Diogenes, widely remembered as ‘Diogenes of Sinope’, was an exemplary and esteemed Greek philosopher who is ranked among the founders of the Cynic philosophy. He was the only student of Antisthenes, and a principal upholder of his teacher’s asceticism and ethical ideologies. Diogenes is applauded for his philosophical teachings infused with an apt and unique sense of humor that isn’t found in the works of other philosophers throughout history. He was among the very few people to have publicly insulted Alexander the Great and not been subjected to his wrath. Diogenes’ life was riddled with various controversies, he was very opinionated and spent his entire life engaging in efforts to disparage and deprecate social values, and to unmask the institutions of a corrupt society. Diogenes believed that virtue can only be exhibited through actions rather than words.
Diogenes was born in 412 BC, in Sinope, a Greek colony located on the south coast of the Black Sea. His father, Hicesias, was a banker, and he encouraged Diogenes to help him by joining the banking business. Diogenes was exiled from Sinope on account of a scandal that accused him and his father of defacing the currency. Diogenes then decided to settle in Athens, fueled with the ambition of ridiculing societal values and customs. In Athens, he set to work in disrupting the “coinage” of established customs, and he believed that people do not speculate on the real nature of evil but rather, they are content with relying on pre-established customary interpretations. Diogenes became influenced by the ascetic teachings of Antisthenes, and despite Antisthenes’ refusal to take up students, Diogenes’ persistence paid off and he became Antisthenes’ pupil. Diogenes developed his ideologies from Antisthenes’ teachings, and later surpassed even his teacher through evolving his theories to an extreme.
Diogenes practiced everything he preached, and he preached an ideology of openly rebelling against conventions and dismissed the artificial values constructed by a corrupt society. Thus, Diogenes resided in an urn shaped tub that was the property of the temple of Cybele. This lifestyle that was much similar with that of a mouse, according to Diogenes, taught him adaptability. On one occasion, Diogenes is said to have smashed his only wooden bowl upon watching peasant boy drink water from his palms. Several other incidents of his unconventional behavior are found in his biographies, such as; Diogenes would always eat in the marketplace even though the Athenian customs advised against it. He would often be seen carrying a lamp in broad daylight, and upon inquiring, he would say offhandedly, “I am just looking for an honest man”. Diogenes’ quest for an honest and trustworthy human being was only met with selfish and wicked people.
When Plato gained immense appraise for revising Socrates’ definition of a man as “featherless bipeds”, Diogenes brought a chicken into the Academy of Plato and said, “Behold! I’ve brought you a man”. After this outrageous act, Plato was forced to add “with broad flat nails” to the definition. Due to his outrage against conventionalism and outspoken criticisms, and Plato publicly referred to Diogenes as “a Socrates gone mad”. Diogenes believed that human life had to be based on reason to differ from the life of a kept animal that constantly needs to led and leashed. He considered reason to be a man’s best companion, and preached that reason and logic must be a guiding principle when undertaking decisions.
It is also reported that during a voyage to Aegina, Diogenes was grabbed by pirates and sold off as a slave in Crete to a Corinthian man, Xeniades. Following that, Diogenes lived in Corinth for the rest of his life as the tutor of Xeniades’ two sons. He dedicated his life to preaching the principals of virtuous self-control. He is also reported to have lectured a huge crowd at the Isthmian Games.
In Corinth, Diogenes also encountered Alexander the Great, and according to the reports of various historians, they exchanged a few words. Their encounter is reported in several biographies as a different story. One story describes Diogenes laying in the sunlight, and Alexander, upon meeting the esteemed philosopher asked him if he wanted any particular favor, to which Diogenes replied “Yes, stand out of my sunlight”. Alexander, instead of being slighted by the obvious disrespect for his station, is reported to have said, “If I were not Alexander, then I should wish to be Diogenes”. However, another account of their meeting relays the events differently, Alexander is said to have seen Diogenes examining a pile of human bones with utmost concentration, and upon Alexander’s inquiring, he said, “I am searching for the bones of your father but cannot distinguish them from those of a slave”.
Diogenes died in 323 BC. The citizens of Corinth erected a pillar where a dog made of Parian marble was rested, as a tribute to his memory.