Once there was a man name Diogenes. He lived in ancient Greece, where he was willfully homeless, malnourished, and absolutely scandalous. He masturbated in public, insulted kings and tyrants to their faces, and was known by all the ancient world as a great philosopher.
Every time I read his name, I begin to smile, knowing some of the great stories about him. For example, the most famous story happened after Alexander the Great had decisively subdued Greece and stood poised to invade Persia. Alexander, a famously volatile individual, was now the supreme leader of most of Greece, and was spending some time in Diogenes’s city of Corinth. The young king knew of Diogenes, and expected the famous philosopher to come congratulate him on his recent victory, as others had done before. Diogenes, however, took no notice of the king, and never presented himself. Alexander decided to go see him himself, never the less wanting to meet the famous philosopher. He made his way through town with his friends and his guards, and found Diogenes naked, sunbathing in an open space.
Approaching the old man, Alexander said some nice things about Diogenes, and asked him if there was anything at all that he could do for him. Diogenes replied “Yes, stand out of my sun!” Alexander’s entourage then started to laugh, and even made fun of their king, but Alexander was still young, and appreciated the brashness with which Diogenes led his life. As they walked away, Alexander said loudly that “if I were not Alexander, I would want to be Diogenes”. Diogenes couldn’t help himself but to call out that “if I were not Diogenes, I would also want to be Diogenes!”
Alexander had power over the life and death of all his subjects, but he also had the power to grant all your wishes. Irreverent, uninterested, and completely self-absorbed, Diogenes just didn’t care.
When I read this story some years ago, I found it funny but I didn’t think much of Diogenes. It just reminded me of teenage rebellion and of angry music. Reject authority for the sake of rejecting authority. It’s fun for a while but it doesn’t do much for you. Today however, I read Diogenes slightly differently. He isn’t only crazy for the sake of being crazy, although he was that sometimes. Diogenes, like many of us, searched for freedom. He wanted to be free to do what he wanted when he wanted. I will tell another story to explain this point.
Upon meeting a deposed tyrant who was living in exile, Diogenes publicly insulted this tyrant, stating that his life in exile was far too good for a man such as he. He told the tyrant that he deserved death, not a wealthy exile. Indeed, this tyrant lived lavishly despite his exile, and he loved to host illustrious philosophers for sumptuous dinners. Later, Plato saw Diogenes washing some lettuce for his dinner. Plato said something like: “if you would have just been respectful to the tyrant, you would not have to wash lettuce now, you could be dinning easily in his home right now!” Diogenes replied that “if you would just wash your lettuce, you would not have to be respectful to a tyrant”.
Though this story shows us the kind of freedom Diogenes wanted, it also has a subtler point. Diogenes wanted to unburden himself as much as possible of obligation. He determined that all luxuries costed money, and to get money we needed to work. This means spending time doing something you probably don’t like for things you think you need (and probably don’t). Therefore, if you can convince yourself that you don’t need luxuries, then you need less money, and therefore you can spend more of your life doing whatever you want; freedom.
To most of us, Diogenes took it too far. After abandoning almost all his possessions and moving into a large barrel that was inhabited by a pack of dogs, Diogenes watched a child drink water with his hands. Diogenes then threw away his cup, one of his last possessions, stating that the child had showed him that he didn’t need it. We have trouble respecting this; it is in utter contrast to the life we all live. Indeed, it was in utter contrast to the life that the Greeks at the time of Diogenes lived. But we should be careful before judging him, least we forget his role and ours. Henry David Thoreau once said: “There are nowadays professors of philosophy, but not philosophers. [That is because] to be a philosopher is not merely to have subtle thoughts, [. . .] but so to love wisdom as to live according to its dictates […]. It is to solve some of the problems of life, not only theoretically, but practically.” Diogenes was a philosopher, but we would have trouble recognizing him as one today, for our sense of the word has been corrupted to suit people with shinny shoes that speak well.
Despite his scandalous attitude, the principles of Diogenes would eventually be admired and emulated (in certain ways) by early Christians and Stoics, who might be the furthest thing from scandalous. The vows of poverty seen in many religions, notably Christianity, probably take their root from the teachings of the vulgar Diogenes.
I must give credit to the History on Fire Podcast which reminded me of Diogenes in it’s latest episode, and that provided me with the quote by Henry David Thoreau used above. It was so perfect that I had to include it in this text.