Everything You Should Know About Diogenes, the Cynic Greek Philosopher

Diogenes by John William Waterhouse (1849–1917)
Diogenes by John William Waterhouse (1849–1917). PD Courtesy of Wikipedia

Ancient Greek philosopher Diogenes of Sinope (c. 412-c. 323 B.C.) practiced Cynicism as a way of life. Thought to have been homeless, Diogenes is said to have begged or stolen what he needed to survive and to have preferred living without any luxuries, as Cynics valued self-sufficiency and eschewed opulence. Diogenes didn’t call upon all men to live as he did but aimed to illustrate through his lifestyle that one could be content and independent, even living in meager conditions.

His Brush with Greatness

One of the many anecdotes about Diogenes of Sinope is that the philosopher behaved rudely to Alexander the Great, the Macedonian king still remembered today for his military prowess. Rather than retaliate against Diogenes for his behavior, Alexander reportedly responded by expressing admiration for the philosopher. The king and member of the Argead dynasty quipped that if he could be anyone other than himself, he’d trade places with Diogenes. In an uncanny coincidence, Diogenes and Alexander the Great likely died on the same day.

Portrayal in Art

Diogenes appears in artistic depictions carrying the lantern he purportedly used during daylight hours to find an honest man. The search proved unfruitful. His anti-conventional behavior and lifestyle led to him and his father being exiled from Sinope. In addition to his unsuccessful quest to turn up a truthful man, Diogenes spent his time minting coins with his father for work.

He intentionally debased the currency as a way to call the public back to their natural condition. Diogenes deemed money an artificial convention. The Republic, one of his lost works of writing, describes men living unconventionally and embracing their natural lifestyles. The philosopher’s other lost works include plays and dialogues.

Unconventional Family Units

While Diogenes considered money and luxury to be unnatural, he also viewed family units in this way. Instead of monogamy, Diogenes advocated for men and women to be promiscuous. He also embraced the idea that it takes a village to raise a child, believing that entire communities should take responsibility for raising children instead of a child’s parents alone.

A Dubious Nickname

Diogenes’ lifestyle and contrariness earned him the dubious nickname Kynos, which is Greek for dog. The term “Cynic” originates from the word "Kynos".

"At a feast certain people kept throwing all the bones to him as they would have done to a dog. Thereupon he played a dog's trick and drenched them."
~ Life of Diogenes [of Sinope] Diogenes Laertes, Lives of Eminent Philosophers Book VI, Chapter 2. Trans. R.D. Hicks (1925)

Diogenes modeled himself after the philosopher Antisthenes, a student of Socrates, the founder of Western philosophy and the first of the three most influential philosophers of Athens, a group that included Aristotle and Plato. The principles of the Cynic philosophy included:

  • Self-sufficiency (ataraxia)
  • Living by personal example
  • Exposing the falsehood of conventional thinking
  • Exposing vice and conceit
  • Living according to nature

Pronunciation: dI-'ä-j&-"nEz • (noun)

Also Known As: Diogenes the Cynic.

Examples: “Having been invited to dinner, Diogenes declined, saying that the last time he had gone his host had not shown proper gratitude.” Diogenes Laertius II. p. 29

Go to Other Ancient / Classical History Glossary pages beginning with the letter

a | b | c | d | e | f | g | h | i | j | k | l | m | n | o | p | q | r | s | t | u | v | wxyz