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 Diogenes heard mention of statesman and orator Demosthenes, he gave a middle finger and cried out facetiously, “There goes the demagogue of Athens!” Diogenes was not a fan of Demosthenes, and wasn’t shy about expressing his disdain verbally and manually.
Ancient Greeks “probably relied on the use of the middle finger to represent an erect penis,” wrote Max Nelson, who teaches courses on classical civilizations at the University of Windsor in Ontario, Canada, in a 2017 piece on the gesture’s origins.
The Greek playwright Aristophanes was also purportedly a fan of the gesture, referring to “the long finger” in several of his plays.
In his comedy “The Clouds,” written in 419 B.C., a caricature of Socrates attempts to instruct the debtor Strepsiades about poetic meter. Strepsiades makes a crude joke about using a different finger to create rhythm.
Translators of the text usually conclude that Strepsiades gesticulates with his middle finger (or, in some translations, reveals his privates) to refer to masturbation, said Nelson. Whatever the intent, the Socrates character responds with disgust.
The gesture eventually made its way to ancient Rome, where locals likely called it “digitus impudicus” – the indecent digit.
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 goal in life 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 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.”
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 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.