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Diogenes: Let's Get Cynical

Oil painting of Diogenes by Pugons (1902)
Oil painting of Diogenes by Pugons (1902)

For anyone witness to the delightful proliferation of online meme pages dedicated to Classical Studies, Diogenes is a familiar face. Countless memes cross my own path on Twitter and Instagram where Diogenes rebukes Plato with a chicken, proclaiming, “BEHOLD, A MAN.” Other memes will play on his more unfortunate infamy as someone who will defecate and urinate in public. In every sense, he seems to be a man of legend and rumor. Regardless, he has become a beloved figure online, and — for myself —offline.

Meme: Image 1 shows a picture of a chicken and a picture of a man being offered, with the text "corporate needs you to find the difference between this picture and this picture". Image 2 shows a bust of Diogenes, replying "They're the same picture".
Image courtesy of Reddit user u/Frocc_HeeM

Near the end of 2022, I conducted a Twitter poll and invited non-Classicists, amateurs and professionals alike to answer a simple question: who was your favorite classical Athenian philosopher? I had four choices—a debilitatingly small group to choose from, but an inviting sum for those who did not know much beyond a few big names. The choices consisted of (from first to last) Plato, Diogenes, Aristotle, and Socrates. Already I had a hunch that Diogenes would come out on top.

As a 23 year old, the people I surround myself with tend to be the same people who find niche online social spheres with their own sort of meme collections; a kind of online set of cultural artefacts. The online Classics community is no different, but it would be an understatement to say that Classics memes are a niche thing online. One of the biggest Classics accounts online, Classical Studies Memes for Hellenistic Teens (@CSMFHT on Twitter) has almost half a million followers, and they themselves have introduced thousands of people — Classicists and non—to Diogenes.

A screen-cap of a Twitter poll. "Who is your favourite Classical Greek philosopher"; 50% responded with Diogenes the Cynic. Plato was runner-up with 19%. 42 Votes were cast.
Mr Popular.

My hunch turned out to be well-founded. Out of some of the most influential figures in the classical philosophical canon, Diogenes of Sinope came out on top. The same man who, according to Diogenes Laertius, spat in the face of a rich man in his own home, for it was the only dirty spot in the house.

Myself? Well, I couldn’t disagree with the results. I minored in philosophy in my undergraduate degree, exposing myself to Plato and Aristotle in healthy doses. I loved and still love Plato; his dialogues are fun and, compared to Aristotle, easy to read. But Diogenes scratches an itch I’ve always had in studying history, theology, and philosophy:

I simply love subversion.

The Old Testament is full of subversive folks, with poverty-stricken prophets who speak the truth even when their own community disowns them. As someone who has an interest in studying the early history of leftists in the US, subversion is the name of the game, with anarchists ending up in jail for handing out free food without a license and socialists getting into streetfights with cops.

Subversive people live contrary to unjust and unwanted societal mores and are honest about the state of society around them. Often, subversive people are punished by the state, either for their actions or simply because of their existence. I think this is an excellent reason to prefer Diogenes.

However, Diogenes miraculously found a niche for himself in Athenian society. Despite living in a pithos (a large jar) in the agora in full public view, and despite spitting in people’s faces, he was beloved by those around him. Diogenes Laertius recounts how, if anyone broke his home, they would be flogged and the state would grant Diogenes a new pithos. Maybe some people saw his subversion as a blessing.

Not to sound exceedingly pedantic, but I also see Diogenes as a Nietzschean counterpart to Plato.

Plato espouses a philosophy of transcendence and otherworldliness, setting virtue and justice as ideals which can only be grasped at by our mortal selves. Diogenes on the other hand lives in the present, opting to take a critical eye to every part of his way of life, his environment, his society, and those in proximity to him. Although his present is not luxurious (he lives a pot, for gods’ sake), it is fully intentional and, well, present.

Diogenes’ life also took a radically different trajectory from other philosophers who end up with huge followings in schools of their own. Although the details are unclear and contested, he was either expelled or fled Sinope when either he, or his father, debased the currency of the polis, eventually ending up in Athens.

Although most of his recorded life took place there, he was eventually enslaved by a Corinthian named Xeniades. Upon his sale, he apparently said to his captor, “You must obey me, although I am a slave; for, if a physician or a steersman were in slavery, he would be obeyed.” Although many slaves in the ancient world possessed knowledge and expertise of their own (such as doctors, teachers, athletes and builders), I can’t help but admire the force with which Diogenes asserts his own agency even in the face of an institution as violent as slavery.

My favorite story of Diogenes is well known, both in Classicist circles and out. When Alexander the Great came to Athens, he met Diogenes lying in the sun. Upon asking Diogenes for any boon in life, Diogenes replied, “stand out of my light.”

Alexander apparently recounted, “had I not been Alexander, I would have liked to be Diogenes.”

In talking with my friend John, I imagined Diogenes to be an exemplary humanist—maybe not the ideal, but a good example. Diogenes was someone who wanted to maximize his own agency by coming to understand power, social dynamics, and excess as things extrinsic to his own ideal life. By understanding power as a disembodied, inhuman thing, he disregarded someone as notorious as Alexander the Great, opting instead to view him as another humble, simple man.

He willingly and gladly occupied a lowly position in society, opting to live a life of poverty in one of the most economically active urban spaces in the 3rd century BCE Mediterranean. He rebuked, insulted, and taunted the most influential figures in history for living lives of excess and power. Unfortunately, no written works of Diogenes survive. Much of our knowledge of him comes from the biography written by Diogenes Laertius in the 3rd century CE. One can only wonder what sort of impact he might have had on the history of philosophy had his work survived.

I think that Diogenes Laertius’ account of him illustrates someone I want to be: an overwhelmingly earnest, delightfully crass, pseudo-prophetic, and indelibly eccentric person.

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