My Hero Diogenes the Cynic
A shining example of the art of failure.
Posted March 11, 2012
[Article updated on 6 September 2017]
Diogenes of Sinope or Diogenes the Cynic (c. 412-323 BCE) was a contemporary of Socrates' pupil Plato, whom Plato described as ‘a Socrates gone mad'.
Like Socrates and, to a lesser extent, Plato, Diogenes favoured direct verbal interaction over the written account. When a man called Hegesias asked to be lent one of his writing tablets, he replied, ‘You are a simpleton, Hegesias; you do not choose painted figs, but real ones; and yet you pass over the true training and would apply yourself to written rules.'
After being exiled from his native Sinope for having defaced its coinage, Diogenes moved to Athens, took up the life of a beggar, and made it his mission to metaphorically deface the coinage of custom and convention, which, he maintained, was the false coin of morality. He disdained the need for conventional shelter or any other such ‘dainties' and elected to live in a tub and survive on a diet of onions.
Diogenes proved to the later satisfaction of the Stoics that happiness has nothing whatever to do with a person's material circumstances, and held that human beings had much to learn from studying the simplicity and artlessness of dogs, which, unlike human beings, had not ‘complicated every simple gift of the gods'. The terms ‘cynic' and ‘cynical' derive from the Greek kynikos, which is the adjective of kyon or ‘dog'.
Diogenes placed reason and nature firmly above custom and convention, which he held to be incompatible with happiness. It is natural for a human being to act in accord with reason, and reason dictates that a human being should live in accord with nature. Accordingly, he taught that, if an act is not shameful in private, then it should not be shameful in public either.
Upon being challenged for masturbating in the marketplace, Diogenes replied, ‘If only it were so easy to soothe hunger by rubbing an empty belly'. Upon being asked, on another occasion, where he came from, he replied, ‘I am a citizen of the world' (cosmopolites), a radical claim at the time and the first recorded use of the term ‘cosmopolitan'.
Although Diogenes privileged reason, he despised the sort of abstract philosophy that was being practiced elsewhere and in particular at Plato's Academy. When, to great acclaim, Plato defined a human being as an animal, biped, and featherless, Diogenes plucked a fowl and brought it to the Academy with the words, ‘Behold! I have brought you Plato's man.' Plato consequently revised his definition, adding to it ‘with broad nails'.
Diogenes was not impressed with his fellow men, not even with Alexander the Great, who came to meet him one morning while he was lying in the sunlight. When Alexander asked him whether there was any favour he might do for him, he replied, ‘Yes, stand out of my sunlight.' Much to his credit, Alexander still declared, ‘If I were not Alexander, then I should wish to be Diogenes.'
In another account of the conversation, Alexander found Diogenes looking attentively at a pile of human bones. Diogenes explained, ‘I am searching for the bones of your father (King Philip of Macedon), but cannot distinguish them from those of a slave.'
The old dog used to stroll through Athens in broad daylight brandishing an ignited lamp. Whenever curious people stopped and asked what he was doing, he would reply, ‘I am just looking for a human being.’
Once, upon being asked to name the most beautiful of all things, Diogenes replied parrhesia, a term which means free speech or full expression.
When asked how he wished to be buried, he left instructions to be thrown outside the city wall so that wild animals could feast upon his body. After his death in the city of Corinth, the Corinthians erected to his memory a pillar upon which they rested a dog of Parian marble.
Diogenes taught by living example that wisdom and happiness belong to the person who is independent of society. He was, I think, a shining example of the Art of Failure.
Neel Burton is author of The Art of Failure: The Anti Self-Help Guide and other books.