(c. 412- c. 323 B.C) was a very playful philosopher who liked to use great wit when challenging the values and beliefs of his fellow citizens in ancient Athens. He lived in great poverty, probably begging and stealing his food, and steadfastly disdained all forms of luxury. It was because of his determination to follow his own dictates and not adhere to the conventions of society that he was given the epithet “dog,” from which the name “cynic” is derived. Here are some of his wittiest and most profound teachings.
“Why is it, Diogenes, that pupils leave you to go to other teachers, but rarely do they leave them to come to you?”
“Because,” replied Diogenes, “one can make eunuchs out of men, but no one can make a man out of eunuchs”.
In winter Diogenes walked barefoot in the snow. In summer he rolled in the hot sand. He did this to harden himself against discomfort.
“But aren’t you overdoing it a little?” a disciple asked.
“Of course,” replied Diogenes, “I am like a teacher of choruses who has to sing louder than the rest in order they may get the right note.”
A student of philosophy, eager to display his powers of argument, approached Diogenes, introduced himself and said, “If it pleases you, sir, let me prove to you that there is no such thing as motion.” Whereupon Diogenes immediately got up and left.
A disciple asked Diogenes, “What is the main reason for wearing a cynics robe and the begging bowl?”
“So as not to deceive oneself.”
When someone once asked Diogenes why he often laughed by himself, he said, “For that very reason.”
Plato considered Diogenes’ stray-dog behaviour unbecoming to one calling himself a philosopher. “You really do live up to your name” he said to him disapprovingly one day. “By the Gods, you are right for once Plato,” replied Diogenes, and then baring his teeth, he added, “But at least I’ve sunk my teeth into philosophy.”
Plato was discoursing on his theory of ideas and, pointing to the cups on the table before him, said while there are many cups in the world, there is only one `idea’ of a cup, and this cupness precedes the existence of all particular cups.
“I can see the cup on the table,” interupted Diogenes, “but I can’t see the `cupness'”.
“That’s because you have the eyes to see the cup,” said Plato, “but”, tapping his head with his forefinger, “you don’t have the intellect with which to comprehend `cupness’.”
Diogenes walked up to the table, examined a cup and, looking inside, asked, “Is it empty?”
“Where is the `emptiness’ which procedes this empty cup?” asked Diogenes.
Plato allowed himself a few moments to collect his thoughts, but Diogenes reached over and, tapping Plato’s head with his finger, said “I think you will find here is the `emptiness’.”
Diogenes was knee deep in a stream washing vegetables. Coming up to him, Plato said, “My good Diogenes, if you knew how to pay court to kings, you wouldn’t have to wash vegetables.”
“And,” replied Diogenes, “If you knew how to wash vegetables, you wouldn’t have to pay court to kings.”
Diogenes was once asked what he thought of Socrates. “A madman,” he replied.
Later, Plato was asked what he thought of Diogenes. “A Socrates gone mad,” he replied.
Diogenes ridiculed Plato for being long-winded.
Some strangers to Athens once asked Diogenes if he would point out to them the great philosopher [meaning Plato]. Diogenes looked around and then led them to the most deserted part of the city and, gesturing to the empty air as one would in formal introduction, said, “May I present to you the great philosopher Plato.”
Diogenes was once invited to dinner by a wealthy man. During the evening, one of the guests became so outraged by Diogenes’ general behaviour that he began to throw bones at him, calling him a “dog.” Whereupon Diogenes got up, went to the guest, cocked up his leg and urinated on him.
Often when he was begging, Diogenes would be spat on by the people who passed him. Diogenes would ignore this and simply wipe his face with his sleeve. When ridiculed for his passive behaviour, Diogenes said, “Since men endure being wetted by the sea in order to net a mere herring, should I not endure being sprinkled to net my dinner?”
Diogenes stood outside a brothel, shouting, “A beautiful whore is like poisoned honey! A beautiful whore is like poisoned honey! A beautiful whore . . . “. Men entering the house threw him a coin or two to shut him up. Eventually Diogenes had collected enough money and he too went into the brothel.
Diogenes was asked why he always begged. “To teach people,” replied Diogenes. “Oh yes, and what do you teach?” people would ask him scornfully. “Generosity”, he replied.
Diogenes was once asked why he took money from people. “To show them how they ought to spend their money,” he replied.
Diogenes was asked, “Tell me, to what do you attribute your great poverty?”
“Hard work,” he replied.
“And what advice can you offer the rich?”
“Avoid all the good things in life.”
“Because money costs too much. A rich man is far poorer than a poor man.”
