On Diogenes Laertius’s Biography of Diogenes of Sinope

Diogenes of Sinope has long fascinated the modern Western mind in part due to his representation of what many people imagine the practice of philosophy to look like: cynical, critical, uncustomary, anarchistic and so on. The writings of Diogenes Laertius contain some of the only surviving accounts of Diogenes of Sinope. Per Diogenes Laertius, Diogenes of Sinope was the son of a banker who ran the mint of Sinope. Diogenes went into exile perhaps owing to some scandal related to re-stamping the coinage (or debasing the currency). Sinope was an Ionian city in present-day Turkey.

“Diogenes” by John William Waterhouse 1882

Diogenes was somewhat scornful of ordinary schools like Euclides (who founded the Megarian School) or Plato’s discourses. He lambasted the contests at the Dionysia as a waste of time for the mob. Diogenes and Plato apparently despised one another. One story suggests Plato likened Diogenes to a “dog” for trampling on his carpet and chastised him for his vanity (hence the nickname of “Cynic” or ‘like a dog’). The late 2nd century Stoic historian Hecaton claims in the first book of his Anecdotes that Alexander the Great once remarked: “Had I not been Alexander, I would like to have been Diogenes.” There is, of course, the other famous story concerning Diogenes and Alexander in which Diogenes was lying out in the sun at the Craneum (a gymnasium where he lived on a hill in the city of Corinth) and Alexander approached Diogenes asking whatever he wished, to which Diogenes replied, “Stand out of my light.”

In search of fame, Diogenes fled to Delphi where he received the oracle. He lived out of a knapsack with a walking stick and did not seek after shelter. He trained himself to physically handle all manner of hardships from weather to food. He practiced an extreme form of frugality. Some of his personal life can be understood as a predecessor to Christian virtues of poverty and universalism. He was occasionally found wandering through the marketplace carrying a lamp, declaring he was in search of a man (or an “honest” man).

He spent much of his time in the marketplace saying uncouth things and performing lewd acts. Diogenes Laertius attributes all manner of odd stories to Diogenes of Sinope. He often disregarded laws, customs, and proclaimed himself a citizen of the world. In this sense he was the first true cosmopolitan. He was sold into slavery by pirates and later died -some say he tried to eat a raw octopus, others say he died trying to hold his breath. He was buried beside the city gate with a marble statue of a dog overlooking his burial spot.

Diogenes is sometimes viewed as an early founder of the Stoic philosophy which was carried down through Crates and Zeno of Critium. Diogenes Laertius lists many of his writing works though all are lost now. The athenians apparently celebrated Diogenes of Sinope.

For this reading I used the ‘Compact Edition’ of the Lives of the Eminent Philosophers by Diogenes Laertes translated by Pamela Mensch and edited by James Miller.

In the preface to the Compact Edition the editors note: “Our common goal has been to make Lives as accessible as possible to English-speaking readers -and at the same time to convey some of the essential strangeness of what philosophy once was, in hopes that readers may wonder anew at what philosophy might yet become” (xiii).

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