The Dog of Philosophy

Children’s story about Diogenes the Cynic.

Diogenes the Cynic Billboard.Let me tell you a story… Hundreds and hundreds of years ago, in ancient Greece, there was a very famous philosopher called Diogenes the Dog. Diogenes went about naked, slept on the streets, and begged for scraps of food. So the children used to make fun of him and they pointed at him shouting “You’re just a dirty dog!” If a crowd of people made fun of me and called me a dirty dog, I might cry, but Diogenes didn’t let things like that upset him. Nothing bothered him. My mother used to say: “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.”

Diogenes wasn’t hurt by words, even when people called him a nasty dog. He just laughed and said “You know what, you’re right, I am a dog… I’m the dog of Zeus!” Now, the god Hades had a pet dog, called Cerberus, whose job it was to guard all the dead people, the ghosts, in the Underworld. But Diogenes said he was the guard dog of Zeus, Hades’ brother, the god of the living. And his job was to guard over living people, and show them when they were doing wrong. He would bark at them like a dog, when he saw them doing silly things or misbehaving. Some people were scared of him but other people really loved him, and followed him around, hoping to learn from him and become wise.

Let me tell you three things about dogs… Number one: dogs love people who are nice to them and give them food; they lick their hands, rub up against their legs, and follow them around. Number two: dogs bark at people who have food but won’t share it with them. And number three: they sometimes get angry and bite people who upset them by trying to steal their food. (You have to be careful if you want to take a bone away from a dog.)

Diogenes said he was like a dog but instead of food he only wanted one thing: wisdom. If people had wisdom and gave it to him, he’d be their best friend for life, and follow them around. If they had wisdom but didn’t share it, he’d bark at them until they did. And if they didn’t have wisdom but were foolish and wanted to do bad things, he’d bite them, or hit them with his stick!

One day, Diogenes was captured by a gang of pirates. They chained him up, threw him on their ship, and sailed away with him. They wanted to sell him as a slave, which is a person that belongs to someone else like a pet, or like an animal that’s made to work for them. (People aren’t allowed to have slaves anymore because it’s wrong, but a long time ago there were lots of slaves.)

Diogenes wasn’t bothered. When they tried to sell him, he just rolled around on the floor laughing. A rich man was looking at him and Diogenes said “You look like you need a good boss, to tell you what to do!” So the man bought him, and instead of being his slave, Diogenes became his boss, and his teacher. The man and his sons followed Diogenes around and learned a lot of wisdom from him.

Now Dogs will eat almost anything and people say one day Diogenes ate an octopus that upset his tummy, because it hadn’t been cooked properly. That’s how he died. When he was gone, though, everyone missed him, and the people in his home town built a pillar with a statue of a white dog on top so they would always remember him and so their children would also learn about Diogenes the philosopher, the dog of Zeus.

The Sale of Diogenes the Cynic by Pirates

The ancient story of Diogenes the Cynic’s capture by pirates and auction as a slave.

The Sale of Diogenes the Cynic by Pirates

Diogenes-the-Cynic-BillboardDiogenes of Sinope, the founder of Cynicism was greatly admired by the Stoics as a near-sage. The two schools were sometimes even considered part of a single “Cynic-Stoic” tradition. Diogenes became a legendary character and many stories and anecdotes circulated about him in the ancient world, contributing to his status as a Stoic role-model. According to Epictetus, “Diogenes was set free by Antisthenes, and said that from that point forward he could never be enslaved by anyone again” (Discourses, 4.1).  He meant that, although the two men perhaps never met in person, Diogenes was set free by the philosophical teachings of Antisthenes, one of Socrates’ circle of friends who founded his own Socratic sect, credited as the main forerunner or sometimes even the founder of Greek Cynicism.

Epictetus goes on to discuss the particularly well-known, although probably fictitious, story about Diogenes being captured by pirates, which apparently came from a book called The Sale of Diogenes by the 3rd century BC Cynic philosopher and satirist Menippus. The story goes that Diogenes was captured by the notorious pirate captain Skirpalos and his crew, while sailing to the island of Aegina. His captors were initially quite brutal to Diogenes and the other captives, giving them barely enough food to survive but he bore his misfortune well, rising above their maltreatment with greatness of spirit. Unintimidated as always, he rebuked the pirates saying that if one has pigs or sheep to sell, one fattens them up and keeps them healthy, yet they kept the finest of animals, human beings, on sparse food, until they were reduced to skeletons and worthless to sell. Listening to reason, the pirates began to feed all their prisoners better.

They took him to Crete where he was put up for auction as a slave. Just before the sale began he sat down to share some bread with the other prisoners, who were weeping at their misfortune. Seeing one man was too upset to eat, Diogenes reassured him, urging him to have some food, and telling him to stop worrying and just take the moment as it comes. Such auctions typically began by asking where the slave was from to which Diogenes gave his standard reply, that he was from “everywhere”, being a citizen of the world, the original meaning of “cosmopolitan. After making fun of the auctioneer by laying down and pretending to be a fish, in typical Diogenes style, he then berated the audience, giving them a lecture on how to go about buying men. He said that if they are buying a pot or plate, or presumably a fish, they test first that it is good quality but when buying men they merely look them over rather than testing their character properly. When the auctioneer asked him what he was skilled at, Diogenes replied “Governing men”, much to everyone’s amusement. Diogenes then pointed out a wealthy Corinthian man in the audience, called Xeniades, who was dressed in rather ornate robes, saying “Sell me to that man, he could do with a master!” Somehow, Diogenes had managed to invert the whole situation by acting as if he were the one shopping for a “slave” to govern.

Perhaps surprisingly, Diogenes was purchased by Xeniades who took him back to Corinth and put him in charge of his children and indeed his whole household.  Diogenes immediately set about telling them how to run their lives, what clothes to wear, etc., and overseeing the athletic training of Xeniades’ sons. Although he trained them to live simply and to endure hardship, the boys apparently loved their teacher. He reputedly turned down the opportunity to be ransomed by his friends. Diogenes did such a good job that Xeniades said it was as if his house had been blessed with a good “guardian-spirit” and the philosopher stayed on there until his death. Xeniades sometimes complained that by being bossed around by his own slave things had become somewhat back-to-front, as if Diogenes had become the master and Xeniades his slave. Diogenes gave the philosophical reply that Xeniades should obey his instructions, based on his expertise in the art of living, just as even if a doctor or a navigator were a slave, their advice would still be followed.

The point of the story seems to be that Diogenes’ wisdom and virtue made him a natural ruler, a true king, whatever his unfortunate external circumstances, and this was bound to shine through. Where someone has expertise we should listen to them, regardless of their status, and Diogenes had expertise in the art of living.

Menedemos: Cynic in Fancy Dress?

Snippet about the ancient Cynic philosopher Menedemos, and his unusual attire.

Cynic in Fancy Dress?

Man in Arcadian Pointy-Hat
Man in Arcadian Pointy-Hat

Menedemos was a pupil of Colotes of Lampsacos [a pupil  of Epicurus who also studied Cynicism in 3-4th century BC].

According to Hippobotos, he advanced to such a degree of imposture that he went around in the guise of a Fury [an ancient chthonic goddess of vengeance], saying that he had come from Hades to take note of sins that were committed, so as to be able to report them, on his return, to the deities below.

This was the manner of his dress: he wore a dark tunic reaching down to his feet, with a red belt tied around it, and an Arcadian hat on his head with the twelve signs of the zodiac embroidered on it, and tragic buskins, and he had an enormously long beard, and carried an ash-wood staff in his hand. (Diogenes Laertius)