The Cynic school of philosophy he founded was based on the renunciation of worldly attachments and commitment to a style of living in keeping with nature; that is, what mattered most to a person’s physical and spiritual wellbeing. Using himself as an example, Diogenes taught happiness through simplicity and railed against social conventions, pretence and luxury.
Accounts of the time say there was a large gathering in Athens’ Agora a few days after he died to honour the man and his principles. Of the many speeches given only that of Stanios of Pharsalus, a one-time student of Diogenes, has passed down to us in full:
So, what of the Dog? Why do we remember him?
It would be wrong to speak only about the way he lived as if that was all that explained the man, but neither would it be right to touch lightly on his lifestyle, for it resonated so much with him, made the philosophy he practised, and served as his trusted weapon against all the folly of humankind.
We would all agree that in no other philosopher has there been a closer link between thought and way of life, none as consistent as the Dog. Many people think and talk about what is right, but he actually lived, he lived the righteous path, and what’s more he made his life a touchstone by which others could compare their commitment to what is right and good.
I was with him many times when, in the middle of a fine conversation with a man or woman about some aspect of life or philosophy, he abruptly reached out a great, dirty hand in a gesture of begging. The surprise, the shock, the fluster on the other person’s face told much about their soul. Whenever on these occasions he received an open-hearted and unencumbered response he’d leap into that peculiar Diogenes dance of swinging arms and legs many of us still remember with fondness.
Was he a perfect man? We all know he was not; perfection belongs to the gods. He was stubborn, at times pig-headed, at times lacking display of the human kindness he had in plenty in his heart. More than once he said to me, “Ah, Staniou, the good has left me today. I am too bitter to speak.” He simply could not surrender the belief that other people should aim as high as he did, or could share the same kind of faith and commitment.
He saved his most caustic attacks for the ignorant, the ambitious, the braggarts and windbags, the politicians and the rich; but somehow those whom he stripped to reality with his words, flayed with the fire of his tongue, still came back to speak with him, as if his wisdom was a kind of necessary tonic.
Who can remember the wrestler, Teles? He was the epitome of an Olympic champion with conceit to match. And Diogenes challenged him to a contest, spat in front of him saying he was nothing because his soul was nothing. All of us who crowded round to watch were praying Teles wouldn’t kill him, but the Dog was summoning him to a fight that was not about brawn. Time after time he broke out of Teles’ holds, squirmed and scrounged until the enraged wrestler finally gripped him, holding him well after his body went limp. When he let go Diogenes looked dead, and everybody suddenly turned to Teles, the mood went dark and even the women seemed ready to spring on him. The wrestler had the look of a hunted deer about to be torn apart by hounds. We know that after that day he never wrestled again.
Many years ago, when I first arrived in Athens and began to fall under the spell of philosophy, I would walk past that curious dishevelled man here at the Agora, lounging as he did in the sun by the fountain, talking to the shopkeepers, begging from passers-by. I thought he was a vagrant, perhaps mad. It was a shock when I learnt that this man was one of Athens’ finest philosophers.
Like everyone else, I was interested in the “Why” question – why he lived that way, and how it related to his thinking.
One morning in spring I found the courage to approach him. He was reading, in the sun as always, on the steps of the Temple of Zeus.
“Diogenes, I ... I have a question for you,” I stammered nervously.
He didn’t look up, but kept softly mouthing the words to himself as he read. So I sat down near him and waited.
It was some time, past noon, before he rolled up the parchment and finally acknowledged my presence. He of course knew what I was going to ask him, and I sensed a rehearsed, but not thoughtless, answer would come my way.
He pulled a bunch of grapes from his satchel, tore it in half and shared it with me. Then he shifted and set those calloused feet of his and said:
“A philosopher cannot be anything but what he is, just like a grape cannot be anything but a grape. Can a grape be a pear, or a fig or olive?”
“But philosophers don’t live like you do.”
“Show me another philosopher,” he said.
Sometimes those words of the Dog come back to me. Sometimes I wonder if he was right.