Mad dog Diogenes

Truth and fiction elide in the life of the colourful figurehead of cynicism, which presents a considerable challenge to the biographer.

Diogenes sitting in his tub by Jean-Léon Gerôme (1860).
Diogenes sitting in his tub by Jean-Léon Gerôme (1860). Credit: Pictorial Press Ltd / Alamy Stock Photo

The Dangerous Life and Ideas of Diogenes the Cynic, Jean-Manuel Roubineau (translated by Malcolm DeBevoise), Oxford University Press,  £14.99

Given that the philosopher Socrates was widely considered eccentric for leading a life of single-minded devotion to seeking the truth, it would not be surprising if his younger contemporary Diogenes had been thought, to use the colloquial term advisedly, barking mad. Just like a dog, he ate scraps of food in the street, urinat­ed on people he didn’t like, defecated in the theatre, and pleasured himself in public. He took austerity to extremes, living in a giant clay jar near the Athenian agora and shunning material comforts and conveniences. An epigram on Diogenes by Antiphilus of Byzantium runs: ‘A bag, a cloak, barley-flour thickened with water, a staff fixed before his feet, and a clay cup, were considered by the wise Dog sufficient for the needs of life. Even here was something superfluous, since after seeing a countryman drinking from the hollow of his hand he said, “Why, earthen cup, did I burden myself with you to no purpose?”’

While Plato did indeed describe Diogenes as ‘Socrates gone crazy’, Diog­enes was taken seriously as one of the founders (along with Socrates’ pupil Antisthenes) of the philosophical move­ment called Cynicism, derived from the Greek kynikos, ‘dog-like’. An ancient commentator observed:

There are four reasons why the Cynics are so called:

1) They cultivate indifference to social norms, eating and fornicating in public like dogs, going around barefoot, and sleeping in tubs and on the street.

2) Dogs are shameless animals, and Cynics make a cult of shamelessness as if that quality were not lower than modesty but superior to it.

3) Dogs are keen guard animals, and Cynics are keen guardians of their philoso­phical tenets.

4) Dogs distinguish between friends and enemies, and Cynics recognise as friends and embrace those who are suited to their philosophy while driving away those unsuited to it and barking at them like dogs.

Despite his allegedly canine lifestyle, Diogenes seems to have had the resources and ability to write as many as seven tragedies and thirteen treatises. As Jean-Manuel Roubineau observes: ‘If Diogenes was in fact able to devote himself to writing, as there is good reason to believe, his material circumstances must have differed, at least intermittently, from the ones described by our sources. He must have had a table, writing materials, and a place protected against the elements where he could work and store his scrolls.’ This kind of objection to the overwhelmingly anecdotal tradition compiled and preserved by Diogenes’ namesake Diogenes Laertius, who wrote a series of ‘lives of philoso­phers’ some 700 years later, might be taken much further than Roubineau is inclined.

Many of the anecdotes, however, and the pithy bon mots that show Diogenes as being no respecter of persons, are too good for a biographer to resist. Among the blunt wit and salacious sensation­alism that characterise Diogens Laertius’s account, some historical details of the philosopher’s biography and career emerge. Born in Sinope on the Black Sea, the son of a mint-master, he fled his home city after his father Hicesias was found to have produced counterfeit currency, possibly with Diogenes’ collaboration. According to an obviously fabricated later account, however, no lesser a voice than the Delphic Oracle’s had instructed Diogenes to ‘adulterate the currency’; but in Socratic style this was interpreted to mean that he should devote his life defying the ‘currency’ of common social norms and values. Once in Athens he became a devotee of the rigorously ascetic lifestyle that was being advocated by Antisthenes. Diogenes had arrived there accompanied by a slave, but when the latter ran away he is said to have remarked: ‘If Manes can live without Diogenes, cannot Diogenes live without Manes?’ He would go on to express disgust at the way masters depended on their slaves. He allegedly walked around the agora with an oil lamp, so that when asked what he was doing he could say pointedly ‘I’m trying to find a human being’.

Among some of the best-known stories about Diogenes are those of his undoubtedly fictitious encounters with Alexander the Great, who was said to have respected his reputation for simplicity and forthrightness. When the conquering general found him basking in the sun and asked what he could do for him, Diogenes bluntly replied ‘Stand out of the sunlight.’ Alexander was said to have remarked admiringly ‘If I were not Alexander, I would want to be Diogenes’, to which Diogenes ungraciously retorted, ‘If I were not Diogenes, I’d still wish to be Diogenes.’ Less gracious still was his supposed response to Alexander when the latter found him examining a pile of human remains and asked what he was doing: ‘I’m looking for your father’s bones – but I can’t tell them apart from the bones of a slave.’

We read that the second-century Roman author Fronto noted that ‘while both Socrates and Diogenes were forceful and serious in manner, they practiced philosophy in quite different ways, Socrates adopting a courteous and affable style of speaking, by contrast with the intemperate language and brutal attacks to which Diogenes was given’. The dismissal by both philoso­phers of social and material refinements led to the same comments later being attributed to both. Both were credited with exclaiming, on observing the mass of consumer products on sale in the marketplace, ‘Look at all these things I have no need of!’ Diogenes took the austere life to far greater lengths, to the point that he was said to have accused Socrates of having lived a ‘life of luxury’ simply because the latter owned a house and a couch and occasionally wore shoes. He was even more contemptuous of Plato, considering him a man of words rather than actions. He wrote a lost dialogue with a title that played on Plato’s name Platōn by using a similar-sounding Greek word, Sathōn, meaning ‘The Prick’.

How can one pick one’s way through anecdotes and fabrications, mostly composed at a much later date, to arrive at a balanced assessment of Diogenes’ philosophical contribution? There is a risk that one embraces the kind of contradiction mentioned above, between positing a purely mendicant lifestyle for Diogenes, while also allowing for one that permits the production of a substantial written oeuvre. In similar fashion, Diogenes was said to have condemned the Greeks’ love of physical fitness and sporting prowess, as had the Presocratic philosopher Xenophanes before him, yet at the same time to have developed harsh exercises for improving his powers of endurance, and even to have acquired some leather boxing-gloves and beaten up a man who had previously attacked him.

The impression one is left with is that the idea of Cynicism as a critique of authority and a challenge to societal values needed a colourful figurehead to whom such anecdotes were likely to accrue. Even if few of the stories and sayings can be vouched for as securely historical, they were to be influential in the development of Stoicism and the idea of cynicism itself. One might revise Voltaire’s observation to say that if Diogenes had not existed, it would have been necessary to invent him.


Armand D'Angour