“How can that be?”
“Because poverty is the only thing money can’t buy.”
Whenever people complimented Diogenes, he would slap himself hard across the face and in self-reproach would cry, “Shame! I must have done something terribly wicked!”
A famous athlete was making his triumphal entry into the city after another successful games. As he was carried along, he was unable to tear his eyes away from the many beautiful women among the onlookers.
“Look at our bave victor,” remarked Diogenes, “taken captive by every girl he sees.”
On one bright, clear day, Diogenes was walking up and down the market place, holding a lighted lantern high in front of him and peering around as if searching for something. When people gaped and asked him what he was doing, he replied, “I am looking for an honest man.”
“It’s my fate to steal,” pleaded the man who had been caught red-handed by Diogenes.
“Then it is also your fate to be beaten,” said Diogenes, hitting him across the head with his staff.
Diogenes was strolling through the market place. Suddenly, he called out in despair, “Men! Men! Men! . . . “
Immediately, they came running from all directions: young fops with flowers in their hair; lusty young boys, scantily dressed, hanging off the arms of older men; freemen, their slaves beside them burdened down with groceries, their cheeks bulging with small change; merchants who had left their shops in answer to Diogenes’ call.
He looked at them searchingly one by one and with a sad shrug turned to walk away. “I called for men,” he said in disgust.
The city was under seige. Everyone was busy fortifying the walls – some were carrying stones, others were patching the walls, yet others were building battlements. Diogenes, not wanting to appear idle while everyone around him was working so frantically, diligently rolled his barrel back and forth along the battlements. The city fell.
In the midst of serious discourse in the Craneum, Diogenes realised no one was listening. So he instead began to whistle and dance about to attract attention. Immediately, people flocked round him. Diogenes stopped and said, “You idiots, you are not interested to stop and pay attention to wisdom, yet you rush up to observe a foolish display.”
A heckler in the crowd shouted out, “My mind is not made like that, I can’t be bothered with philosophy.”
“Why do you bother to live,” Diogenes retorted, “if you can’t be bothered to live properly?”
Very few of Diogenes’ disciples had the physical and mental stamina to become cynics. One in particular left the circle, but not before entreating Diogenes to give him one of his books. “You really are a silly fellow,” said Diogenes. “Surely you wouldn’t have painted figs instead of real ones. And yet you pass over the genuine practice of wisdom and would be satisfied with what is merely written.”
Someone once asked, “Tell me Diogenes, what does a wise man look like?” At once, Diogenes straightened himself up and stroked his beard.
Diogenes was gathering figs and had just filled his bag when a stranger came along the road. “I wouldn’t touch this fruit! A man hung himself from the tree just the other day,” warned the man, obviously believing the tree to be cursed.
By way of answer, Diogenes sank his teeth into the fig he was holding. Sucking, as one would suck venom from a wound, he proclaimed, “Thus I purify the tree.”
Agog, the man stood there marvelling while Diogenes walked off.
Passing a stream, Diogenes saw a boy drinking out of his hands. “A child has beaten me in simplicity,” he said, throwing away his cup.
A young man contemplating marriage sought advice from Diogenes. “Should I marry?”
“Marriage is too soon for a young man”
“Would you have me wait then until I am old.”
“Oh no, Marriage is far too late for an old man.”
“What am I to do then? I love the girl.”
“Love is a luxury no one can afford. It is for those who have nothing better to do.”
“What should we be doing then?”
“To seek freedom. But it is not possible to be free if you have a wife and children.”
“But having a wife and family is so agreeable.”
“Then you see the problem, young man. Freedom would not be so difficult to attain were prison not so sweet.”
“You mean to be free is to be alone?”
“We come into the world alone and we die alone. Why, in life, should we be any less alone?”
“To live, then, is terrible.”
“No, not to live, but to live in chains.”
Asked about his worst nightmare, Diogenes said, “Waking to find myself living in a palace and everyone else in barrels.”.
Once Diogenes was going into the theatre just as everybody was coming out. When asked why he did this, he answered, “Opposition has been my manner. It is what I have been doing all my life.”
Diogenes was walking backwards across the Agora, affecting a studied indifference to all who laughed at him. Finally, when he had collected a large following he stopped and announced, “You are laughing at me walking just a little distance backwards while you all lead your entire lives arse-about.”
“And what’s more,” he asked, “can you change your way of living as easily as this?” Whereupon, he turned on his heel and walked off in normal fashion.
Diogenes was asked, “What is the difference between life and death?
“Well then, why do you remain in this life?”
“Because there is no difference.”