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Diogenes of Sinope - Biography

Diogenes of Sinope was born on the south coast of the Black Sea in Sinope, Paphlygonia (now the modern day Turkish city of Sinop) most likely in the year 412 or 404 BCE and died most probably in Corinth, Greece in 323 BCE. He is most well known for his rejection of convention and eschewing the amenities and luxuries of civilized life for a life of comparable poverty, though not in favor of pathos, but rather in favor of self-sufficiency and ethical values. Diogenes was extremely outspoken and infamously humorous. His philosophy was espoused and lived rather then written; it is debated whether or not he did write any texts, if so none have survived. He is considered to be the father of Cynicism, a school of thought that would have lasting impact and influence.

His early life is scantily known. Apparently, he was the son of Hicesias who is thought to have been a banker or minter or moneychanger. It has been surmised that Diogenes of Sinope worked alongside his father in which at one point they began defacing the currency. The details of this tale aren’t very clear and various accounts claim various variations. Some state that it was a joint effort between the two and others claim that it was Diogenes himself. Some assert that they were exiled while others claim the Diogenes fled before prosecution. Whether or not any of the accounts are true is speculative yet discoveries in archeology and numismatics have proved that a large number of coins dating from Diogenes’ period were in fact defaced. Another unanswered question is as to why Diogenes and/or his father would have partaken in such an act and there are as well various hypotheses as to the reason. One suggestion is political, given the contemporary strife between Persian and Greek faction over the region. Another suggestion from the Lives of Eminent Philosophers by Diogenes Laertius posits that Diogenes of Sinope was affected by the oracle at Delphi; either he had received an urging from the oracle, but misunderstood the exact terms defacing state currency instead of political currency, or visited the oracle after having defaced the currency as though it were a pre-destined calling.

Regardless of the lack of clarity and plausibility of these varying stories and accounts, Diogenes of Sinope did relocate to Athens where his philosophical life began essentially. In Athens, the story goes that Diogenes of Sinope became a pupil or disciple of Antisthenes, a former student of Socrates. Diogenes of Laertius tells of their meeting in which Antisthenes tried to refuse him, but was worn down by Diogenes of Sinope’s persistence. The exactitude of this claim is much contested given discrepancies between the dates Diogenes of Sinope seems to have been in Athens and Antisthenes’ death. Regardless, what is clear is that Diogenes of Sinope certainly was a student of Antisthenes’ thought and expanded upon his ideology far surpassing the master, perhaps to an extreme, as some would argue.

Diogenes of Sinope certainly practiced what he preached and he preached a philosophy that defied convention and rejected the artificial values he attributed to contemporary Athenian society. Thus, in line with his philosophy of practice, Diogenes of Sinope took up residence in an urn-like tub in the Metroön, like an over-sized mouse. The small rodent actually was his inspiration, as he claimed it was the mouse that could teach one about adaptability.

The man, “a Socrates gone mad” as Plato referred to him, was very outspoken in both his presentiments and his criticisms—the two being in concert. He infamously critiqued Plato’s definition of man as an “animal, biped and featherless” by appearing in the philosopher’s academy with a plucked fowl exclaiming to have found ‘human being.’ The incident apparently caused Plato to add to his definition, “having broad nails.” In jest and in earnest, Diogenes of Sinope was in search of “humans” or rather in search of “humanity,” wandering the streets in broad day light with a lantern—“I am looking for a man.”

His espousals were born out of acts of logic and reason, and not simply as the more often perceived defiance, as in his eating in the marketplace of Athens. In the Athens of his day, it was contrary to eat in the marketplace yet it was the most logical place for Diogenes of Sinope to eat, as that is where he found himself most hungry. He was known to have repeatedly professed, according to Diogenes of Laertius, “for the conduct of life we need right reason or halter.” Diogenes of Sinope considered a life led without reason akin to leading a life like a kept animal, needing to be lead with a leash (or halter). For him, reason was considered to be one’s best companion, so-to-speak. Reason and logic should be one’s guiding principle having the capability to provide one with the optimal manner in which to live one’s life. Thus, Diogenes of Sinope was not against higher learning or the pursuit of knowledge, but rather against the pretensions of such and in favor of the nature of such, which to him was simply rational understanding.

