honest man or a true human being. In doing so, he confronted the people of Athens with their lifeless and shallow lives and encouraged them to wake up from the make-believe world they lived in and become fully aware of themselves. Because of this rather unusual behavior, many labelled him as mentally ill, or a madman. Diogenes, however, believed he was living a completely honest life and encouraging others to do the same.
Diogenes, perhaps unsurprisingly, did not hesitate to insult his social superiors, including Plato and even Alexander the Great. When Plato defined human beings as featherless bipeds and was praised for the brilliance of his definition. So, Diogenes plucked a chicken, brought it to Plato’s academy and declared “Behold – Plato’s human being.” This caused Plato to add, “with broad, flat nails” to his definition. Diogenes insulted Plato on numerous occasions, but this was the most famous incident.
Even the most powerful rulers of all time were not exempt from the ridicule of Diogenes. When Diogenes was living in Corinth, Alexander the Great came to visit the city and was very interested in meeting the famous philosopher. He found Diogenes resting in the sunlight and introduced himself, asking him if there was anything he could do for him. Diogenes simply replied “Yes. Get out of my sunlight.” Alexander admired the spirit, bravery, and intelligence of the man, saying “If I were not Alexander, I would wish to be Diogenes.” Diogenes replied, “If I were not Diogenes, I would also wish to be Diogenes.”
Diogenes was certainly a man of the people, and he was loved by many in Athens and also in Corinth, as this painting by John William Waterhouse suggests. (John William Waterhouse / Public domain )
Diogenes: A Man of the People of His Day
Despite his eccentric behavior , or perhaps because of it, Diogenes came to be adored by the citizens of Athens. When a boy broke his wine casket, the people had him beaten and replaced the casket. Given Diogenes disdain for possessions, this probably amused him. At some point in later life Diogenes was captured by pirates and sold into slavery in Corinth. He was asked what talents he had and replied, “That of governing men” and pointed to a man named Xeniades saying “Sell me to that man; for he wants a master.” Diogenes believed so strongly in himself that the men did what he asked.
Diogenes was put in charge of tutoring Xeniades’ sons and eventually was considered part of the family. He lived with Xeniades family in Corinth for the rest of his life before dying at the age of ninety. Even in Corinth, the citizens had come to adore him and buried him with honors at the city gate with a monument over his grave. Even in death, however, Diogenes mocked social etiquette, because he wished for his corpse to be thrown to the dogs to feed on!
Top image: Diogenes, depicted here by the French painter Jean-Léon Gérôme, was a philosopher of the cynic school of Greek philosophy and many thought he was crazy, but he was super popular with the people of Athens. Source: Jean-Léon Gérôme / Public domain
By Mark Brophy