Legend has it that Diogenes and Alexander died on the same day in 323 BCE, one fanatic young king of Macedonia on his quest to the Conquer of the world, and the other an antisocial, ascetic philosopher tagged as a Socrates gone mad.
We have heard about Alexander but not much is known about Diogenes?
Diogenes was one of the founders and most famous members of the philosophical movement known as Cynicism.
The exceptional nature of Diogenes’ life generates difficulty for determining the authenticity of the facts mentioned in references. He was born in Sinope (modern-day Sinop, Turkey), an Ionian colony on the Black Sea in 412 or 404 BCE. The son of Hicesias, a banker it is still uncertain whether he or his father had to face the punishment of banishment for adulteration of the currencies of the country. Mostly, it is said he had received an oracle to adulterate the coinage. Some believe, he was falsely embroiled in the currency scam. We will never know the real truth but whatever reasons it had happened, the act had forced him to relocate to Athens.
Diogenes was the antisocial philosopher with the guts to reject all the norms of standard society. Diogenes was attracted by the ascetic teaching of Antisthenes, a student of Socrates, who had been present at Socrates’s death. Though Antisthenes had no liking for Diogenes, he continued to follow him and eventually forced him to accept him as his student. Antisthenes had no liking for Diogenes but the pupil wouldn’t leave him and continued to believe his every word or preaching. Like Antisthenes, Diogenes believed in Socrates’ philosophy and rejection of personal possessions and social status. It is clearly mentioned, Diogenes is a harsh critic of Plato, regularly disapproving of Plato’s metaphysical thoughts and theoretical ethics.
He was usually portrayed as naked, and unkempt with long hair and beard. The philosopher urinated and did all types of cleansing acts in public to show his contempt for conventions. His brutal honesty had got him in trouble many times. Diogenes had roamed on the streets with a lighted lamp in his hand during the daytime to search for an honest man. Diogenes had high praise for the values of dogs and appreciated the fact that they could instinctively differentiate between who is a friend and who is a foe. They recognize their friends and receive them kindly, while those unfitted are driven away by barking.
In Lives of Eminent Philosophers, it is documented that Diogenes had asked someone to find a small cottage for him to live in. When the person couldn’t find a particular home for him as per his budget and conditions, he discovered that there is no need for any conventional type of shelter. It is written in Diogenes Laertius, Book 6, Chapter 23 that he got this inspiration after he watched a mouse adapting to the surroundings.
He took up residence in a large wine cask (some sources claim it was an abandoned bathtub), and lived on the charity of others. He owned only a simple cup which also served as a bowl for food. One day, he saw a boy drinking water from his hands and realized one did not even need a cup to sustain oneself.
Eccentric but still, the personality of Diogenes has appealed to great artists, painters, sculptors, writers. But many of them are enchanted by the reminiscences of the famous encounter of Diogenes with Alexander the Great. The meeting of the great philosopher Diogenes and Great King Alexander is represented in an ancient marble sculpture found in the Villa Albani.
The episode was mostly written notably in Plutarch’s Life of Alexander (at 14) and Diogenes Laertius’ Lives of the Eminent Philosophers (at 6.38).
Alexander the Great knew about Diogenes. He had heard about Diogenes’s encounter with his father, King Philip II. So, Alexander was curious to see how he was living in a tub and discoursing his honest yet peculiar thoughts. Many statesmen and philosophers also joined on the way to visit Alexander with their congratulations, souvenirs, and offerings.
The Great Conqueror expected that Diogenes would be excited to show up for the meeting. Alexander was willing to fulfill a wish for Diogenes and walked to his living spot.
According to Epictetus in his Discourses (at 3.22.92), at the time of the encounter in Corinth, Diogenes was fast asleep when Alexander approached to meet him. Alexander, who was a passionate reader of the Iliad, and quoted a line (2.24), “To sleep the whole night through ill befits a man of counsel.” Diogenes overheard the line and quickly countered by quoting the very next line while still half-asleep, “Who has people to watch over and a multitude of cares.”
Alexander moved in front of the philosopher and said, “I am Alexander the great king.” To which Diogenes responded, “I am Diogenes – the dog.”
When Alexander asked why he called himself a dog, he said, “I fawn on those who give me anything, I yelp at those who refuse, and I set my teeth in rascals.”
In the most famous exchange of the conversations, Alexander asked Diogenes whether he could fulfill any of his wishes or give him anything he desired. Diogenes, who was half-lying on the road, enjoying the warmth of the autumn sun, answered, “Stand out of my sun.” This abrupt response, showing his strong contempt for the wealth and power left Alexander dumb-struck. Diogenes’s words showed disdain for what Alexander craved and spawned to achieve through his conquests.
Although Alexander’s attendants took offense at Diogenes’ rudeness to their king, Alexander himself was not displeased. He ordered his soldiers and council members not to punish or torture Diogenes as he had the courage to speak up about what he really wanted. So struck was Alexander by this reply that he moved out in silence. The emperor admired the sincere hauteur and opulence of the poor man who had nothing but disdain for him and his royal treasures.
While walking down with his followers, who were laughing and joking about the philosopher’s reply, Alexander in a profound, proud tone answered to them,
“If I were not Alexander, I would want to be Diogenes.”