The Cynical Saint

The Cynical Saint

Painting : Diogenes (1873) by Jules Bastien-Lepage

When Alexander the Great went to Corinth at the age of twenty to lead the Greek army due to fight the Persians, he sought out an old philosopher called Diogenes. That these two might in some sense have been kindred spirits is suggested by a story about the young Alexander. At a banquet he annoyed his father, Philip of Macedon, who was planning an invasion of Asia Minor at the time. Having been at the wine all evening, the king fell over when making an angry lunge. It prompted this observation from his son. See him who would pass from Europe into Asia, overturned in passing from one table to another.

When Alexander came to see Diogenes he was trailed by many hangers-on and other prominent citizens. He found the old man sunbathing so he introduced himself and asked if he could do him any favour. The response was a sole request. Don’t stand between me and the sun. The crowd either sniggered or gasped at this impudence but this reply only provoked a single comment from the young king. Were I not Alexander I would be Diogenes. To this the old man replied, Were I not Diogenes I would still wish to be Diogenes.

He was renowned for his shamelessness. Happiness, he taught, means satisfying the simplest wants in the simplest manner and the desire for anything beyond the minimal bodily satisfactions should be condemned as unnatural, as should any convention standing in the way of such minimalism. The achievement of this demands self-discipline but leads, he claimed, to self-sufficiency and freedom.

Living outside society and living alone, Diogenes wore coarse clothing, slept on the ground or in public buildings, ate very plain food he obtained through begging and avoided meat. In winter, he was said to have walked barefoot in the snow. In summer, he rolled in the hot sand. He apparently carried on like this to harden himself against discomfort. Later he lived in a tub. From there he conducted his moral lectures, combining quick wit with necessary if often unwitting audience participation.

Diogenes was born around 412 BC at Sinope, a Greek colony on the Black Sea coast of what is now Turkey. Like many famous ascetics who managed to party before embarking on their spiritual quest, he spent his youth in a life of dissolution and extravagance. His father was a magistrate who was eventually exiled, together with his son, for the crime of debasing the currency by increasing the base metals in the coinage.

Diogenes then went to Athens, accompanied by a slave called Manes. There he studied under Antisthenes. The place name of the latter’s school translates as ‘white dog’. It was apparently named after an incident in which such a dog carried away part of a victim being offered as a sacrifice to Hercules. The word “cynic” derives from a Greek word for dog-like and this is perhaps the earliest association of the figure of the dog with the Cynic sect.

It was Antisthenes’ insistence on a life of simplicity and austerity that had a profound influence on Diogenes. When Manes ran away, he refused to chase after him. His view was that if Manes could live without Diogenes it would be absurd if Diogenes could not live without Manes. In keeping with his exile, he made it his mission to ‘deface the currency’ by his disregard of conventions, customs, standards and beliefs that he saw as false and unnatural. He conveyed his principles by striking sayings and flamboyant actions.

When asked about the right age for marriage, Diogenes replied, For a young man, not yet; for an old man, not at all! By way of further shock treatment, he masturbated in public to show how simply sexual desires could be satisfied but added that the real message was to mourn the fact that hunger could not as easily be satisfied by rubbing his stomach.

Such actions, combined with his genuine – if acquired – contempt for luxury, made a great impression on the Athenians. Diogenes was viewed with benign tolerance and sometimes more. The hetaira Laïs was a Sicilian-born Greek who charged the orator Demosthenes 10,000 drachmas for a single night but gave herself to Diogenes for nothing.

Each hetaira was a member of the highest of three classes of prostitutes. They lived on the fringe of society but carried on publicly with the most notable men, which is where they got their education. It was the only way for a Greek to become a college girl. These independent courtesans could enjoy an enviable position of wealth and were protected and taxed by the state. Though they were generally foreigners or ex-slaves, their freedom was greater than that of the married women, who were forced to live in seclusion. Diogenes in contrast advocated sexual freedom for both sexes and maintained that children should be the common concern of all.

His contemporary Plato described him as Socrates gone mad. As well as banning poets, Plato’s Republic at least acknowledged that sex was perhaps more effective than mathematics in persuading or driving the common man to do anything. Plato otherwise believed in an unseen, eternal world of abstract Forms or Ideas of which our world was only a pale and dim reflection. When Plato gave a lecture in which he defined man in abstract as a two-legged, featherless animal, Diogenes plucked a chicken or a duck and threw it into the proceedings, announcing ‘Behold Plato’s man!’

When Plato invited him to dinner he predictably trampled all over the cushions with muddy feet, saying he was trampling on the pride of the host. This prompted an understandable retort. Yes, with the pride of Diogenes.

e this as it may, another day Plato saw Diogenes washing lettuces, so he came up to him for a quiet word. Had you paid court to Dionysius, you wouldn’t now be washing lettuces. Diogenes’ answer was calm. If you had washed lettuces, you wouldn’t have paid court to Dionysius. Whereas Plato viewed brown-nosing as freeing him from poverty, Diogenes saw his poverty as freeing him from having to suck up to a ruler. He saw the freedom to speak the truth as the most beautiful thing in a world of fools with completely distorted values where, for example, statues cost thousands of drachmas while a small quantity of flour went for a couple of copper coins.

When someone asked him why he often laughed by himself he said it was for that very reason – he was on his own. Though he lived as a beggar he didn’t insist that everybody should live the same way. He merely intended to show to any one willing to listen that happiness and independence were possible even under reduced circumstances.

When asked why pupils left him to go to other teachers but rarely left others to come to him he said it was because one can make a eunuch from a man but cannot make a man from a eunuch. Another day he asked a bad-tempered man for alms and the man said, ‘Persuade me’ so Diogenes’ next move was simple. If I could persuade you of anything I’d tell you to hang yourself. When asked why people gave money to beggars but not to philosophers he explained it was because they think they might well end up as beggars but never end up as philosophers.

The chief aim of his teaching was practical good and he did not conceal his contempt for ivory-tower abstractions, whether in literature, fine art or philosophy. A student, eager to display his powers of argument, approached him with a request. If it pleases you, sir, let me prove to you that there is no such thing as motion. Diogenes simply got up and left.

How did he end up in Corinth? On a sea voyage to the rocky island of Aegina he was seized by pirates and carried off to Crete to be sold as a slave. Asked his trade, he said ‘Master of men’ before a rich Corinthian called Xeniades bought him and brought him home. There he gave him back his freedom and asked him to become tutor to his children. Diogenes taught them to improve their memories by learning poetry. He also got them to cut their hair short and avoid wearing ornaments or shoes.

Tradition has it that he and Alexander died on the same day in 323 BC. Alexander was just thirty-two, Diogenes nearly ninety. Our word “cosmopolitan” can be traced to Diogenes’ description of himself as a citizen of the world. To his memory the Corinthians raised a marble pillar on which they stuck an effigy of a dog.