Behind all the smiles and politeness, deep down somewhere inside, we all have a part of us that just wants to break free. A part of us that’s brutally honest. A part of us that doesn’t care about others’ opinions. A part of us that wants to speak the truth at all times under any circumstances. But that’s not how society works. There are certain societal norms and etiquettes that one has to follow to be a part of it.
But Diogenes disagreed.
Diogenes of Sinope (404-323 BCE), also known as Diogenes the cynic, born in Sinope, was an ancient Greek philosopher, one of the founders of Cynic philosophy, and responsible for inspiring the most prominent Greek school of philosophy - Stoicism.
Life in Sinope
We know very little of Diogenes’ early life in Sinope, except that his father, Hicesias, was a banker who minted coins. Though the exact date is unknown, at a certain point in time, both Diogenes and his father were exiled from the city for allegedly defacing the currency, after which he moved to Agora in Athens.
Life in Athens
After moving to Athens, Diogenes made it his life’s purpose to challenge the established values and beliefs of civilization, reject all material possessions of life and only live by complete truthfulness at all times under any circumstances, which he actually did.
He proposed that manners, etiquettes and societal norms are a lie and that one should be true to his belief and values and act accordingly at all times.
He publicly demonstrated his beliefs by sleeping in a large clay wine jar, surviving off of handouts and charity from others, drinking water from a bowl, which he famously threw away after seeing a boy drink water from the hollow of his hand.
He believed that we should not have any issue publicly doing what we do in private. Hence, he used to eat food in the public marketplace, which was prohibited in Athens, urinated in public and on people, and even masturbated in public. When confronted, he simply said: “only if it was as easy to get rid of hunger by rubbing my belly”.
He was known for saying what was in his mind without holding back or fearing offending people. Despite insulting people on their faces and misbehaving, the people of Athens loved him.
One of the most famous incidents of all is when he held a lantern (or candle) in the faces of the people of Athens in broad daylight, “famously looking for an honest man”, exposing the hypocrisy and distorted dream-like state everyone is living in, ignorant to the truth and reality.
Other instances include interrupting and even insulting Plato in his speeches. Plato famously called him “A Socrates gone mad”. When Alexander the Great came to visit Diogenes and asked if he could do something for him, Diogenes responded by saying, “Yes, get out of my sunlight”.
In his time in Athens, Diogenes was a student of Antisthenes who initially rejected him but eventually gave in after seeing his persistence and strong will. Antisthenes' ascetic teachings were similar to Diogenes, which is what attracted him in the first place.
Life in Corinth as a Slave
At one point in time, Diogenes was captured by pirates and sold as a slave. When asked what skills he has, he said “that of governing men” and said he wished to get sold to the one who needs a master. This attitude of Diogenes impressed Xeniades, who took him to his house to tutor his two sons. According to the tales, eventually, Diogenes became a cherished member of Xeniades’ family and spent the rest of his life there.
Later there in Corinth, Diogenes passed on his teachings and philosophy of Cynicism to Crates of Thebes. Crates then later taught it to Zeno of Citium, who then created his own school of philosophy, Stoicism.
There are many conflicting stories of Diogenes’ death. The most widely accepted story is that he died of old age at ninety. However, some stories suggest he died of food poisoning, while some say it was rabies, and the most ridiculous of them is that he died of suicide by holding his breath.
Though Diogenes authored over ten books, along with many other pieces of writings, none of them survived. Everything we know of him today is from other people's work, especially from the book by Diogenes Laërtius, Lives and Opinions of Eminent Philosophers.
We don’t know if Diogenes’ philosophies were right or wrong, but we do know that they are worth thinking about.