Monday, May 22, 2006

Diogenes, the First Cosmopolitan

By Otto Spijkers

Diogenes was a native of Sinope, but at some point he was banished from there. Asked about this incident later on, Diogenes replied: “The people of Sinope condemned me to banishment, and I condemned them to remain where they were.” Since then, Diogenes considered himself “a citizen of the world”.

So what is it like to be a citizen of the world? Diogenes gives the answer: it is to belong to no community whatsoever. It means complete freedom. It means, in the words of Diogenes, adopting the same fashion of life as Hercules had, preferring nothing in the world to liberty. It means regarding the most excellent thing among men to be the “freedom of speech”.

The complete lack of bonds and his absolute right to free speech made it possible for Diogenes to have a very peculiar sense of humor.

One day Diogenes saw an unskillful archer shooting; so he went and sat down by the target, saying, ‘Now I shall be out of harm's way.’

When asked why people give to beggars and not to philosophers, Diogenes said, ‘Because they think it possible that they themselves may become lame and blind, but they do not expect ever to turn out philosophers.’

Having been in a very dirty bath, Diogenes said, “I wonder where the people, who bathe here, clean themselves.”

On one occasion, when no one came to listen to him while he was discoursing seriously, he began to whistle. And then when people flocked round him, he reproached them for coming with eagerness to folly, but being lazy and indifferent about good things.

His cosmopolitan sense of humor may have chased his fellow human beings away. The following anecdote accurately describes the cosmopolitan situation: once Diogenes was going into a theatre while every one else was coming out of it; and when asked why he did so, “It is,” said he, “what I have been doing all my life.”

What is striking, and of course consistent with his cosmopolitan philosophy, is that Diogenes approached everyone, slave and king, foreigner and countryman, in exactly the same way, i.e. with his typical cynical sense of humor.

For example, once, while he was sitting in the sun in the Craneum, King Alexander the Great was standing by, and said to him, “Ask any favour you choose of me.” And Diogenes replied, “Cease to shade me from the sun.”

Seeing a runaway slave sitting on a well, Diogenes said, "My boy, take care you do not fall in.”

Finally, Diogenes’ death. Diogenes is said to have died when he was nearly ninety years of age (to be a lonely, cosmopolitan cynic apparently is very healthy). How did he die? Some say he ate an ox's foot raw, and was in consequence seized with a bilious attack, of which he died; others say that he died of holding his breath for several days. The latter is the most heard cause of death.

This text is largely based on The Lives and Opinions of Eminent Philosophers, by Diogenes Laertius. I have used the English translation by C.D. Yonge (see: