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Topic #G55

Diogenes of Sinope: fragments and anecdotes

11 February 2002
Scribe: Ben Gallagher


These minutes were spoken on 6 February; for another version, go to the unspoken minutes



Professor Hutchinson began the class by drawing a “family tree” of philosophers up until Zeno of Citium and the Stoics.  Socrates was the father-figure, his offspring Aristippus, Antisthenes, Xenophon, and Plato.  Aristotle was Plato’s child, while Diogenes, Crates, and Zeno were descended from Antisthenes.


              The professor felt Zeno, the founder of the Stoic school, offered the most completely synthetic philosophy, borrowing ideas from Socrates and the literary versions of Socrates found in Xenophon, Plato, Aristotle, and others.  This pooling of Socratic thought expresses two things about the Stoics: first, they had a zeal to understand the Socratic legacy; second, they offered an updated Socraticism with the newest information from the Academy.  Their philosophic goal was to become wise men who made no mistakes, aided by knowledge of the natural world.  Socrates, Antisthenes, Crates, and Diogenes, however, believed ethics could be practised in isolation, without studying the natural world.


              This is a fork in the philosophic road: one path leads to Socratic ethics without knowledge of the physical world, the other requires knowledge of the entire physical world before true ethical decisions can be made.  As the professor observed, both paths seem unlikely, but the Stoics accepted the frustrations inherent in this.  According to the Stoics, there may never have been any wise men because of the difficulties in achieving wisdom.  The only possible exceptions are Socrates, Heracles, and Zeno of Citium.


              Cynicism is an ambitious philosophy, but not ambitious in abstract thought. The professor cited Diogenes Laertius’s Lives and Sayings of Famous Philosophers, book 6, on Diogenes of Sinope: Diogenes philosophized ‘live’.  He lived on the street, accosting people, an angry hippy who hated hypocrisy and practised “shock philosophy,” the Tom Green of the ancient world.  Once, Diogenes stood venting on a street corner, eventually driving away the crowd. He then started whistling a strange tune, and when they returned to see why, he berated them for wanting to listen to a meaningless sound, but fleeing from a meaningful one.


              Diogenes also affirmed the need for physical and mental training, according to Diogenes Laertius at 6.70.  He claimed one could not exist without the other, that mental and physical strength and health are essential.  He claimed to show how to get from the gym to virtue, and while this sounds ridiculous to us -- how do push-ups prevent lying? -- the point is that virtue is to a large extent one’s independence from need.  The professor pointed out that Socrates hung out at the gymnasium, and approved of physical activity (or perhaps of the boys who engaged in physical activity).  The question is really the degree to which self-denial and strength are necessary for virtue.


              Opinions about physical training divide post-Socratic philosophers. Aristippus rejected Socratic physical training, but Antisthenes, Diogenes, Xenophon, and Plato all promoted it in the search for virtue.  That is why Plato’s Laches begins with an argument over physical training.


              A student asked whether the report that Aristippus looked good in rags meant he was physically attractive.  The professor explained that the report meant Aristippus was capable of playing any part with ease and flexibility of mind.  A modern Aristippus would be as comfortable in ripped jeans as in a tuxedo.


              The professor then paraphrased a few reports on Diogenes:


1)     Diogenes used to say nothing in life could succeed without training and practice.


2)     He claimed all things were the property of the wise, using this argument: all things belong to the gods, the gods are friends to wise men, friends share everything. The professor took this to mean that Diogenes sometimes stole things.


3)     He used to say cities couldn’t succeed without law.


4)   Like Socrates and Plato, Diogenes ridiculed good breeding, fame and the aristocratic conception of wealth.


5)   He felt the only true commonwealth was as wide as the universe.


The Stoics were the ones to introduce the concept of a ‘citizen of the world’ to Roman philosophy, which was on some occasions beneficial and others problematic for Rome (since Rome occasionally wanted people to feel they were citizens of the Empire alone, with no divided loyalties).  The idea of universal citizenship goes back to Diogenes, or perhaps Aristippus, who denied allegiance to any city.  The professor feels this cosmopolitan ideal is noble and worth taking seriously, but noted that the term ‘cosmopolitan’ has come to mean no more than cultured, savvy, wise, and together; this explains the title of the magazine, and also why the professor finds it painful to see Cosmo on newstands.


Continuing, the professor stated that Diogenes was incredibly witty, but also disagreeable, since he often walked about lecturing on the faults of nearby people.  The professor then recounted a series of anecdotes, starting with the story that Diogenes lit a lantern in the daytime and wandered the streets looking at people, saying he was trying to find a real human being.


Diogenes used to live in a barrel -- not a barrel we think of today, but an underground storage tank similar to ones used to hold oil.  He owned no coat, was dirty and unshaven, and continually flouted convention.  He apparently drew criticism for eating in the market (in the ancient world a grave faux pas, for reasons unknown to us).  When people hissed at him and called him names he replied, “It is you who are dogs, to stand around and watch me eat my breakfast.”


              Diogenes was given the nickname ‘dog’; in Greek the word is “kunos’, hence the name for his school of philosophy, the ‘Cynics’. He was called this not because he was cute and fluffy, but because dogs are very complex animals, and especially because they ‘do it in public,’ (‘it’ being ‘anything’).  They are natural creatures ungoverned by conventions or inhibitions.  In the ancient world dogs were not pets, but roamed the markets eating trash and rodents.  They were in the city, but not of the city, a position Diogenes also cultivated.  This explains the following anecdotes:


He said that he ate in the marketplace because that was where he got hungry.


He was used to doing things in public, things both of Demeter and Aphrodite (Demeter goddess of growing things, Aphrodite goddess of other “growing” things).


When accused of masturbating in the marketplace, Diogenes said he wished he “could cure hunger by rubbing his stomach.”


Diogenes claimed he was “a Socrates gone mad,” or, as the professor explained, someone who seems to know no limits.



              Many reports are not about the historical Diogenes but the character Diogenes, often funny stories used to express his philosophy to later readers.  There are at least two versions of an ancient tradition that he was captured and sold at a slave auction.  According to one of these stories, Diogenes, when put on the auction block and asked what he could do, replied, “I can govern human beings,” and that he was perfect if anyone was looking for a master.  When he sat down at the auction block and was told to rise, he replied, “But why? -- no matter what position fish are in, they always find a purchaser.”


              Diogenes used to say that when people buy pots they hit them to test their quality, but they only stare at men -- in other words, there is no attempt to know the flaws in people.


              There was bad blood between Diogenes and Plato, although not as intense as Antisthenes.  Diogenes felt Plato’s focus on definitions was wrong, and when Academics defined a human as a featherless biped, he responded by plucking the feathers off a chicken.


              He didn’t see see the absence of virtue as a lack of knowledge, but as a lack of physical training.  He would fill his barrel with hot sand in the summer and roll around, embrace icy statues in the winter, and ask snooty individuals for handouts to practise being refused.   When Alexander the Great approached Diogenes and asked whether he could do anything for him, Diogenes (who remained lying down sunbathing) told him to stop blocking the sunshine.


              There are many more amusing and scurrilous anecdotes, often highlighting the eccentricities of humanity. Diogenes said a man who walked around with two fingers raised was considered crazy, but a man who walked around with his middle finger raised was considered something else entirely.


              Diogenes, Plato, and Zeno all felt wives should be held in common, a view that was apparently fashionable in certain Greek circles (a view Aristotle rejected for the crackpot theory it was).


              The professor ended with a final anecdote.  Zeno, a wealthy merchant, was in Athens waiting for his cargo to arrive (it had, in fact, been lost at sea), and went into a bookstore.  He read Xenophon’s Conversations of Socrates, and was so impressed he asked the bookstore owner where he could find Socrates.  He was told that Socrates had been dead for a while, but he should search out Crates, who was called a ‘modern Socrates’.  This is yet another attempt at connecting Zeno and the Stoics to Socrates, a connection they desperately wanted to maintain.