Greek-American Stories: Diogenes, The Crazy Philosopher

September 10, 2018
Phyllis “Kiki” Sembos

If ever was born a curmudgeon, Diogenes, (412-323 BC) would fill the bill. He spoke with a frankness that felt like nails scratching the blackboard.

Outspoken, a notorious cynic who believed that the most virtuous life is one lived without luxuries, he was, nevertheless, a most fascinating Greek. He’s the one who roamed Athens holding a lantern. When asked why, he’d respond, “I’m looking for an honest man.” His opinions and attitudes were grounded in his disdain for vanity, social-climbing, ostentation, and anything to do with artificial and flamboyant behaviors – anything that takes our attention away from what is really important.He tossed away his last remaining possession – his cup, when he saw man drink water by cupping his hands. Gee! Wouldn’t it have been better to get him a cup, too, thereby sharing the wealth? I wonder what he’d have to say if he lived in today’s world of mass ostentation amidst mass poverty and ignorance, a poverty and ignorance created by the ostentatious, the greedy, the uncaring.

The word “cynic” in ancient Greek meant dog(Kinis) something Diogenes was called. Plato, who acknowledged his wisdom, called him, “a Socrates gone mad.”The word “dog” became synonymous withthe word “cynic”when describing Diogenes and through the centuries described someone who felt no joy in anything or believed that nothing better was forthcoming. So, the redoubtable Diogenes was a most notorious cynic.But, “dog” was said of him because he preferred to live outdoors, in a tub, wore the barest of clothing, ate in public , often treated by friends or passersby – usually in the market place, and roamed the streets like an unemployed vagrant believing no one cared about anyone or anything but themselves, exclusively – like a drifting dog.In a square in Athens, he shouted out for men to gather around him.

When a curious crowd gathered he waved a stick at them, threateningly, and said, ‘I asked for men – not scoundrels!’  He, also, told those who’d listen, ‘there is only one great evil: ignorance! And only one great good: knowledge!’ Despite his harsh criticisms of people and their mode of living amidstthe poor or hungry the Athenians loved him. Some made sport of him; some mocked him, others credited him for keeping to his word, recognized his wisdoms, regardless. When a kid vandalized his tub, a group of citizenschased and beat the boy and bought Diogenes another tub.One Athenian businessman, sarcastically, asked him, “If you know everything – or, think you do – can you tell me when I am going to die?” Diogenes answered, “Of course, but after breakfast. I think better then.” After eating the breakfast the businessman paid for, he told the man, “You will die when you stop living.”  His responses were always the obvious yet wise in a sarcastic vein. Once, he’d seen a young man all dressed up with elaborate care going somewhere. Observing him, Diogenes told him, “Young man, if you’ve dressed up to impress men, you’re a fool. If it’s for a woman, you’re dishonest.” Then, watching a young boy whose mother was a prostitute,toss stones into a crowd, rubbing his chin, he told him, “Careful, son. You’ll hit your father!”

But, when asked how he’d wish to be buried, he responded, “face downward,”explaining that the Macedonians were rising in power so rapidly that the whole world would soon be turned upside down. “Then,” he told them. “I would be the right side up!” Born in Sinope, when asked where he came from, he announced, “I am a citizen of the world.”How very inspiring! If those sentiments were felt by the majority of people there could be no wars. People can get along. Governments cause the troubles. Although he was a bit harsh, I sense Diogenes would agree with m on that. It appears the world’s political conditions have changed little from ancient times or any time. In fact, it’s gotten worse -much worse when we addsevere global climate changes with the illegal wars. Today, there are too fewoutspoken citizens, few thinking cynics to criticize or admonishment our government; today, there are no widespread protesting at what is being done tous and people around the globe. I find it more unfortunate that aDiogenes cannot be found in any of us!


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