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Was Greek Philosopher Diogenes the Cynic the First Anarchist?

Diogenes the Cynic
“Diogenes Sitting in His Tub,” by Jean-Léon Gérôme (1860). Credit: Wikimedia Commons/Public domain

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 a homeless man by choice whose 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.

The Greek philosopher Diogenes the Cynic

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.

Diogenes the Cynic
“Diogenes in Search of an Honest Man.” Giovanni Benedetto Castiglione. Credit:  National Gallery of Art, CC0/Wikimedia Commons

The word “cynic” (in Greek kynikos (κυνικός) “dog-like”), derives from the word κύων or kynos, meaning dog, and was used to describe the dog-like behavior of Diogenes, who lived in the streets, sometimes eating raw meat, and performing his natural bodily functions in public, like a dog, without shame.

The Greek philosopher routinely demonstrated his complete disregard for every person, and any norm of the society that they were a part of.

Many called him a lunatic, yet his wit and caustic humor became widely known, and he earned the respect of philosophers.

Diogenes found interest in the ascetic teachings of Antisthenes, who was a student of Socrates. It is said that when he asked Antisthenes to mentor him, the philosopher ignored him; after Diogenes persisted, Antisthenes beat him with his staff.

After that treatment, Diogenes responded: “Strike, for you will find no wood hard enough to keep me away from you, so long as I think you’ve something to say.”

Eventually, Diogenes became Antisthenes’ pupil, despite the initial violent response of the philosopher, and soon he even surpassed his master in his austere way of life and the creation of Cynicism as a school of thought.

Cynicism and a Life of virtue

By today’s standards — if we leave his social behavior aside — Diogenes could be called a naturalist.

His philosophy of Cynicism was to live a life of virtue, much like an animal which has no unfortunate human traits.

A life that is as simple as possible, with no need for earthly pleasures — just like that of a dog.

The way Diogenes believed one could achieve ευδαιμονία, or ευτυχία (happiness) was through living life in accordance with nature, enjoying the simple things, being happy with very little — like the sun’s rays on one’s face, a sip of cool water in the summer heat, or a bite of delicious fruit from a tree.

That was the epitome of the good life for Diogenes.

Diogenes the Cynic greek philosopher
The Greek philosopher and founder of cynicism, “Diogenes,” (1873) by Jules Bastien-Lepage. Credit: Wikipedia/Public Domain

Also, by today’s standards, again, Diogenes could be called an anarchist.

The Cynic philosopher rejected authority, was very caustic against society in general and believed that most people are hypocrites in regard to social norms.

And to this cynical philosopher, the biggest hypocrites of all were politicians and rulers.

Diogenes had not only scorn for rulers and aristocrats, but also for all family and socio-political organizations. He also disliked the “masses,” showing equal disrespect for society in general.

ancient Greek philosopher’s disrespect for rulers

There is an anecdote about Diogenes’ disrespect for rulers which is supposed to have taken place in Corinth, where the philosopher lived at the time.

Having heard about the antics and the philosophical gems of Diogenes, Alexander the Great wanted to meet him and even traveled to Corinth just for that purpose.

Based on the accounts of Plutarch, the two men exchanged only a few words. Alexander came upon Diogenes as the philosopher was basking in the morning sunlight.

Thrilled to meet the famous thinker, Alexander asked if there was any favor he might do for him.

To that, Diogenes replied, “Move a little to the right, you are blocking my sun.”

Alexander then declared, “If I were not Alexander, then I should wish to be Diogenes.” Diogenes famously replied to the King of Macedonia “If I were not Diogenes, I would still wish to be Diogenes.”

Diogenes cynicism greek philosopher
Statue of the Greek cynic philosopher Diogenes with Alexander the Great in Corinth. Credit: Achilles Vasileiou, CC BY-SA 4.0/ Wikimedia Commons

As an anarchist in today’s terms, Diogenes unfortunately did not even believe in writing down his ideas.

No written work of his exists today, since he believed that people understood his teachings better through actions and conversation, rather than through reading.

Diogenes, a Citizen of the world

“I am a citizen of the world (cosmopolites)”, he liked to declare, which literally means a “citizen of the world” in Greek.

Like today’s anarchists, who do not believe in nations and borders, Diogenes liked to go wherever he pleased and set up his home — or rather “set up his pot.”

By refusing the normal comforts of life, which others sought their whole lives to acquire, Diogenes rejected the idea of property.

He needed no house, nor even clothing, other than the rags he used to wear, depending on the season.

There are several stories surrounding Diogenes’ death at the age of 89 in 323 BC. Many of them seem fabricated, based on his way of life, such as the one in which he died of an infection after being bitten by a dog.

Nevertheless, true to his philosophy, he had always viewed the afterlife with the same scorn with which he viewed earthly life in an organized society.

Throughout human history, Diogenes has been described as many things.

He was certainly a cynical philosopher. And one could also say that he was one of the first anarchists — not only by the standards of ancient Greece, but also by the norms of today’s society as well.

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