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Diogenes the Dog

When one thinks of a philosopher, one might imagine a bearded professor writing long, perplexing passages within the depths of his study. Or, maybe a classy, French existentialist speaking futilely over a cup of coffee in a cafe overlooking the Eiffel Tower. Contradicting these caricatures of philosophers, we have the accounts of Diogenes, an Ancient Greek beggar of Athens. Diogenes believed a natural life was ideal, so when passersby called him a dog, Diogenes, not one to contest such a virtuous compliment, urinated on said passersby as a sign of gratitude. This is just one example of Diogenes’ unorthodox philosophy.

Diogenes lived his life according to ancient Cynicism, an Ancient Greek school of thought which stressed the importance of living in accordance to nature and living virtuously. Cynics believed that through the ethical values of living a life according to nature, they had found the path to a virtuous life. Diogenes was quoted as saying, “Humans have complicated every great gift of the Gods.” Diogenes’ philosophy was less exemplified from written passages as it was from his actions.

The life of Diogenes was exceptionally unique; when exiled from his home of Sinope after being told by the Oracle of Delphi to deface the currency, he migrated to Athens and committed himself to a life of simplicity. Upon arrival with his slave Manes, he said to himself, “If Manes can live without Diogenes, why not Diogenes without Manes?” He promptly set free his slave, his first act of self-sufficiency. Diogenes, in his quest for simplicity and virtue, lived in a clay wine jar in the market place, owning only a wooden bowl, a robe, and a cane. However, upon seeing a boy drink water from the pond with only his hands, Diogenes threw his bowl away, realizing how materialistic he had become.

He begged for a living, and, put simply, cared little for the opinions of others. When a passerby told Diogenes he would give him a coin if Diogenes could persuade him of something, Diogenes replied, “If I could have persuaded you of anything, I would have persuaded you to hang yourself.” He would repeatedly insult the greatest of his time, only to leave them dumbfounded by his unassuming wit. When Plato smugly defined man as a “featherless biped,” Diogenes plucked a chicken and interrupted one of Plato’s lectures holding it, proclaiming, “Behold, Plato’s man.” In an account with the conqueror Alexander the Great, Alexander approached Diogenes, hearing the stories of the beloved philosopher. When asked by Alexander if there was anything he could do for Diogenes, Diogenes replied: “Yes, get out of my sunlight.” Another account holds Alexander asking why Diogenes was searching through a pile of bones, with Diogenes replying, “I was searching for the bones of your father, but I could not distinguish them from those of a slave.” Delighted with this response, Alexander stated, “If I were not Alexander I would wish to be Diogenes.”

Diogenes believed in philosophy not as a written endeavor, but as a way of life, thinking it pointless to burden oneself with ‘pointless’ metaphysical inquires. He protested nearly every social custom of the strict Athenians. He ate in the marketplace, something highly frowned upon, simply because he was hungry, and he shamelessly performed his ‘private’ acts in public. He believed that humans, by nature, were good and virtuous, but nearly all were corrupted by the hegemonic social norms, customs, and practices which they were born into. Throughout his life, he attempted in his actions to display the arbitrariness of these norms, believing that humans engaged in pointless, Sisyphean lives. In attempting this goal, besides his aforementioned behavior, he would walk backwards through the streets, and enter plays at the end of the show instead of the beginning. He condemned the materialistic and strictly adherent culture of the Athenians, which he believed condemned them to a life of misery.

Perhaps, in modern times, we could take a few lessons from Diogenes; materialistic consumption and hegemonic norms dominate the path of the modern man, constraints which Diogenes condemned. After all, Athenian culture, which Diogenes so profusely preached as reducing lives to miserable and meaningless, can be considered akin to ours.

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