“If happiness and the chase for new happiness keep alive in any sense the will to live, no philosophy has perhaps more truth than the Cynic’s.”
Nietzsche, Untimely Meditations
As the illustrious Roman scholars Varro and Cicero reflect on the ethical turn in Greek philosophy, they rightly focus on Socrates, observing that he was the first to draw philosophy down from the heavens, placing her in the cities of men, so that she might inquire about life and morality. In the generation that follows Socrates, however, Diogenes of Sinope will unleash philosophy’s ethical potential with vitality and humour. Whereas Socrates identifies as a gadfly, Diogenes is a dog, and with him, ethics gains its bite.
The similarities between Diogenes and Socrates are hard to ignore. Diogenes advocates a care for virtue and the state of one’s soul, resists false piety and conventional attitudes toward reputation and value, and remains unflappable in perilous situations. Diogenes is also known for fearless truth-telling, improvisational responses as well as indelible performances, an embrace of poverty and so-called “shamelessness”, and a tenacious ethical resilience. This leads some of his contemporaries to view him as a hyperbolic version of Socrates, or, as Plato would say, a “Socrates gone mad”. He undoubtedly offers a fiercer version of ethics than Socrates, but, to tritely paraphrase Polonius, there is method in Diogenes’ madness.
Diogenes’ philosophical position is as a first and paradigmatic Cynic. The word in antiquity differs considerably from current usage; κυνικός, transliterated as kunikos or kynikos, simply means “dog-like”. Though there are varying accounts of its transference this association, it adheres to the chosen life of unconventional philosophers known for their poverty, freedom, virtue, and fearless laughter. They had no formal school or locus, unlike Plato’s Academy or Zeno’s Stoa, practicing philosophy in public and leading lives that were exemplary of their philosophical commitments. According to the stories about Diogenes, he is preceded by Antisthenes, who may have been the first to be called “Cynic”. Though Antisthenes was a close companion of Socrates and figures as a prominent interlocutor in Xenophon’s Socratic dialogues, his influence is eclipsed by that of Diogenes.
A principal source for our knowledge of Diogenes’ life and thought is Book VI, Chapter 2 of Diogenes Laertius’ Lives of Eminent Philosophers (for anyone who has yet to encounter it, or who has only read the sometimes prudish and stodgy Loeb edition linked above, a treat awaits in Oxford University Press’ 2018 version, adroitly translated by Pamela Mensch and edited by James Miller). Diogenes Laertius [hereafter DL] lives in the 3rd Century CE, while Diogenes of Sinope’s dates from C. 412/03 – C. 324/21 BCE. The latter overlaps with Plato and Aristotle while the Diogenes who writes of him lives centuries later.
Fortunately, other accounts of Diogenes and the Cynics exist from Stoic sources, such as Dio Chrysostom and Epictetus, and from those arguing with the Stoics, like Philodemus. They are discussed by Julian the Apostate, Plutarch, and Stobaeus, to name a few, while Diogenes and Cynicism figure prominently in the satires of Lucian and Pseudo-Lucian. The Cynic Epistles purport to be the correspondences between Cynics, including Diogenes, Diogenes’ student Crates, and even Socrates. Though they likely date from centuries after Diogenes of Sinope, the letters offer an intriguing glimpse into the sustained interest in Cynicism as well as its core values. When the various sources are held together, foundational Cynic tenets and their expression in the life of Diogenes of Sinope clearly emerge. Though Diogenes is credited with writing several tragedies and philosophical works, including an Art of Ethics and his own Republic, none survive. His legendary life, then, becomes the source for understanding his thought.
Diogenes was a citizen of Sinope who either fled or was exiled because of defacing the currency while his father, Hicesios, was in charge of the public treasury. Though the details surrounding this event are murky, numismatic evidence seems to confirm that coins were indeed adulterated during Hicesios’ time as Treasurer. Either Diogenes or his father re-stamped the coinage, and Diogenes, perhaps along with his father, goes into exile because of it. On one version of the tale, Diogenes adulterates the currency because he misunderstood an oracle of Apollo. The Greek term for currency, nomisma, can also mean established usage or custom. Thus, when the god, through the Oracle, urged Diogenes to alter the currency, he mistook nomisma to mean “coinage” rather than “custom”. In this version of events, Diogenes’ life following his exile will fulfil the oracular injunction to re-stamp custom.
From Sinope, Diogenes travelled to Athens where he becomes the student of Antisthenes, who had no interest in pupils and takes Diogenes on only after he refuses to be beaten away. His settling in Athens takes an innovative turn. “And when he sent word to someone to provide him with a little house, and the man delayed, he took as his dwelling the tub in the Metröon…” (DL 6.23). Diogenes’ tub is a pithos, a large, earthenware pot that would have initially been used for storing food or drink, often wine. He learned how to adapt to his circumstances by watching a mouse running about, showing neither fear nor a desire for “dainties”. In other words, all Diogenes needs to live well is to revise his desires, a theme that will resonate throughout the Cynic legacy and the Stoics who follow them. Further, his adaptability is born of an attentiveness to the lessons of nature matched with a disregard for convention. This, too, will become central to the life of Diogenes, as well as the ethical positions of the Cynics and Stoics.
