History : Sep-Oct 2016
6 SEPTEMBER/OCTOBER 2016 PROFILES A Dissident’s Life: Diogenes of Sinope The obstreperous ancient Greek philosopher rejected wealth and pomp, renounced possessions, and slept in a barrel. His determination to live by his ideals still intrigues and disturbs today. ROMAN BUST OF PLATO, PIUS-CLEMENTINE MUSEUM, VATICAN Diogenes ridiculed the ideas of Plato as useless. Plato, in turn, referred to Diogenes as “Socrates gone mad.” D iogenes was not known for subtlety. Rather, he was the master of the bold gesture. Diogenes helped develop the highly influential philo sophical school known as the Cynics. He dedicated his long life to practicing and teaching the ethical principles he held dear: rejecting wealth; embracing the state of nature; challenging injustice; and for going shame. Many of his actions seemed outrageous. But Diogenes based his ac tions on carefully reasoned beliefs, which he took to their logical, often extreme, and sometimes humorous conclusions. Much of what is known about Diog enes comes from works written centuries after his death. In the third century a.d, Diogenes Laertius, named after the Greek philosopher, wrote Lives of Eminent Phi- losophers, a compilation of biographies, doctrines, and anecdotes about Diogenes and his contemporaries. Because many of these stories had been told—and re told—for hundreds of years before being written down, scholars treat them with a healthy skepticism when it comes to factual accuracy. But they recognize their value as an examination of what the Cynical philoso phy had come to embody over time. First Exile Perhaps more than any other philoso pher, the stories of Diogenes show him living as a true example of his ideals. Much of his early life remains a mystery. He was born around 412 b.c. in Sinope, a Greek colony on the coast of the Black Sea (modernday Sinop, in Turkey). He is said to have had a happy and comfort able childhood as the son of a coin mint er. It is believed that Diogenes joined his father’s business when he came of age. Diogenes remained in Sinope until he was exiled for counterfeiting money. Lives of Eminent Philosophers tells how Diogenes’ defense was that the god Apol lo had demanded him to deface the coin age. Later in life, Diogenes came to un derstand that deity’s instruction was a symbolic one; Apollo had really ordered him to reject the false currency of living a conventional life. A True Outsider After his banishment, Diogenes traveled to Athens. There he sought to follow the teachings of Antisthenes, a disciple of Socrates who founded the school of the Cynics. Antisthenes was not in the hab it of taking students. But Diogenes was so determined to be mentored by him that when Antisthenes beat him with a An Itinerant Philosopher circa 412 b.c. Diogenes is born in the city of Sinope on the banks of the Black Sea in today’s Turkey, the son of a coin minter called Hicesias. circa 360 b.c. After being banished from Sinope for debasing coins, Diogenes lives in Athens and learns from the Cynic philosopher Antisthenes. circa 323 b.c. Still faithful to the principles of the Cynic school, Diogenes dies in poverty in Corinth, around age 89. Third century a.d. Diogenes Laertius compiles his Lives of Eminent Philosophers, a primary source of information on Diogenes’ teachings. SCALA, FLORENCE circa 335 b.c. Alexander the Great, newly crowned king of Macedonia, visits Diogenes in Corinth. The philosopher treats the king with disdain.