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Diogenes of Sinope was an ancient Greek philosopher and self-proclaimed "Citizen of the World" who, at different points, allegedly lived in a wine barrel (or possibly another kind of jar), urinated on guests at a banquet, and made a regular practice of insulting famous figures and lecturing shoppers in the marketplace. Plato reportedly called him “a Socrates gone mad,” while 21st century historians have compared his life to “one long Monty Python sketch.” But, though some believed him to be crazy, Diogenes was also one of the most respected and beloved philosophers of the 4th century BCE, and one of the founders of the ancient Greek school of philosophy known as Cynicism.
It’s important to note, from the outset, that there is a huge amount of historical speculation about Diogenes: The philosopher left behind no first-hand accounts of his own life (or if he did, they’ve since been lost), and his larger-than-life persona has likely inspired plenty of apocryphal tales over the last 2500 or so years. Nevertheless, the legend and legacy of Diogenes, as much as the actual person, have played an essential role in the evolution of philosophy as a discipline.
Often said to have been born in 412 BCE in Sinope, now a city in Turkey, Diogenes seems to have had an unremarkable childhood. His father worked with money—perhaps as a banker or minter. As a young man, Diogenes began working with his father, but before long, the pair had a life-changing brush with the law: For reasons now lost to time, Diogenes (or possibly his father, or possibly both of them) began defacing money. While some historians believe their motivations were political, others think the defaced coins may have been the result of an incident involving the Oracle of Delphi. Either way, Diogenes soon skipped town—perhaps because he was exiled, or because he fled before he could be tried for his crimes.
He headed to Athens, the capital of Greek philosophy and culture, where he became enamored with the teachings of a philosopher named Antisthenes who preached a life of asceticism and simplicity. Diogenes took those teachings to heart in a more extreme way than his teacher, renouncing almost all of his physical possessions and embracing a life of homelessness. He took up residence in a barrel (some describe it as a jar, others as a wine cask or tub) at the Temple of Cybele. When he saw a child cupping his hands to drink water, the radical philosopher threw away his own cup, remarking something along the lines of “A child has beaten me in plainness of living.”
Diogenes began building upon the moral and political theories of Antisthenes, eventually developing a lived philosophy that was inspired by, but distinct from, his mentor’s. That philosophy, which embraced poverty and rejected the material and cultural trappings of Greek life, came to be known as Cynicism.


Philosophy is not a discipline without its eccentrics, and surely the most famous Cynic of all, Diogenes, must be the prime example. Nevertheless, Diogenes lived in harmony with his beliefs and remained true to himself, although his barrel must have been an uncomfortable domain for a human being.
Today, if we describe someone as “cynical,” we mean that they are scornful of human sincerity or sentimentality and may be insensitive to the distress of others.
In the times of the Ancient Greeks, it was more complicated.
The Cynics – First of Four Important Schools of Philosophy
In “Cynics and Sceptics” in his History of Western Philosophy, Bertrand Russell explains that four Schools of Philosophy were founded around the time of Alexander the Great, and these were the Cynics, the Sceptics, the Stoics and the Epicureans.
It all started with a philosopher called Antisthenes, who lived in Athens around 400B.C. Antisthenes was instructed by Socrates and he was fascinated by the great master’s extreme frugality.

Until Socrates died, Antisthenes lived comfortably within an aristocratic circle without ever attempting to portray any unorthodox behaviour or theories. After the death of Socrates, Antisthenes was no longer a young man, but, in an instant, he did a tremendous about-turn, professing to despise all the trappings of power and affluence he formerly valued.
Antisthenes decided he wanted to be good. He consorted with, and dressed like, working men. He preached in the open air in order to reach all those less fortunate and less educated than he was. He eschewed government, marriage, property and the established religious order. He was an inspiration to his disciple, Diogenes.
However, when Diogenes first came into Antisthenes’s life, the master was not impressed. Russell recounts that he tried to send Diogenes away, even beating him with a stick. Simply, Antisthenes could not take to Diogenes. Perhaps he was concerned that the young man was the son of a disreputable money-lender.
Whatever Antisthenes said or did, Diogenes was unwavering. He wanted wisdom and it had to be the wisdom of Antisthenes or nothing. Eventually, the master succumbed and let him study under his tutelage.

Diogenes Develops the Philosophy of the Cynics
“The Cynics emphasized that true happiness is not found in external advantages such as material luxury, political power, or good health. True happiness lies in not being dependent on such random and fleeting things,” says Jostein Gaardner in Sophie’s World.
Imagine living in a barrel with just three possessions to your name – a cloak, a stick and a bread bag. This suited Diogenes, since nobody could steal away his precious happiness. There is some controversy about the true nature of this alternative home (see below) but whether a tub, a barrel or a pitcher, it must have been a hard life for him.
Gaardner relates a charming story about Diogenes, although I cannot be sure whether it is a literally true story or an allegory. (It also appears, briefly, in Russell) Either way, it demonstrates the true essence of the Cynic philosophy:
“One day, while he was sitting beside his barrel enjoying the sun, he was visited by Alexander the Great. The emperor stood before him and asked if there was anything he could do for him. Was there anything he desired?” “Yes,” Diogenes replied. “Stand to one side. You’re blocking the sun.” Thus Diogenes showed he was no less happy and rich than the great man before him. He had everything he desired.”
Cynics are not concerned about their own health or about the health or wellbeing of other people. Suffering and death is neither here nor there.

Thanks! Heartflowers
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