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Diogenes: Likely First Person to Give Someone the Finger

diogenes ancient greek philosopher
The Ancient Greek philosopher Diogenes as portrayed by Jean Leon Gerome. Credit: Public Domain

The ancient Greek philosopher Diogenes the Cynic was most likely the man who invented “the finger” as an insult.

The historian of philosophy Diogenes Laertios wrote that the cynical philosopher Diogenes made the rude gesture to the orator Demosthenes in the 4th century BC in Athens.

When people in an inn expressed their desire to see the great orator Demosthenes, Diogenes allegedly showed them his middle finger and exclaimed, “This, for you, is the demagogue of the Athenians.”

Even though the gesture was used in ancient Greece, modern Greeks have “imported” the offensive finger gesture from Western cultures.

“This is one of the oldest known offensive gestures,” explains anthropologist Desmond Morris.

It shows the back of a closed fist that has only the middle finger extended upward, although in some areas the thumb is extended as well. Finger extension is seen as a symbol of contempt in various cultures, mostly Western societies.

“The middle finger symbolizes the penis and the curved fingers on both sides, the two testicles. By doing so, you essentially give someone an offensive phallic gesture,” Morris says.

The Greek philosopher Diogenes the Cynic

The ancient Greek philosopher Diogenes the Cynic (also known as Diogenes of Sinope) could have been the first anarchist, or the first absurdist, or the first satirist, or the first naturalist — depending on the reader’s point of view.

By today’s standards, Diogenes was unique in many ways; he was a homeless man by choice whose overarching life goal was the search for wisdom.

His unique approach to life had absolutely nothing to do with society’s norms and rules — either now or back in ancient times.

He found the shelter he needed inside an enormous ceramic pot, rejecting all comforts and luxuries — yet his observations about life, politics and society were amazingly spot-on, although they were often expressed in offensive language.

Born in Sinope, the Ionian city along the Black Sea in 412 or 404 BC, he is considered one of the founders of Cynic philosophy, along with Antisthenes and Crates.

He believed that social values, material goods and luxuries kept man away from true happiness — which can only be found by living in the simplicity of nature.

His father was a minter of coins in Sinope and young Diogenes had worked alongside him in that most materialistic of all ventures.

One story says that the young man soon went to the Oracle at Delphi, however, and was told that he should “deface the currency.”

And this is exactly what he did upon returning to his hometown. The difference was that he believed he should deface the people depicted on the coins — i.e., the rulers.

This, quite understandably, led to his exile from Sinope, and Diogenes then went to live in Athens.

Once there, the Greek philosopher began living the simple life, which later became his all-encompassing philosophy.

He would sleep inside his giant pot at night and during the day he begged for a living while walking the streets — all of which behavior challenged the social norms and values of the time.

At night, he would walk the streets while holding a lantern, telling people that he was looking for one honest man. He would later claim that he never found one.

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