Diogenes Popularizes Cynicism Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

Diogenes’ teachings and his unconventional lifestyle led to the establishment of the Cynic philosophical school.

Summary of Event

Diogenes is considered by a number of ancient traditions as the founder of the Cynic school of philosophy. His thought represented a rejection of all existing philosophical systems as well as of conventional morality and social custom. Diogenes’ philosophical convictions translated into public behavior that scandalized his contemporaries. Although none of Diogenes’ works has survived into modern times, details of his life and aspects of his thought have been preserved by a number of classical historians and authors. Of special note is the work of Diogenes Laertius, who, in his Peri biōn dogmatōn kai apophthegmatōn tōn en philosophia eudokimīsantōn (third century c.e.; The Lives and Opinions of the Philosophers, 1853), provides information from a diverse body of sources, including Diogenes’ own writings. Diogenes

Diogenes was born in the city of Sinope, a Greek colony on the southern coast of the Black Sea. According to one version, his father, Hicesias, was a banker in charge of the public finances, but when it was discovered that he had debased the currency, he was forced into exile along with Diogenes. According to other versions, including Diogenes’ own work Pordalus (now lost), it was Diogenes himself who adulterated the currency and was forced to leave his native city in disgrace.

Whatever the exact circumstances of his departure from Sinope, Diogenes was living in the city of Athens by the mid-fourth century b.c.e. On his arrival in Athens, Diogenes reportedly became a student of Antisthenes, who, in turn, had been a student of Socrates. Some ancient writers claim that Antisthenes was the first philosopher with whom the word “cynic” was associated, probably because he met with his followers at the gymnasium of Cynoserges (the white dog). Antisthenes reportedly was the first philosopher to wear a cloak and carry a staff and a knapsack, clothing and accessories that, along with the Phrygian felt cap, later became the trademarks of Cynic philosophers. Although the extent to which Antisthenes influenced Diogenes is not known, Diogenes’ thought and behavior clearly represented a radical departure from all previous philosophical propositions.

Obtaining a clear biographical portrait of Diogenes is difficult because there are no contemporary historical accounts of his life. Furthermore, events in the life of the historical Diogenes are intertwined with anecdotes that are part of the literary persona that emerged in his own writings and the works of writers from the Roman period such as Lucian and Dio Chrysostom. As the founder of the Cynic school, Diogenes became a paradigmatic figure to whom many philosophical authors and biographers attributed countless acts and aphorisms. The most detailed surviving biography of Diogenes comes from Diogenes Laertius, a writer who probably lived in the third century c.e. Laertius himself implicitly acknowledged the difficulty in reconstructing an accurate biographical portrait of his subject when he included several versions of important events in Diogenes’ life.

Whether historical or fictional, all actions and words attributed to Diogenes conjure the image of an individual whose mission in life became to ridicule all philosophical systems and to challenge all social and moral practices. Every source mentions that Diogenes rejected material possessions. He wore a coarse cloak, went about barefoot, held his few possessions in a knapsack, carried a walking staff, and never groomed his hair or beard. Diogenes rejected the idea of work and relied on the charity of friends and strangers for his basic needs. Because he did not own a house, Diogenes slept at friends’ houses, on the steps of public buildings, on the streets, and most famously, in a bathtub.

Every story about Diogenes illustrates his disregard for rank, wealth, and power; his defiance of authority; and his desire to provoke outrage. After Philip II of Macedonia defeated Athens and its allies at the Battle of Chaeronea in 338 b.c.e., Diogenes was brought to the Macedonian king as a captive. The king asked him who he was, to which Diogenes responded, “A spy upon your insatiable greed.” A few years later Philip’s successor, Alexander the Great, came to meet Diogenes. When he found the cynic taking a sunbath, the young king told Diogenes that he could request anything from him, to which the philosopher replied, “Stand out of my light.” Alexander is quoted as having said that if he had not been Alexander, he would have liked to have been Diogenes.


(F. R. Niglutsch)

Diogenes was equally defiant toward those who presumed of intellectual authority. When Diogenes heard Plato lecturing about his theory of Ideas and using such terms as “tablehood” and “cuphood,” Diogenes commented that he could see a table and a cup, but he was unable to see “tablehood” and “cuphood.” During another lecture, Plato pompously defined humans as bipedal animals with no feathers. Diogenes ran outside, found a chicken, and plucked its feathers; he came back to the lecture hall and presented the bird to the crowd saying, “Here is Plato’s man.”

No institution was immune to the cynic’s attacks. Diogenes was critical of organized religion. When he saw temple officials arresting a man who had stolen a bowl, he said that the great thieves were taking away the little thief. He had no use for revered social institutions. When asked what the appropriate time for marriage was, he responded that “for a young man not yet and for an old man never at all.” Diogenes held no national allegiances. When asked where he was from, he responded that he was a citizen of the world. He is believed to have coined the word “cosmopolitan.”

According to several sources, while traveling by sea, Diogenes was captured by pirates and subsequently sold as a slave. When asked at the auction block what kind of tasks he could perform, Diogenes replied that he could rule men. On hearing this, a Corinthian by the name of Xeniades bought Diogenes, brought him to Corinth, and entrusted him with the education of his sons. Diogenes spent the rest of his life in Corinth growing old at Xeniades’ household. He died at the age of about ninety. Although he had requested that his dead body be left unburied so that the wild beasts could feed off him, Xeniades’ sons buried him. One account claims that Diogenes’ life ended on the same day that Alexander the Great died in Babylon.


The rise of Cynicism marks the end of the classical period in Greek philosophy and the beginning of Hellenistic thought. After the formalism of Plato and Aristotle, embodied in the rival institutions of the Academy and the Lyceum, Diogenes emerged as the philosopher of the antiestablishment.

Plato once described Diogenes as “a Socrates gone mad.” The comparison to Socrates is apt because, like the martyred Athenian, Diogenes spent his life exposing the hypocrisy of society, the presumptuousness of intellectuals, and the greed of the powerful. However, unlike Socrates, whose life and thought reflect deep trust in humankind’s inherent rationality and a desire to improve society through example, Diogenes, through his behavior, projected a complete lack of confidence in humankind’s rational abilities and hopelessness about the future of humanity.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Branham, R. “Diogenes and the Invention of Cynicism.” In The Cynics: The Cynic Movement in Antiquity and Its Legacy, edited by R. Branhman and M. Goulet-Caze. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996. Essay provides a good summary of Diogenes’s role in the development of Cynicism. Bibliography and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Diogenes Laertius. Lives of Eminent Philosophers. Translated by R. D. Hicks. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2000. Primary source containing the most extensive extant account of Diogenes’s life. Diogenes Laertius also provides references to other ancient works now lost. Index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Long, A. “Diogenes, Crates and Hellenistic Ethics.” In The Cynics: The Cynic Movement in Antiquity and Its Legacy, edited by R. Branhman and M. Goulet-Caze. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996. Essay dealing with the influences of the first Cynics on the field of ethics. Bibliography and index.
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