The Living Philosophy of Diogenes the Cynic

When philosophy was living in an urn and masturbating in public

- 9 min read

Diogenes of Sinope was a contemporary of Plato and Alexander the Great. He was famous for his radical philosophy that discarded status, possessions and the learning of books to get at the vital marrow of philosophy — the good life.

Diogenes was famous for living his philosophy in all its simplicity and coarseness. He didn’t care for the intellectual search for truth but the living of it. For Diogenes this meant living in an urn in the Athenian marketplace; it meant sometimes walking barefoot in the snow and, of course occasionally masturbating in public.

In this article, we will explore the living philosophy of the eternally fascinating and endlessly entertaining Cynic Diogenes.

The pursuit of h̶a̶p̶p̶i̶n̶e̶s̶s̶ the Good Life

In modern English, when we talk about the highest goal of life, we tend to use the word happiness. And obviously, when we use this word, it comes with associations of positive affect and happy feelings of joy and peace.

But the connection between the highest goal of life and happiness is not a necessary one. In the case of Diogenes⁠ — a man who lived in an urn hugging icy statues in the middle of winter⁠ — this glove really doesn’t fit. Diogenes is living out his highest ideal, but the word happiness just doesn’t fit with what he was aspiring to.

There are a lot of different keys for unlocking the philosophy of Diogenes — virtue and freedom amongst them. But to my eyes, there is one word that unlocks the living philosophy of Diogenes more thoroughly than any other: simplicity. It’s a theme that runs through all the quotes and anecdotes of the ancient philosopher.

Simple Body

Simplicity manifests itself in two intertwined ways in the philosophy of Diogenes⁠ — the philosophical and the physical.

For this godfather of Cynical philosophy, living the good life is easy⁠ — it’s just a matter of stripping away all the bullshit, of cutting away everything that is unnecessary. Diogenes ruthlessly applied this simple rubric to every aspect of his life.

When he first came to Athens, he took up residence in an upturned wine cask in the agora — the marketplace of Athens. He shunned all possessions, status and wealth and strived to live a life of ascetic simplicity.

His possessions amounted to a cloak, a walking stick, a cup and a wallet to store food in. Even this proved too luxurious; one day, when he saw a boy drinking water from his hands he threw away the cup saying the boy had outdone him in simplicity.

This simplicity of living demanded a strong dose of self-control from Diogenes. He put his body through rigorous training to put up with the elements. In winter, you could find him hugging icy statues and walking barefoot in the snow, while in summer you could find him rolling in hot sands.

According to many sources, this is where the term Cynicism comes from. Our modern word cynic derives from this ancient school of which Diogenes is the most famous philosopher. Cynic comes from the Ancient Greek meaning dog and this has been attributed to the fact that its members lived like dogs. Diogenes more than exemplifies this principle.

He was determined to be free not just of society’s demands upon him but even of his body’s demands on his soul. The two endeavours were inherently connected. In another anecdote we have — and one of the many Plato-related anecdotes — Diogenes is approached one evening by the great prince of philosophers.

Plato, seeing Diogenes eating his supper of lentils and bread remarks that:

“If you had only paid court to Dionysius [a Greek tyrant in Sicily] you wouldn’t have to wash your vegetables”

to which Diogenes replied:

“If you would only have washed vegetables, you wouldn’t have to be subservient to Dionysius.”

The liberation from slavery to the bodily appetites allowed Diogenes to be free from submission to others.

Simple Mind

This simplicity applied not only to his material circumstances but to his intellectual philosophy. Diogenes took simplicity to an extreme that more than justifies Plato’s jibe that he is a Socrates gone mad.

We still have a lot of quotes and examples of his disdain for intellectual pageantry. He said :

“That mathematicians kept their eyes fixed on the sun and moon, and overlooked what was under their feet.”

A man once proved to him syllogistically that he had horns, so he put his hand to his forehead and said, “I do not see them.” And in a similar manner he replied to one who had been asserting that there was no such thing as motion, by getting up and walking away.

His bullshit-meter was set to zero. All this puffed up intellectualism went the same way as his old cup.

