Diogenes of Sinope, the Cynic

Diogenes with his lantern and faithful dog
Diogenes looking for an honest man

Diogenes of Sinope lived in a tub in the marketplace. Since it was a long time ago, around the 4th century BCE, the details are few. He is also known as Diogenes the Cynic. I feel a certain intellectual kinship to Diogenes because I too am a cynic. He must have been a remarkable man, going by the stories told about him.

It is said that he sometimes walked around with a lamp even in broad daylight. When asked why, he replied, “I am looking for an honest man.” A cynic to the core.

He lived an austere life, and claimed (correctly, I believe) that man’s needs are basically simple. He had few possessions and lived in a tub, and I suppose lived on handouts and charity. He must have been like the bhikshus that hung around the Buddha who, one must remember, lived a century before Diogenes.

During a sea voyage in his old age, he was captured by pirates and brought to a market in Crete to be sold. When asked for what he was capable of, he answered, “I can govern men; so sell me to someone who wants a master.”

Xeniades, a rich man of Corinth, heard this and bought Diogenes and gave him his freedom. Diogenes was in Corinth when Alexander the Great sent word through a messenger asking Diogenes to come see him in Macedonia.

What would you do if one of the most powerful men in the world sent word that he would like to meet you since he has heard so much about you?

Not Diogenes, though.

Diogenes told the Alexander’s messenger, “Go tell your emperor that Corinth is as far from Macedonia as Macedonia is from Corinth. So if your emperor wants to see me, he can come and find me here.”

Irrefutable logic and infinite self-assurance. The last bit can only come from someone who really does not need anything from anyone however high and mighty.

Alexander surely was not used to being turned down. But I suppose being a warrior, he admired courage. So he went to Corinth to meet Diogenes. Diogenes was sitting in his tub and enjoying the morning sun when Alexander showed up on his high horse with a whole bunch of soldiers.

After a brief introduction, Alexander proudly offered to give Diogenes anything that he needed. “Is there anything I can do for you, Sir?” asked Alexander. Diogenes replied, “Yes, you could. You are blocking the sun. Please stand aside.”

Just step aside, said Diogenes
Just step aside, said Diogenes

Alexander was a megalomaniac — you had to be if you wanted to (and indeed did) conquer a massive part of the world. So impressed he was with Diogenes that he later remarked, “If I had not been Alexander, I would have liked to be Diogenes.”

One more favorite story about Diogenes.

One afternoon, one of the emperor’s ministers was passing through the town square and saw Diogenes in his bathtub, eating gruel. The minister said helpfully, “Diogenes, you would not have to eat gruel, if you only did one thing. If you were friendly to the emperor, you’d be able to feast.”

Diogenes replied, “If you learned how to eat gruel, you would not have to grovel before the emperor.”

{PS: Also see this post from Sept 2009 about Diogenes, “Learning to Eat Gruel.”}

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