The necessity to live with “frugality”, or euteleia, becomes a goal to embrace rather than a blow to lament. Diogenes wraps his cloak twice so as to permit it to serve as his bedding as well as his clothing, carries his food in his wallet or knapsack, uses any place for any purpose, and throws away his cup after watching a child use his cupped hands to drink water, saying “a child has outdone me in frugality” (DL 6.37). He even attempts eating meat raw, though he subsequently concludes that cooking meat is more than mere convention.
This adaptability develops into training, or askēsis, through which Diogenes is able to further revise the relationship between his internal states, like feelings of desire, privation, shame, and pride, and external situations. Askēsis is the root of our own word “ascetic”, but in this more originary context it refers to physical training and conveys the sense of exercise and practice. Diogenes’ own askēsis has its physical aspect: he hugs snowy statues, rolls himself over scalding, summer sand, begged for his living, and scrounged and foraged for food. The point of these activities is to inure himself to any exigencies. As a homeless and impoverished exile, the “curses of tragedy” had been visited upon him. Yet Diogenes maintained “that he countered luck with courage, convention with nature, and emotion with reason” (DL 6.38).
Diogenes held that training the body simultaneously strengthened the mind and cultivated a suppleness necessary for virtue or aretē. He praises the skill that athletes and flute players acquire, but remarks that “if these men had shifted their attention to the training of the mind, their efforts would not have been useless and incomplete” (DL 6.70). In addition to adjusting his desires so that they conformed to nature, Diogenes also demonstrated that conventions were often foolish, rarely rational, and, worse still, carried the potential for moral corruption.
Religious hypocrisy and superstition are frequent targets of his wit and scorn. “One day, noticing the temple magistrates leading away a steward who had filched a votive bowl, he said ‘The big thieves are leading away the little one’” (DL 6.45). At the shrine of Asclepius, the god of healing, those praying for good health would sacrifice a cock (see, for instance, Socrates’ last words in Plato’s Phaedo). Diogenes, however, offers a gamecock, one described in the Greek as a “brawler”, so that when the worshippers would fall down to prostrate themselves, Diogenes’ rooster ran at and attacked them. The humour in these two instances reveals two of the ways in which Diogenes’ wit operates: in the first, it is a spontaneous response to the incongruity of magistrates punishing lesser infractions than their own; in the second, he challenges the practice of sacrificing roosters to Asclepius by letting loose a belligerent rooster on suppliants in a display more akin to performance art than improv.
Diogenes similarly ridicules athletic competitions, sophistry, business enterprises, travel, and marriage, saying with regard to the last item that no union should count as a marriage “but that of a man and a woman who have persuaded each other” (DL 6.72). Some of the more memorable accounts of Diogenes’ subversion of convention employ his own body as the location of the humour. He would argue that if it was not absurd to take breakfast, then it was not absurd to take it in the marketplace. This was not his only display in the agora: “When masturbating in the marketplace, he said, ‘If only one could relieve hunger by rubbing one’s belly’” (DL 6.46). Bodily desires are part of having a body, and standards regarding proper locations for their satisfaction are issued by custom, not nature. To accept convention as one’s master is to relinquish one’s freedom.
Freedom plays an absolutely central role in Diogenes’ life and moral philosophy and takes on three forms: autarkeia, freedom in the sense of self-sufficiency; eleutheria, meaning freedom or liberty, often understood as negative freedom or “freedom from”; and parrhēsia, or freedom of speech. Though they can and ought to be distinguished, these virtues intertwine and are on display most forcefully in Diogenes’ responses to politics and power.
Alexander the Great has the occasion to interact with Diogenes and each instance serves as an intensification of Diogenes’ freedom to be and speak as he sees fit. To set the scene, the most famous exchange between Diogenes and Alexander occurs at the Craenum, a hill in Corinth. Diogenes apparently ends up in Corinth when he is sold into slavery. “On a voyage to Aegina he was captured by pirates under Scirpalus’ command, transported to Crete, and put up for sale. And when the herald asked him what he was good at, he replied, “Ruling over men”. Pointing to an affluent Corinthian, the above mentioned Xeniades, he said, “Sell me to him; he needs a master” (DL 6.74). Diogenes inverts the function of slavery and Xeniades becomes his grateful “master”, putting Diogenes in charge of his sons and remarking that a kindly deity, or, more literally, a good daimōn, had entered his house.
