Once Upon A Time in Athens: The Story of Diogenes

Diogenes By Jean-Léon Gérôme

In the painting Diogenes Sitting in His Tub (1860), by Jean-Léon Gérôme, a man sitting in something, which more resembles a huge clay pot than a tub, is depicted. Around the man there are four dogs, curiously watching, as the man lights a lantern in broad daylight. The man featured in the scene is none other than the ancient Greek philosopher Diogenes.

            Around 405 B.C. Diogenes was born in Sinope (a town in modern-day Turkey), although he himself would have none of this. When asked where he was from he simply stated that he was a citizen of the world, a cosmopolite. Diogenes was the son of a banker, who was forced into exile for the debasement of the coinage, which means lowering the intrinsic value of coins. Diogenes followed his father to Athens and would later debase all the conventions held by society, but more on that later. Once in Athens, Diogenes approach the philosopher Antisthenes, who had a somewhat unorthodox approach to recruiting students.

            Antisthenes raised his stick, threatening to beat the shit out of Diogenes. “Go away, I don’t want any students!”

            “Go ahead, beat me! You won’t find wood hard enough to keep me away, as long as you have something to say”, Diogenes responded.

            From that moment on he would be the disciple of Antisthenes. Both of them are often credited as the founders of the cynical school of philosophy, but Diogenes would by far surpass his teacher in fame and notoriety. The philosophy of Diogenes can only be known through the stories about him since none of his writings have survived to this day. And he certainly was a philosopher who practiced what he preached. It is important to note that in ancient Greece the word ‘cynic’ had different connotations than it has today. The word comes from the Greek word for canine and it simply meant ‘dog’. Being a contemporary of Plato, the great philosopher took notice of the strange man, who once jerked off in the town square while proclaiming; “If only I could silence my hunger by rubbing my belly!” Plato said that Diogenes was Socrates gone mad, and stated that he was acting like a dog. And it stuck. When some people at a feast threw Diogenes a bone, he pissed on them like a dog as he left.

Diogenes had nothing but contempt for social conventions and he regarded greed as the metropolis of all things evil. Therefore he chose to live in a barrel without any possessions. When he saw a child drinking from their hand, he threw away his cup. And when he saw a boy pouring his soup into the bread, Diogenes threw away his bowl.

Diogenes could also be described as a radical empiricist and realist, being convinced by arguments based on the senses, rather than proofs coming from logical deduction. He once saw a really shitty archer constantly missing his target. What did Diogenes do? Well, he went and sat down by the target. “There, now I won’t get hit”.

            When he heard someone give a lecture on the impossibility of movement, he simply stood up and started to walk around.

            Diogenes once visited a lecture given by Plato. Plato was explaining his theory of ideas, using words like; ‘tableness’, and ‘ladleness’.

            “I can see the table and the ladle”, Diogenes said. “But the ‘tableness’ and ‘ladleness’ are nowhere to be found”.

            When Diogenes got wind that Plato had defined humans as a two-legged creatures without feathers, he simply plucked a bird, walked into Plato’s school, hen in hand, and proclaimed: “Behold, the platonic man!”

Nothing was really sacred to Diogenes, least of all religion and other forms of superstition. When he passed a woman praying, in a somewhat awkward position, he, in what I can only imagine as a botched attempt, tried to free her from her superstition by saying: “Hey, woman! Don’t you realize you are acting indecent, the Gods are in everything and one might be standing behind you?”

            Another person who was blessing himself with holy water, Diogenes walked up to him and said: “You miserable man! Holy water won’t remove your moral sins any more than it will correct your spelling errors.”

            Plato once walked up to Diogenes as he was rinsing his vegetables and whispered. “If you worship Dionysus you would not have to wash your vegetables”.

            Diogenes leaned in and whispered back: “If you wash your vegetables you won’t have to worship Dionysus”.

Alexander the Great was an admire of Diogenes and when asked who he would like to be if he wasn’t Alexander, he said Diogenes. Alexander, the story goes, actually meet the philosopher.

            “I am Alexander, the great king.”

            “I am Diogenes, the dog.”

            “Why do they call you a dog?”

            “Because I suck up to those who give me something, I bark at those who don’t, and I bite those who are mean.”

            “Is there anything I can do for you”, Alexander asked.

            “Yes, you can move because you are blocking the sun”.

            This meeting between Alexander and Diogenes has been the source of quite a few works of art. My personal favorite is Edwin Landseer’s painting Alexander and Diogenes (1848). In it, they are all portrayed as dogs, and interestingly enough, this painting served as the inspiration for the anthropomorphic dogs in Disney’s Lady and the Tramp (1955). Sadly, they did not model the Tramp after the philosophical shenanigans of Diogenes, which would have made for a funnier movie.

Alexander And Diogenes By Edwin Landseer
Landseer, Edwin Henry; Alexander and Diogenes; Tate; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/alexander-and-diogenes-199735

On his way to Aegina (an island in Greece), Diogenes was captured by pirates and taken to Crete to be sold as a slave. When the herald asked him what skills he had, Diogenes responded: “To rule over people.” He then pointed at a well-dressed man in the crowd, Xeniades, and said: “Sell me to him, he needs a master.” And that’s what happened. Xeniades bought Diogenes and took him to Corinth. Diogenes became a teacher to his children and took care of the entire household, a task he performed so well that Xeniades said; “a benevolent demon has entered my home”.

Diogenes lived to be around ninety years old. He died by holding his breath. Once, he was asked if death is something bad, he responded by saying: “How can something, which presence you never experience, be something bad?” Diogenes’ final wish was that his corpse would be left in the open for the wild animals.

            Such was the life and philosophy of Diogenes. How much of it is true? Who the fuck knows… But as the great bass player of Nirvana, Krist Novoselic, once said: (And in honor of the quote, I won’t fact-check it.) “You shouldn’t let the truth get in the way of a good story”.

Freddie Ross

Freddie Ross

Art Historian


Diogenes Laertios, Berömda filosofers liv och läror, (Lives and Opinions of Eminent Philosophers), (Stockholm: Atlantis AB, 2016).

Bertrand Russell, History of Western Philosophy, (London: Routledge Classics, 2004).

Pierre Hadot, Vad är antikens filosofi?, (Qu’est-ce que la philosophie antique?), (Göteborg: Diadalos AB, 2015).

  1. Griffin, "Disney's artistic Fantasia". The Montreal Gazette. (March 7, 2007).
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