The Forgotten Philosopher

September 2, 2012 6:00 pm

When we hear the word ‘philosophy’, we think (justifiably) of Ancient Greece, and especially of the three philosophers Plato, Socrates and Aristotle, who have had a significant and direct influence upon all modern philosophy. These powerhouses of ancient Greek philosophy can be thought of as the hearty meals upon which our modern brains feast when we look for wisdom in the ancient world, however, the table should be set for four, not three. There is one philosophical powerhouse that vanished from the feast; all that remains is a lingering scent, often picked up but more often missed. There are no visible remains of this philosophical phantom, as his fervent attitude against the written word, meant that no chronicles were left. Plato, on the other hand, left behind a plethora of writings which remain popular and influential to this day. Many of these writings were about Socrates, and therefore guaranteed eternal fame for the man who taught Plato. Much like Plato, Aristotle, not only taught Alexander the Great, but also left behind many pieces of writing on various subjects, ensuring that his legacy would survive through the ages. Unlike his contemporaries, Diogenes of Sinope was a man who thought actions spoke louder than words, and the way he lived his life was a strong testimony to this.

What is perhaps the most tragic aspect of Diogenes being the least remembered of his contemporaries, is the fact that his wisdom could be influential in our out of control, capitalist society. He was man who shunned all material goods and made his way in the world by begging for scraps, so much so, that he spent much of his adult life living in a bathtub in Athens. Disillusioned with Athenian life, he dedicated his time to criticising those around him for their corrupt values and love of theory over action. His commitment to revealing the corruption and poor social values in Athens caused him to walk through the marketplace carrying a lamp in broad daylight. When a man stopped him to ask what he was doing, his simple reply was “I am looking for an honest man”. Diogenes’ method of attacking the Athenians’ addiction to material goods, was by living a life which was exactly the opposite. His only possession (other than the rags which he wore) was a small, wooden bowl which he used for drinking. When witnessing a young peasant drinking water from his hands, Diogenes immediately smashed his wooden bowl into pieces.

It is important to note that Diogenes did not completely distance himself from his fellow philosophers. He made a point of being as close to Plato as possible whenever the latter was giving a lecture to his followers, albeit to sabotage them and debate with the great man himself. On one occasion, Plato, in front of a large crowd, defined man as a “featherless biped”, after hearing this, Diogenes found and plucked a chicken before holding it up and exclaiming “behold! I have brought you a man!” This forced Plato, to change his definition and add “With broad flat nails” to the end of it.

The forgotten philosopher also had the chance to meet Alexander the Great one sunny afternoon in Corinth. Alexander was walking through Athens with a large entourage and came across Diogenes raking through some rubbish. When Alexander asked him what he was doing, he explained that he was looking through the bones in a bid to differentiate those of his father’s from his father’s servants. He had not only the wit, but also the courage to tell Alexander the Great that his father was exactly the same as those who were his slaves. This comment carried the risk of execution, however Alexander the Great was so impressed by the great philosopher, that he asked him how he could help him; he had the power to grant him riches, women and life in a palace amongst many other things. Diogenes’ simple reply was “could you please move, you are blocking the sunlight”. Following this short exchange Alexander remarked to a friend, “if I were not Alexander, then I should wish to be Diogenes”. This short exchange demonstrates an iron like will to neglect the luxuries that wealth and power afford, a lesson that could prove extremely valuable in this day and age where wealth, power, and status are the things which most people spend their short lives frantically fighting each other for.

The great philosopher left one last lesson prior to his death, the cause of which is mysterious with rumors varying between a stomach infection picked up from a raw octopus to simply holding his own breath until he died. When asked how he wanted to be buried he replied “throw me out of the city walls so the wild beasts can feed upon my flesh”, to which one of his followers replied “won’t this bother you?” Diogenes replied “not as long as you give me a stick to chase the creatures away with.” He was then asked how he could possibly chase the creatures away if he was not conscious of them being there and he answered “if I lack awareness, then why should I care what happens to me when I am dead?”

Diogenes would be turning in the stomachs of the wild beasts that devoured his corpse if he could see what Western society has become today. He would no doubt be unsurprised, but would possibly be angered by the feeling that his life and struggles had been in vain. This, however, need not be the case; it would be folly to suggest that we should all quit our 9 to 5 jobs and live in a bathtub, or that we should ask to be fed to wild animals upon death (although this tradition occurs in many parts of Nepal), but the next time we feel stressed about our lives or worrying about small problems, it would benefit us to remember the example Diogenes. To forget him and his teachings would be a great tragedy, especially at the time when we need his influence the most.

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