Retelling the Story of Diogenes the Cynic
Retelling the Story of Diogenes the Cynic
This is a story about a filthy dog… Over two thousand years ago, in ancient Greece, there lived a very controversial philosopher, who upset a lot of people. At first everyone hated him, sneered at him, and called him The Dog. But by the time he died, the people loved and admired him so much that they built a beautiful pillar, in his honour, made from white marble, with a statue of a little dog on top. His real name was Diogenes of Sinope and for over five hundred years he and his followers were known as the Cynics or Dogs. I’m going to tell you how he became one of the most important figures in the history of Western philosophy.
The Oracle of Delphi
The Dog came from Sinope, on the Black Sea coast. He was the son of a wealthy banker, in charge of the city’s coinage. According to legend, the Delphic Oracle, the priestess of Apollo, prophesied that he would gain a reputation for defacing the currency. So he literally rendered piles of silver coins unusable. Funnily enough the authorities didn’t approve. He was caught and banished forever from his home city. The Dog wandered to Athens, a penniless exile without a friend in the world.
However, some say he heard about a wise philosopher called Antisthenes, one of Socrates’ followers, who made a virtue out of poverty. Antisthenes defined being rich as having more than you need. Most people try to become rich by accumulating more money and possessions than they need. But as our possessions grow our desires keep growing, and we’re never really satisfied this way. Antisthenes therefore concluded that the only way to become truly rich is by decreasing our needs rather than increasing our possessions.
Training the Dog
So the Dog also trained himself to live with minimal possessions: a tattered cloak, a knapsack, a clay bowl, and a wooden staff to defend himself. By day he begged for food, at night he slept rough on the porches of public buildings, using his cloak as a blanket. One day he saw a little boy drinking from his cupped hands. The Dog exclaimed “A child has beaten me at my own game!” and smashed his bowl.
The Dog advocated plain speaking. And he ridiculed the famous philosopher Plato’s lectures as long-winded nonsense. He went round to his house and trampled on his expensive carpets, saying “Thus I trample on Plato’s vanity!” Surprisingly, Plato hated this. He called our hero “Socrates… gone mad!”
Diogenes also trained himself and his students in shamelessness. He tied a rope around the neck of a bottle and used to walk it like a dog through the busy potters’ district, ignoring people who laughed at him. And he liked to masturbate in the public marketplace. He said he wished it were as easy to relieve hunger by rubbing his belly as it was to relieve sexual desire by rubbing his penis. And he was always getting beaten up in the street.
Abducted by Pirates
The Dog was wise, though. He said that humans are both the most intelligent and most foolish of all creature. When he saw the work of philosophers, physicians, and navigators, he was in awe of man’s intellectual capacity. But when he heard people talking about religious mumbo jumbo or their love of money and material possessions, he remembered how foolish and gullible we all are. Once he saw the officials of a temple dragging out a boy who had stolen a donation bowl. He cried out “Oh look, the big thieves are leading away the little thief.” He said the love of money is the root of all evil, over three hundred years before the New Testament.
One day, during a sea voyage, the Dog was kidnapped by vicious pirates, thrown in chains, and sold at a slave auction. When the auctioneer asked where he was from he said “I am a citizen of the world”, literally a cosmopolitan. Then the Dog spotted a wealthy Corinthian in the audience and yelled “Hey, you look like you need a good boss — to tell you how to live!” So the man bought him, and instead of being his slave, the Dog ran his household, and educated his two sons in philosophy.
Alexander the Great
The most famous legend was that Alexander the Great heard about the Dog and sought him out. He found him lazing naked in the sunshine, in a grove of trees outside the city of Corinth. Alexander was the most powerful man in the world. He was known as a patron of philosophers so he said “Ask me for anything you wish.” And the Dog replied… “Could you stand aside, you’re blocking the Sun.”
Alexander turned around, bemused, and walked back to his entourage, who were falling about laughing. However, he hushed them and said: “Had I not been Alexander, I should have liked to be this man.” Alexander said he wanted to come back and speak some more to the Dog but first he had to finish conquering the world. However, he died of a fever, years later in Babylon. He requested that his hands should be allowed to dangle out of his funeral casket, as it travelled through the city streets on a wagon, so that everyone could see even Alexander the Great left this world… empty handed.
The Tail of the Dog
Later in life Diogenes the Dog realised what the Oracle must have meant when she said he’d gain a reputation for defacing the currency. It was a metaphor for his iconoclastic nature. His destiny was to tear down social conventions, make people question their values, and show them a radically different way of life.
He finally succeeded in defacing the currency by teaching the Athenians that money alone can’t make you happy. Diogenes died happy even though he was a penniless exile and people called him a filthy Dog.