Philosophy was simple for the Cynics. Diogenes’ teacher was a philosopher called Aristippus who was in turn a student of Socrates. The Cynics took the Socratic conviction that virtue was sufficient for the good life and dedicated themselves to it.

We see this conviction in philosophy’s simplicity running through Diogenean anecdotes and sayings:

“One of his frequent sayings was, ‘That men contended with one another in punching and kicking, but that no one showed any emulation in the pursuit of virtue.’”

“That the musicians fitted the strings to the lyre properly, but left all the habits of their soul ill-arranged.”

“That orators were anxious to speak justly, but not at all about acting so.”

This simple dedication to virtue is Diogenes in a nutshell. Trim away the unnecessary things in life and all that is left, all that matters is wisdom — be virtuous and you are living the good life. Status and money are just distractions from what really matters.

The Smarmy Philosopher

This simplicity defined Diogenes’ living philosophy and guided his behaviour and lifestyle. When it came to his interaction with his fellow man, this dedication to simplicity manifested in a coarse smarminess that breeds many entertaining anecdotes of irreverence.

Diogenes tolerated no excess bullshit in his life and he was only too happy to lambast his peers for not doing the same. Like Socrates, he was the gadfly of Athens.

One of the most recognisable anecdotes of Diogenes (which we find a modified form of in Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra) is the story of the lantern.

One day he gets this lantern and goes about the Athenian agora. And he’s going about the bustling marketplace in broad daylight with this lantern. And someone inevitably asks:

“say Diogenes pray tell what are you doing with a lantern in broad daylight?”

To which the ancient Cynic replies

“I’m searching for an honest man”

It’s not hard to see how he has in recent times been honoured with the appellation of the original troll.

In another famous story, we have Plato defining man as a featherless biped and this definition being well-received by the people of the time.

But of course, Diogenes was not a typical man of his time and so one day he shows up at Plato’s Academy with a plucked chicken; he fires it into the classroom shouting:

“there’s your man for you Plato”

And according to the historian of philosophy Diogenes Laertius:

“Plato was then forced to add “with broad, flat nails” to his definition.”

This part of Diogenes’s living philosophy runs through most of the stories we have about him. He was aggressively sovereign and had no time for walking around on the eggshells of etiquette.

Egalitarian Irreverence

What is truly admirable in this irreverence is its pure egalitarianism.

When Alexander the Great visited Athens just before heading off to conquer the world, this king of Greece came over to Diogenes who was taking some rest under a tree. Says the young king to the philosopher:

“What can I Alexander can do for Diogenes?”

And Diogenes true to form replies:

“If you wouldn’t mind taking two steps to the right there — you’re actually blocking the sun.”

And apparently, Alexander walked away from this interaction saying to his aide

“if I were not Alexander I would be Diogenes.”

Of course, there’s also the more coarse, demonstrative side to this irreverence. It did not stop at interpersonal etiquette but challenged the mores of society.

The Ancient Athenians were surprised by his eating his food in the agora like a dog — which of course prompted Diogenes to bark at them and chase them away…like a dog.

Perhaps more shocking than this was his proclivity for urinating and masturbating in the agora.

Life lessons from the Dog

There is much to be learned from the life of Diogenes. One lesson that comes to mind is the proverbial wisdom of the Irish saying, “never let the truth get in the way of a good story.” The stories of Alexander the Great and Plato fall into the category of larger than life and while entertaining and inspiring they certainly leave one wondering about their veracity.

That being said, the mythologised figure of Diogenes puts one in mind of an old Zen master who has no time for nonsense and is only concerned with truth. The Cynic philosophy of Diogenes is so simple that it throws the gauntlet down before us.

It reminds us that we all know what the good life is; it is so simple to live it, but of course, there’s the inevitable collision with the fact that what is simple isn’t always easy.

It’s not easy to shun all possessions and worldly status. It’s not easy to overcome the body’s cravings for comfort. But Diogenes’ life is a testament that if you free yourself from the games of society, if you free yourself from the tyranny of your comfort then the kingdom of heaven is just there.

It’s simple.

It transcends all the nonsense and gets back to the essential facts of living. It brings to mind Henry David Thoreau’s explanation for why he went to live by Walden pond:

“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.”

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