Unique Figures in History – Diogenes

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Unique Figures in History - Diogenes

This weeks unique figure is fairly well known and inspired two schools of thought, but despite that very few of those who follow his school of thought have chosen to live as he lived. The figure this week is Diogenes of Sinope, or Diogenes the Cynic, or simply Diogenes, because there is an excellent chance that if you say Diogenes, this is the one you are talking about.

Life of Diogenes

Diogenes was born in the Greek colony of Sinope as the son of a banker in either 412 or 404 BCE. After a scandal involving the defacing of currency he was exiled from the colony and came to Athens. There is archaeological evidence which supports this story as there is a large number of defaced coins dating from the time period. Arriving in Athens Diogenes is said to have come to the conclusion that living close to nature was the only true way to live life and that all societal and political conventions were not only unnecessarily complex, but false. He also believed that most people didn’t bother taking any thought on what evil was and merely followed tradition.

As such, Diogenes sought out the philosopher Antisthenes, a follower of Socrates who had dedicated himself to living an austere life, and though he was said to originally have been violently driven off, became his disciple. It is unclear whether the two men ever actually met, however. What is certain is that Diogenes took to sleeping, eating, and performing all other bodily functions in public. He also became known for going around in broad daylight with a lit lantern, claiming that he was looking for ‘an honest man’. He was also rumored to have ended lectures which he gave by doing things like defecating.

After living in Athens for a time, Diogenes was said to have been captured by pirates and sold into slavery to a Corinthian named Xeniades, in order to tutor his children. It is unknown whether he was freed at some point or not, assuming the story is true at all, but he lived the rest of his life in Corinth, where he continued many of the same practices which he had begun in Athens. He died in 323BCE.

Diogenes’ Contemporary Fame

Despite his extremely austere life and his deliberate flaunting and mockery of social convention, Diogenes was very well known during his life. Though he was routinely rebuked for eating in the marketplace, to say nothing of his habit of relieving himself in public, he seems to have never been prosecuted or punished for his actions. He seems to have had at least some disciples, most notably Crates(365-285) who helped found the school of cynicism. On his death, the city of Corinth erected a statue of Parian marble in his honor with a dog on top of it.

He was also particularly well known when he was in Athens for his antagonism of Plato (424/423-348/347BCE). Like Socrates, he believed that he could be a doctor to society, in his case by making a deliberate mockery of social conventions and by showing how to live a life as a close to nature as possible. As such he objected to Plato’s interpretations of Socrates’ teachings. He also objected to Plato’s abstract philosophy(Plato, of course, being the first person we have record of who developed an abstract philosophy). Plato apparently referred to Diogenes as ‘Socrates gone mad.’

Diogenes was also the first person to call himself a ‘citizen of the world’(Cosmopolitan), which was a huge deal at the time, given how closely one’s identity at the time was associated with one’s Polis. He is considered(along with the aforementioned Crates) as the founder of Cynicism. Cynicism, which comes from the Greek ‘kynikos’ or ‘dog-like’. It is unclear whether Diogenes came up with the idea himself or repurposed an insult to his own purposes. He did routinely praise the virtues of dogs, who eat what they like, think nothing of relieving themselves in public, bark at what pleases them, bite their enemies, and take no concern for the future.

Among Diogenes’ admirers was Alexander the Great(356-323BCE) who was reported to have quipped that ‘if he were not Alexander, he would wish to be Diogenes.’ When Alexander visited Corinth he was said to have sought out Diogenes, who was sunning himself. On presenting himself as an admirer and asking if there was any favor he could do for Diogenes, the ascetic philosopher was said to have responded by asking Alexander to stop blocking his light.

Though Diogenes was said to have written 10 books, a volume of letters, and seven tragedies none of them survive. Most of what is known of Diogenes comes from various anecdotes and saying, many of which are from Diogenes Laertius’ Lives and Opinions of Eminent Philosophers. However, none of these anecdotes and sayings are definitive or above questions of authenticity.

Posthumous Fame of Diogenes

Not only was Diogenes the founder of the school of cynicism but his pupil Crates taught Zeno of Citium(c. 334-262BCE) who founded the school of Stoicism, one of the most famous of the schools of Greek thought. Few people have endeavored to live their lives exactly in the manner of Diogenes, but the idea of being cynical, making a deliberate mocking of social and political convention is still very popular.

Diogenes has also been a popular figure among artists and sculptors, with a larger number of famous works having been created depicting aspects of his life, such as Raphael, and a variety of busts found in the Vatican, the Louvre and the Capitoline Museum. He is also featured or referenced in numerous works of literature, including works by Checkhov, William Blake, and Terry Pratchett. He is also the inspiration behind the Diogenes club, the club for intelligent men with no interest in socializing, founded by Sherlock Holmes’ brother Mycroft.



the image is from wikipedia

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