Yet, it is not so simple as the ‘mad Socrates’could barely find a ‘natural’ human being or a man in accordance with nature. For Diogenes of Sinope, to be in harmony with nature is to be rational hence the nature of being human is to act in reason. Most men do not fit this description and are instead caught up in convention and pretense, self-deception and vanity. Morality is not to be found, but rather inferred in the simplicity of nature, such simplicity now complicated by humans, as he is credited with exclaiming, “humans have complicated every simple gift of the gods”.

Furthermore, his understanding of nature and reason applied to everything such that “all elements are contained in all things and pervade everything: since not only is meat a constituent of bread, but bread of vegetables; and all other bodies also, by means of certain invisible passages and particles, find their way in and unite with all substances in the form of vapor” (Diogenes of Laertius). This clever, and albeit ‘reasonable’ argument very much worked in his favor as in the case for “stealing,” food or what have you.

For Diogenes of Sinope, self-sufficiency was of utmost importance and went hand in hand with his notion of a rational being in reason that is symbiotic with nature. And thus such a life is outside the bounds of convention and societal rules and regulations. The civilized world is a constructed apparatus that is artificial—getting back to nature, being guided by nature qua reason, is the way through life. He contrariness to the development of the polis and the exhortation of what he considered abstract philosophy and his focus on the self-sufficiency of reason led him to become known as the father of Cynicism.

The word, Cynicism, comes from the Greek work kynikos, which means “dog-like,” stemming from kyôn, meaning “dog.” There are various accounts as to how the name came to be used in association with Diogenes of Sinope; some say it developed from his own accounts of a dog’s life being true and present in the moment without artifice. Others say it developed earlier from the name of the school, Cynosarges, where Antisthenes taught, which translates to ‘the place of the white dog.’ Further accounts develop the relation more conceptually from particular traits of a dog’s life: that of indifference, shamelessness, guardian, and intuitively discriminating. Regardless of the particular relation or relations, the association fixed and became, essentially, a proper name in philosophy. As well, in most portrayals of Diogenes of Sinope, he is rendered disheveled, carrying a lantern and most often with a dog at his side.

As in Corinth, where Diogenes of Sinope died, a statue stands portraying the ‘mad Socrates’ with his lantern and a dog by his side. Diogenes of Sinope ended up in Corinth due to having been captured by pirates, as the story goes. Supposedly, he was on a trip to Aegina, captured by pirates and then sold as a slave in Crete to a man from Corinth, Xeniades. The accounts recall that Diogenes of Sinope claimed no other expertise, skill or trade than the ability to “govern men,” and thus became tutor to the Corinthian’s two sons and lived the rest of his life in Corinth. It is said that he remained as outspoken as he had become known for in Athens and continued to live in public and practice his philosophy. One of the most told stories from his time in Corinth is his infamous encounter with Alexander the Great, in which Diogenes of Sinope criticized the emperor causing him to become one of Diogenes of Sinope’s greatest fans, apparently stating that if he were not Alexander the Great then he would be Diogenes of Sinope.

Diogenes of Sinope certainly developed a reputation through his philosophy of practice. Having claimed to be a “cosmopolitan,” a citizen of the world, he was radical and avant-garde in his thinking and way of life, which inspired a great following. Crates embraced his philosophy of cynicism and developed and preached it accordingly. His pupil, Zeno of Citium, carried on the tradition of cynicism which soon developed into the well known and tread school of thought called Stoicism. It could be contested that perhaps this feature of development and “domestication” Diogenes of Sinope would have detested; either way, his influence certainly cannot be contested.

Diogenes of Sinope was a Greek Philosopher. (412 BCE - 323 BCE).