During the late 5th century BCE, one of the most bizarre men to have ever lived was born in the Greek-colonized city of Sinope, located on the coast of the Black Sea in modern Turkey. His name was Diogenes, and he would go on to impress and astound many of the great names from ancient Greece. The renowned philosopher, Plato, supposedly described Diogenes of Sinope as a “Socrates gone mad” and Alexander the Great (according to Plutarch) honored the man by saying, “If I were not Alexander, I would be Diogenes.”
Diogenes of Sinope grew up in a wealthy household. His father was a moneychanger, or a minter, whose business was in currency. Despite this, Diogenes detested money. In fact, most accounts of Diogenes’ early life claim he was exiled from Sinope because he defaced or tampered with the local currency. Whatever the exact cause, Diogenes was expelled from Sinope and found himself in Athens with—reportedly—only a wooden bowl or cup to his name, which he soon discarded.
Diogenes was heavily influenced by the acetic teaching of the Athenian philosopher, Antisthenes, under whom he became a protégée. Diogenes and his teacher, Antisthenes, became two of the founding fathers of the philosophical school of Cynicism. Diogenes the Cynic served as a quintessential example of a student becoming the master, for he quickly outshone Antisthenes through his boldness, wit and sheer determination to live life in a gritty utopia of counter-culture cynicism.
In Diogenes’ philosophical outlook, man should live as ‘naturally’ as possible. There were three main tenets to Diogenes’ way of life: self-sufficiency, poverty and shamelessness. Possessions should be discarded, laws should be challenged, etiquette and taboos should be discredited, and the body, with all its various functions, should not be shamed.
(Diogenes by John William Waterhouse (1849–1917), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons)
Diogenes the Cynic was a perfect model for his philosophy—he practiced everything he preached. Imitating a dog, an animal he admired greatly, Diogenes ate where he pleased, slept in any shelter he could find (ex. tubs, wine casks or large pots), and did all his bodily functions in public. Specifically, Diogenes had no qualm urinating, defecating or, ahem, ejaculating any other bodily substances in the streets of Athens.
Though he shunned civilization, Diogenes was not always a recluse. He often invaded hubs of commerce and conversation to challenge the locals. In one instance, Diogenes was so dissatisfied with Plato’s description of mankind as bipeds without feathers, that he marched to the Academy with a plucked chicken to prove his point that Plato’s description needed to be broadened. Another one of Diogenes the Cynic’s famous antics was roaming Athens with a lantern during the day. When he was asked what he was doing, he proclaimed that he was searching for an honest man, and bemoaned that his search was fruitless.
(Diogenes looking for an honest man, by Johann Heinrich Wilhelm Tischbein [German Painter, 1751-1829], [Public Domain] via Creative Commons)
Legend claims that Diogenes somehow managed to be captured by pirates and was sold as a slave to a Corinthian man. Despite being enslaved, Diogenes apparently was able to regain most of his freedom. He tutored the sons of the man who had bought him, and he remained in Corinth for the rest of his life. Even though he never returned to Athens, when Alexander the Great arrived in Corinth in the mid 330s BCE, Diogenes was back to being his old self.
According to legend, Alexander found Diogenes (who reportedly by this time was living in a pot) sunbathing on the outskirts of Corinth. When the Macedonian king asked if he could help Diogenes in any way, the old cynic replied bluntly that Alexander could help by not blocking the sun while he was lounging. When Alexander’s comrades, in response, rebuked or belittled the cynic, the king defended the old philosopher by stating, “If I were not Alexander, I would be Diogenes.” Diogenes replied likewise—if he were not himself, he would wish to be Diogenes, as well.
(Diogenes and Alexander the Great, by Honoré Daumier (1808- 1879), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons)
The death of Diogenes fits perfectly with the rest of the man’s fascinating life. The cause of his death in the 320s remains incredibly vague, yet that is one of the main reasons why the old cynic’s death is so fitting with the rest of his life. Some of the many causes of death reported in the accounts of Diogenes’ life are food poisoning (from raw octopus or ox feet) and rabies (or infection) from a dog bite. In the most bizarre of the possible causes of death, Diogenes supposedly managed to hold his breath until he died—a truly unconventional death for an unconventional philosopher.
- Alexander the Great by Philip Freeman. Simon & Schuster Paperbacks, 2011.