Diogenes Additional Biography


(Historic Lives: The Ancient World, Prehistory-476)

Article abstract: Greek philosopher{$I[g]Greece;Diogenes}{$I[g]Asia Minor;Diogenes} The most famous and colorful of the Cynic philosophers, Diogenes lived in extreme poverty and shunned all comforts in his quest for a virtuous life.

Early Life

Diogenes (di-AWJ-uh-neez) was born in Sinope, an ancient Milesian community on the southern coast of the Black Sea. The colony of Miletus was ruled by Persian kings from 495 b.c.e. until Alexander the Great’s conquest in 331 b.c.e. Diogenes himself was probably Greek, of Milesian roots. Little is known about his early life, although it is probable that he came from an educated and well-to-do family. His father, Hicesias, was a banker in charge of issuing the city’s currency; coins minted between 360 and 320 b.c.e. and bearing what is presumed to be Hicesias’s name have been found in Sinopean archaeological digs.

The first known accounts of Diogenes all relate to his exile from Sinope, an event that was somehow related to an episode of tampering with the Sinopean currency. Several versions of the story exist, variously incriminating Diogenes, his father, or both. How they were involved and what exactly they did—whether defacing coins, counterfeiting currency, or altering the stamping process of coins—is not certain; in any case, it was an illegal activity resulting in exile.

This event is linked to another important story in Diogenes’ life that is much less probable but is recounted in various sources. To consult an oracle, supposedly Diogenes traveled to Delphi or Delos, places where those in search of guidance or answers to difficult questions came to receive answers or prophecies from people considered to be divinely inspired. The reply to Diogenes’ query was “falsify the currency.” (The word for “falsify” can also be translated as “counterfeit,” “deface,” or “alter.”) One suggestion is that when Diogenes heard this, he went back to Sinope and literally did what he was told. Another idea is that this event occurred after his exile and that Diogenes took the command allegorically. In any event, Diogenes’ exile was a key event in his becoming a philosopher and adopting a life of asceticism. It seems that by the time he appeared in Athens, he was already leading an ascetic life.

Life’s Work

Diogenes’ main goal was to “deface the currency” or to “put false currency out of circulation.” The Greek word for “currency” can also be translated to mean “social rules of conduct.” In “defacing the currency,” then, Diogenes sought to rebel against conventional norms that he felt to be false and contrived and to encourage people to live a life adhering to the rules of nature. Unlike other philosophers, he did not teach a group of students (although he did have students at various times) or engage in intellectual study; rather, he taught by the example of his lifestyle. He believed that virtue produced happiness. Self-sufficiency was the key to virtue, and self-sufficiency was attained by ridding oneself of money, possessions, physical comforts, traditional values, associations, and internal emotions and desires. These were all unnecessary creations of humanity that kept people from being self-sufficient and, therefore, happy; only by breaking these bonds could one return to a natural life. Diogenes thus lived a bare-minimum, instinctive existence, focusing on complete mastery of his only possession, his soul.

Diogenes looked to animals and their ways of life for inspiration; one story, for example, says that Diogenes was converted after watching a mouse darting about, not having any sure place to sleep or any guaranteed source of food or warmth. Diogenes earned the nickname “the Dog” soon after his arrival in Athens, and much of his behavior was doglike in its disregard for social norms. He practiced indifference to criticism and therefore felt free to say or do as he pleased. He slept in an earthenware barrel, had a ragged appearance, and acquired food wherever he could. He relieved himself wherever he felt the need and was known to eat raw meat. He was biting in his criticism and actions toward most other people, finding them loathsome. He also belittled other philosophers, finding fault with them all. He continually sought to change people’s values by criticizing them and shouting at them.

Diogenes also carried a great disdain for the state and...

(The entire section is 1824 words.)