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Philosopher Diogenes

Updated on December 25, 2010

412-323 BC

A Greek philosopher, Diogenes the Cynic was born at Sinope on the Black Sea in what is now Turkey and was exiled with his father, a magistrate accused of 'defacing the currency'. After wandering about Greece, he finally settled in Athens and became a pupil of Antisthenes, where be became famous for his acid tongue and the austerity of his life. The Athenians gave him the nickname cynic (Greek for 'dog-like').

Diogenes is probably the most famous of the Cynics, a group of Greek philosophers who believed in simplicity and scorned social conventions. He held that earthly possessions are worthless and that civilization is a degrading institution. He slept in an abandoned tub in Athens and refused to accumulate possessions. He did retain an old cup but threw even this away when he saw a boy drink from his cupped hands. The Athenians scoffed at Diogenes and called him the Dog. According to legend, the philosopher showed his opinion of the Athenians by going through the streets in the daytime with a lighted lamp. He said he was looking for an honest man in Athens.

Diogenes believed that virtue consisted in the avoidance of all physical pleasure, that pain and inconvenience in their several forms were conducive to goodness, and that morality implied a return to nature and simplicity.

Diogenes kept his needs to the minimum, begging for his food and clothing and sleeping in the open or in public buildings. He preached that self-sufficiency, lack of shame and avoidance of all physical pleasures were the paths to virtue. He had no particular 'school', and none of his writings has come down to us, but it is known that he wrote several plays andaRepublic, which described the ideal state as one having no armies, no family life and knucklebones for currency. It is this cynical anarchism that underlies his reply to the question, 'To what city do you belong?': 'I am a citizen of the world'.

Many other stories were told about Diogenes; he was said to have gone barefoot in the snow to prepare himself for his ascetic life, to have slept in a barrel and to have walked about with a lantern in broad daylight, saying that he was searching for an honest man. On a voyage to Aegina, he was taken by pirates and sold as a slave to Xeniades of Corinth. He spent the rest of his life as tutor to his master's sons and continued to preach the virtues of self control.

On a voyage to Aegina he was captured by pirates and sold as a slave to Xeniades of Corinth. At Corinth he spent the remainder of his life as tutor to the sons of Xeniades and preaching the doctrines of self-control. He used to lecture at the isthmian games, and it was probably on one such occasion that he met Alexander the Great, who offered to grant him any one boon he cared to ask. 'Then please don't stand between me and the sun' ("Just stand out of my sunlight"), said Diogenes. These and many other legends illustrating the austerity of his life and his acid tongue are thought by many to be true; others take them as mere caricature.

Alexander left, declaring that if he were not Alexander, he would like to be Diogenes. According to tradition, both men died on the same day.

Diogenes died in Corinth, Greece, in 323 BC.


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