Getting the Better of Diogenes

There is an anecdote of an exchange between the minor Greek philosopher Aristippus and the famous Diogenes of Sinope, the founder of Cynicism, which I think is illustrative of both men’s characters:

Diogenes, washing the dirt from his vegetables, saw [Aristippus] passing and jeered at him in these terms. “If you had learnt to make these your diet, you would not have paid court to kings,” to which his rejoinder was, “And if you knew how to associate with men, you would not be washing vegetables.”

For all his reputation for heroic austerity and candor I always thought Dionenes was obnoxious. His poverty and feigned modesty were done for show. He lived in a “tub” (or large urn), ate raw onions and had a clay cup as his only possession. Which merely goes to show that poverty, in itself, is no virtue.

In one episode the Cynic famously told off Alexander the Great. The philosopher was lying on the ground when the Macedonian conqueror came to see him. It is Alexander who is entirely deferential, asking if there is anything he can do for Diogenes, to which the philosopher famously replied, “Yes, stand out of my sunlight.” Alexander then declared, “If I were not Alexander, then I should wish to be Diogenes.” Diogenes conceitedly answered, “If I were not Diogenes, I should also wish to be Diogenes.”

Real humility is neither obsequious nor insolent. It is respectful of all men regardless of station. I’ve always found that contempt of superiors is never a sign of impartiality, but its opposite. As Melville writes of Captain Ahab, “Horrible old man! Who’s over him, he cries;—aye, he would be a democrat to all above; look, how he lords it over all below!”

As for austerity, it is only good if it promotes self-control in other areas. Diogenes was very much an ancient “hippie” for making a show of simplicity and rebelling against all authority. He denounced the city state and the family, and as proof of his disdain for the good opinion of others engaged in gross scatological and sexual activities in public. Aristippus, for his part, was a poor student of his master Socrates. He was a witty and urbane hedonist—a sort of Hellenic version of Oscar Wilde. There are qualities about him that I find distasteful, but at least he earns my admiration for putting Diogenes and other self-important slobs in their place.

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