Diogenes the Dog
In the year 404 BCE, a boy named Diogenes was born in Sinope, which was an Ionian colony on the Black Sea in Ancient Greece. That boy then grew up into a man that didn’t necessarily have his own school of thought, but still became a very influential philosopher in his own right. In essence, he just acted out what he believed, living and leading by example as an eccentric civil rights activist. Thus, Diogenes went on to become a well-known satirist and anarchist, believing that virtue was better revealed in action than in theory.
In line with this, his father was a banker who made a living in Sinope. As a result, Diogenes rebelled against him and defaced currency by damaging some of the money that was in circulation with a large chisel stamp. He deliberately defaced the coins that bear the name of his father, Hicesias, as the official who minted them, in order to render them worthless as legal tender. Although, he explained to everyone that he had been instructed to do so by the Oracle at Delphi, he was ultimately exiled for attempting to devalue the local currency.
When Diogenes left Sinope for Athens, he took a slave named Manes with him. However, he quickly realized that Manes could live without him, and vice versa. Therefore, Diogenes released Manes, thus relieving him of his unnecessary duties. This served as a triumphant act that would lead to significant self-sufficiency. As a result of this, Diogenes also adopted a severely antisocial attitude and began living as an ascetic.
Following this, Diogenes became obsessed with the teachings of a man named Antisthenes, until he literally beat him off with a stick one day. Diogenes, was known to be the “faithful hound” of Antisthenes, and he always considered the man to be the first true cynic in history. However, many scholars believe that Diogenes was actually the founder of the movement.
Regardless, cynicism centers on the rejection of conventional norms in favor of a more moderate and minimalist lifestyle. Since cynics view civilization as overly complicated, they often call for a return to more simple living. They typically wish to restore what they believe to be the natural order of things. Cynics also hate having to observe the canons of polite society, because conformity is seen as a vice.
In accordance with these principles, among many others, Diogenes lived on the streets in a giant clay wine jar and ate out of an old wooden bowl. Then, he saw a child drinking water out of his cupped hands, and realized he didn’t even need the bowl. At that point, Diogenes threw the dish away to avoid becoming too materialistic. He also developed a total lack of personal hygiene, and would relieve himself whenever and wherever the need arose.
All of this helps to explain why the Greek word for cynics is derived from the term for dogs, which were very closely associated with shamelessness and natural desires in the minds of the ancients. Of course, rather than taking offense to this, Diogenes embraced the idea of being labeled as such. He would often beg and yelp at those who would not feed him, and he would bite the ankles of people he didn’t like. At a banquet one time, people even threw bones at him, so he urinated on them in retaliation.
Thus, Diogenes the Dog, as he came to be known, was a homeless man who urinated on people and masturbated and defecated in public. As a vagrant, he was often forced to eat in the open marketplace which was considered to be very taboo. He was also occasionally accompanied by feral dogs. In addition to this, he would roast the politicians and philosophers of Athens, leaving them completely dumbfounded by his audacious brilliance.
At one point it came to his attention that the renowned philosopher Plato was teaching his students that a human is simply a featherless biped. So, in outrage of this idea, Diogenes plucked a chicken and presented it to the class as proof of their professors incompetence. This forced Plato to revise his definition of what a person truly is. Based on things like this, Plato took to referring to Diogenes as “Socrates gone mad”.
Apparently, one day Diogenes even went wandering through the streets of Athens in broad daylight bearing a lit lantern claiming that he was looking for good men. He proceeded to venture through the marketplace pointing out that everyone was immoral in one way or another. Basically, a shameless man just went around shaming people, in an ironic display of the absurdity of man-made customs. He worked tirelessly, in this way, to debase the arbitrary values of the culture in which he was immersed.
Then, at some point along the way, in a rather cruel twist of fate, Diogenes was captured by merciless pirates while out at sea. After that he was sold off as a slave in Corinth, and when his new master asked him what he had done before becoming a slave, Diogenes told him that he had formerly governed men. The thing is that he thought of himself as a true “philosopher king”, and his owner found this to be quite clever and rather amusing, so he appointed Diogenes as the tutor of his children.
Diogenes became such a prominent figure in ancient Greece that he was even once approached by Alexander the Great. In the coolest event in history, the proud and noble conqueror came and asked the vagrant philosopher if there was anything that he could do for him. As he stood over the poor man casting a shadow on his makeshift home, Diogenes looked up and said “Yes, stand out of my sunlight.” At that point, the most powerful man in the world replied, “If I were not Alexander, I would wish to be Diogenes.” To which came the response, “If I were not Diogenes, I would also wish to be Diogenes.”
It’s funny, while Alexander the Great was forcing everyone to be more cosmopolitan, Diogenes the Dog was only asking it of them. Plus, whenever someone confronted him on the issue of where he was from, Diogenes would famously exclaim “I am a citizen of the Cosmos”. Even after having been exiled from his hometown of Sinope, scorned in Athens, and enslaved in Corinth, he always saw himself as a man of the world. He absolutely refused to be identified in the standard way, in spite of what anyone thought of him.
He was utterly defiant, all the way up to end in 323 BCE when he finally died. Legend says that Diogenes simply grew tired of living after eight decades had come and gone, so he held his breath until he passed away. However, the reality is that he probably perished from an infected dog bite. Not surprisingly, prior to his death, Diogenes requested that his body be left to rot out in the open. Presumably to be feasted on by dogs. What a remarkably fitting end to such a life well lived.