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Frugal Living thru Onions - Ideas from Diogenes

Updated on May 19, 2014

The philosopher Diogenes is famous for living in a barrel near the Athen's marketplace around 400 BCE. Echoes of his philosophy are found in Voltaire, Thoreau and the back-to-the earth movement.

I often think of Diogenes because he represents one approach to answering the question, "What is the good life?" He questioned contemporary morality on the ground that most good and bad is really about acting conventionally rather than representing anything intrinsically good or bad. Even today many laws are based on community standards. He also questioned many human behaviors as being purely seeking after status.

There are many anecdotes about Diogenes that often give a laugh by poking fun at social mores. Alexander the Great visited Diogenes when he conquered Corinth and asked what he could give him. Diogenes replied please stop blocking my sun. Another story recounts that he told Alexander when one visits the graveyard it's impossible to distinguish the bones of Alexander's father from that of a slave.

Supposedly Diogenes lived to be 90 on a diet of onions. His many eccentricities included wandering around the city during the day carrying a lit lamp searching for an honest man. When the city of Corinth prepared to defend itself against an attack, Diogenes spent the day rolling his barrel around the city. When questioned about his actions he replied since everyone else is busily preparing, I don't want to be idle. Diogenes threw away most his possessions. Even a wooden bowl when he saw a youth drinking from his cupped hands. Some people thought Diogenes revealed truth about human society. Others that he was just a cranky beggar; argumentative, fond of complaining and anti-social.

I'm on the fence about Diogenes. Every person needs a shelter where he/she can feel secure. A barrel is extreme. The minimum for me probably reveals a lot more about my difficulties living an ascetic life. I would say as a minimum at least a 10x10 living room with a view, balcony for gardening and to enjoy a sunny afternoon, kitchen with stove/fridge to be able to prepare my own food and a bathroom with shower. The community is equally important. There should be citizen participation in government, laws, public health care. Good public facilities, bike routes, community centre with sports facility/pool, at least one university, library, public market, grocery stores. The community needs to have a sustainable economy with a reasonable cost of living.

Living in a barrel/car would be expensive for a modern Diogenes because you wouldn't be able to prepare your own food. There would be the expense of constantly replacing stolen stuff. Without a fixed mailing address/phone it would be tough to hold down employment. And without privacy I doubt you could get a good sleep. Diogenes said he was a citizen of the world not his own city-state. Although this sounds noble and poetic, on a deeper level part of being a citizen is contributing to the local community.

Although I feel sympathetic to Diogenes I think Alexander the Great got the last word on him. At the end of their conversation Alexander reportedly asked if there was nothing Diogenes himself needed then surely he must have a friend who could use some help. Diogenes replied that he spurned friendship and all it's demands.

Ultimately for me the good life is about being part of a community. Joining a community means conforming to the the groups values - which isn't necessarily bad as long as you believe in them and are an active participant.

I'm still searching around the city with my own lamp looking for what is the good life. Since humans are social primates a major part of the good life is defining your own idea of the good community and trying to make it ever better.

Like to learn some more about frugal living? Here is a link to one of my other hubpages:


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