Diogenes’ life in Corinth is the occasion for a host of stories, including the interchange between him and Alexander, one celebrated in philosophy, literature, and art. “When he was lying in the sun at the Craneum, Alexander came up to him and said, “Ask whatever you desire” to which Diogenes replied, “Stand out of my light” (DL 6.38). The brevity of this encounter stands in direct contrast to its impact. Alexander visited Corinth after the death of his father, Philip II, and so would have been Emperor at the time. To give it more context, it can be joined with another: “Once when Alexander came to him and said, ‘I am Alexander, the Great King’, he replied, ‘And I am Diogenes, the Dog’” (DL 6.60). Alexander’s station as Emperor, one he proudly declares, permits him to offer Diogenes anything he desires. To accept is a trap. One would then be beholden to an Emperor, a clear sacrifice of freedom and independence that also leaves one morally compromised. However, to decline is risky, and this reveals the function of parrhēsia, a practice that in Diogenes rises to the virtue of fearless truth-telling. As he declares himself “Diogenes the Dog”, he esteems his own position as no less impressive than Alexander’s. Diogenes neither needs nor wants anything from Alexander, and were he to accept anything, the cost would be too dear. If Alexander the Great is a personification of power, then Diogenes comes to represent the ability to refuse its sway. The consequence is admiration. Alexander is said to have once proclaimed, “Had I not been Alexander, I would like to have been Diogenes” (DL 6.33).
Other philosophers strike different bargains with rulers. Even when a philosopher’s aims are virtuous, the results frequently fall short of the intent. Plato’s relationship with Dionysius, for example, ends disastrously. Before it does, though, he has a telling exchange with Diogenes. “When Plato noticed him washing lettuces, he approached and quietly said, “If you courted Dionysius, you would not be washing lettuces”, to which Diogenes replied just as quietly, “And if you washed lettuces, you wouldn’t have courted Dionysius” (DL 6.58). The context for this encounter is absent, but Plato’s whisper is likely so as not to embarrass Diogenes. Diogenes is either foraging for his food or engaged in a bit of urban foraging by washing off discarded vegetables. Diogenes’ equally discreet response revalues shame. Plato has courted Dionysius with the consequence of certain luxuries, but also unenviable sacrifices. Key among these are his autonomy and ability to speak freely. Diogenes’ inversion of Plato’s advice is in keeping with what he takes to be fundamental to a life well lived: when asked what was the most beautiful thing in the world, his reply was “freedom of speech [parrhēsia]”.
If Alexander is Diogenes’ political foil, the Emperor to the exiled beggar turned slave, then Plato is his philosophical other. He regularly ridicules what he takes to be Plato’s metaphysical pretensions and vanity, though it is worth noting that Plato is perhaps the only interlocutor with the wit and wisdom to turn Diogenes’ jokes back upon him. Among the more visually striking instances of Diogenes’ challenge to Plato’s Academic bent occurs regarding the definition of “human”. Plato had declared a human an animal with two legs and no feathers, a definition for which he was applauded. Diogenes then plucked the feathers from a cock (one must hope “Brawler” was spared this fate), brought it to Plato’s school, and declared “Here is Plato’s human”.
Diogenes’ dismissiveness of Plato’s philosophy is not, however, equivalent to a disavowal of reason. “He often remarked that to get through life one needed either reason (logon) or a halter (brochon)” (DL 6.24). If a human is to be in accord with nature, one must be rational since it is in a human being’s nature to act from reason. Diogenes has a dim view of our ability to live up to our humanity. “On lighting a lamp in broad daylight, he walked about saying, ‘I am searching for a human being [anthrōpon]’” (DL 6.42). This vignette is less a moment of misanthropy than one of disappointment. Diogenes’ lamp is meant to provoke us into becoming more fully what we are by aligning with our shared humanity as opposed to our arbitrary political and cultural connections. It should come as no surprise, then, that it is Diogenes who coins the term “cosmopolitan”.
“Asked where he came from, he replied ‘I’m a citizen of the world [kosmopolitēs]’” (DL 6.63). This neologism is paradoxical; one’s rights, privileges, entitlements, and allegiances are tied to one’s relation to a specific polis or city-state. There is no such concept yet of a “human right” or claim to freedom from harms on the basis of being human. As a professed citizen of the kosmos,Diogenes is not out of place in any particular polis, but instead at home in every polis. Each polis is an arbitrary division within a larger order. Moreover, political membership in one state is too narrow in its nature and too corrupting in its practice. Diogenes opts, then, for membership in a more expansive community, one governed by nature and unswerving logos instead of popular whim. Within this single term lies an ethically and politically revolutionary claim and a lens through which we might view his ethical commitments.
Though his life defies an easy summation, Diogenes offers a demonstration of intellectual agility, radical adaptability, ingenuity, and self-sufficiency. He challenges us to commit to virtue and truth in the face of power and pomposity, but to do so with humour and frankness. As an exemplary Cynic, he marks an admittedly strenuous path for achieving happiness with the hope that we can follow. “He used to say he was imitating the chorus trainers; for they would set their pitch a little sharp so that everyone else would hit the right note” (DL 6.35).