This painting, by an unknown 17th-century artist, depicts a unique and peculiar philosopher from the 5th century BCE who was called Diogenes the Cynic. Originally born in the Greek-colonized city of Sinope on the Black Sea coast of Anatolia, he eventually moved to the ancient Greek intellectual hub of Athens. There, Diogenes made a name for himself by undermining and critiquing (or, you could say, belittling) the theories of other philosophers, and doing so with a great deal of showmanship. He gained a reputation for being brilliant and witty, but his pranks also often annoyed his targets and their friends. Nevertheless, he seemed to have more fans than foes.
Another interesting aspect of Diogenes’ character—which the painting highlights—was the philosopher’s adherence to an ascetic lifestyle. He was a minimalist and not picky at all about where he lived and what he ate or drank. This characteristic was summarized by Diogenes Laertius (c. 3rd century), a biographer of philosophers, who wrote, “he used any place for any purpose, for breakfasting, sleeping, or conversing. And then he would say, pointing to the portico of Zeus and the Hall of Processions, that the Athenians had provided him with places to live in… he took for his abode the tub in the Metroön, as he himself explains in his letters. And in summer he used to roll in it over hot sand, while in winter he used to embrace statues covered with snow, using every means of inuring himself to hardship” (Lives of Eminent Philosophers, 6.2.22-23). Diogenes’s portable tub home, or barrel (as it is more popularly represented) may have needed to be replaced from time to time. Yet, thanks to Diogenes’ fans and admirers, the public was said to have made sure that Diogenes was given a new tub or barrel whenever the current one broke. Describing one such occasion, Diogenes Laertius wrote, “when a youngster broke up his tub, they gave the boy a flogging and presented Diogenes with another” (Lives of Eminent Philosophers, 6.2.43). Such is the reason for why Diogenes the Cynic can be seen in a barrel in the painting above.
Written by C. Keith Hansley