Who was Diogenes?

The flimsier the historical evidence, the more entertaining the characters and stories.

Maybe not a ‘law’ of history, but a useful rule of thumb nevertheless. Diogenes has bequeathed us nothing in writing. Instead, into the historical vacuum of evidential mystery and uncertainty rushes a combination of myths, tall tales and caricature. Not so much EP Thompson’s enormous condescension of posterity as its insatiable desire for a good story. Hence the modern-day popularity of tabloid newspapers, celebrity gossip and online ‘clickbait’ stories. Who cares if the reality is altogether more down to earth and prosaic?

There is certainly no shortage of good stories relating to Diogenes: the man who lived in a tub; the man who walked round in daylight with a lamp ‘looking for a man’; the man who was lippy to Alexander the Great and lived to tell the tale; the man who masturbated, urinated and defecated in public.

In fact, other than a few scraps, little is known for certain about Diogenes. He was born in the late fifth century BC in Sinope, a bustling seaport on the Black Sea. As a young man, he was caught up in some sort of scandal, possibly involving his father and the local currency, forcing him to leave his home and possessions behind. One story has him consulting the oracle at Delphi and receiving advice to ‘deface the currency’. At face value, a typically enigmatic oracular pronouncement – given that currency defacement may have been at the heart of the earlier scandal. But, if we interpret ‘currency’ to refer to conventional standards and codes of behaviour, then the instruction becomes one of cocking a snook at polite society, of deliberately upsetting the applecart. If so, this puts him somewhere near the head of a long line of contrarians and non-conformists through history – the sort of people AJP Taylor, in a different context, referred to affectionately as ‘troublemakers’.

The story of Diogenes reminds us of the old truism about taking time to dig deeper rather than rushing to judgement. Diogenes and his master Antisthenes are regarded as the original Cynics, founders of the Cynic school of philosophy. Cynicism, an unappealing and unpleasant attribute, well described by HG Wells as “humour in ill health” is defined by the OED as “[b]elieving that people are motivated purely by self-interest; distrustful of human sincerity or integrity” and “[c]oncerned only with one’s own interests and typically disregarding accepted standards in order to achieve them.” But the name ‘cynic’ actually derives from the Greek for ‘dog-like’ and was a reference to the extreme squalor in which Diogenes and others chose to live.

His inspiration was Socrates, who rejected the link between material comforts and happiness, as well as fiercely championing open-mindedness and the right to question authority. It became the basis of his method of teaching (‘Socratic dialogue’) and a supreme virtue in itself. Stories of the lifestyle Diogenes chose – dressing in rags, begging, eschewing the comforts of conventional life – sound remarkably similar to the extreme asceticism practised by religious adherents down the ages. Rejection of crude materialism and of conventional standards and norms of living was their route to freedom – freedom, that is, from human failings such as pride, desire and jealousy. Diogenes’ follower, Crates, supposedly abandoned a rich inheritance to embrace the life of the Cynic. Only with the actions of later followers of Diogenes and the first Cynics – shamelessly living off the largesse of others, relentlessly satirical and sarcastic – did ‘cynicism’ acquire the characteristics we now associate with the word.

As for his more extreme utterances, given that none of his writings survive (if indeed he even wrote anything) who can possibly say whether words and views attributed to him – in favour of cannibalism and incest, for example – were actually said and, even if they were, whether they were meant literally or just for shock value, another way of upsetting conventional tastes? In reality, the antecedents of many of the values and principles that liberal democracy rightly cherishes – freedom of conscience, universal brotherhood, respect for all life, including that of animals – can be found in the teachings of Socrates and the Cynics who followed. Far from being cynical in its modern usage, they were passionately interested in moral virtue: the representation of Diogenes as the ‘man with a lamp’ actually links to his supposed search for a truly ‘just’ man.

And so we have the fictional Diogenes Club, first mentioned in Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes. Containing “the most unsociable and unclubable [sic] men in town”, its members were expected to ignore each other and talking was not permitted under any circumstances. Eccentric, peculiar, unconventional – the name ‘Diogenes’ seems fitting. Yet the word ‘cosmopolitan’ – citizen of the world – possibly originated with Diogenes. In these days of growing intolerance, rampant bigotry and narrow-minded xenophobia, at levels not witnessed since the 1930s, this minor fact, apart from anything else, seems to me to recommend him as a figure of interest.

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