The Patron Saint of Agnosticism?
by: Robert F vonBriesen
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In the historical period known as the ‘Axial Age’ when men such as The Buddha, Confucious, Socrates, Plato, Aristotle as well as many other great thinkers and philosophers lived, there was a man known as Diogenes of Sinope. (412-323BC) There are many stories about the life and teachings of Diogenes, however all are third hand and exist in several different versions. None of the books, plays and poems he was alleged to have written have survived.
A brief chronology of his life is that he was born in Sinope, a town in what is now Northern Turkey, on the shores of the Black Sea. At the time of his life, it was part of the Greek Empire. His father was the Exchequer; i.e., the minter of coins and the Keeper of the Treasury. While still a youth, there was a scandal involving the debasing of the currency with base metals and either Diogenes, or he and his father were forced into exile.
Diogenes relocated to Athens where he became a student of Antithenes who taught in the Cynosargas Gymnasium (Temple of the White Dog). That particular philosophy became known as ‘Cynicism” (“cynic” is the Greek word for ‘Dog’) as it emphasized the behavior of dogs as something that could be emulated by humans. Specifically: dogs do not hide their feelings for other dogs – they growl or show affection at the first meeting (no pretensions); they eat, sleep, deficate, urinate and have sex in public (no shame), protect those that they value (Loyal) and do not pass judgement on others (non judgmental)
While Antithenes taught these concepts in theory, Diogenes acted them out in his lifestyle. There are numerous stories about his behavior, relationships with others and his disdain of authority and the accepted social standards of his time. The most notable aspect of his lifestyle was the willingness to live in poverty even though his fame was quite widespread during the period during which he taught in Athens. He lived in an abandoned large wine barrel in the marketplace and performed all of his daily functions in public view. In other words, he lived like a dog.
He had little regard for Plato who also lived and taught in Athens at the same time. He considered Plato to be the teacher for the aristocracy while he directed his message to the common person. Of course Plato’s writings and thoughts have survived as mainstream philosophy as he and his followers were literate and left many records of his teaching. The writings of Diogenes, as already mentioned, were destroyed and very few, if any, of his followers were literate. So we are left with the stories of his life that were passed down as oral traditions and written about in the letters and books of other commentators of the period.
Of the many stories about Diogenes that have been passed down, I will repeat only one. If you have an interest in learning about the others, there are ample resources on the internet. My favorite story concerns a visit made by Alexander the Great to Diogenes who was still living in his barrel in the marketplace at the time. It is significant in that official visits were normally made by those of lower status to the higher placed individual. As Alexander stood in front of Diogenes, he asked “Diogenes, what is it that I could do for you?” Diogenes replied, “You could step aside, you are blocking the sun.” Alexander later stated “If I were not Alexander, I would want to be Diogenes.” To which Diogenes responded, “If I were not Diogenes, I would want to be Diogenes.”
Whether or not the incident actually occurred as related, the point of the story is that Diogenes was not impressed or intimidated by authority. He was satisfied and content with who he was and did not seek to emulate someone else.
Diogenes eventually left Athens and while on a ship bound for Aegina, was captured by pirates and sold into slavery in Crete to a wealthy man from Corinth. His new owner and master, Xeniades, asked him what he could do, Diogenes replied that he knew of no other trade than ruling men. Xeniades put Diogenes in charge of his household and gave him the responsibility of educating his sons. He remained in Corinth for the remainder of his life and became the major teacher of the movement known as ‘Cynicism”.
There is a well known portrait of Diogenes carrying a lantern through the market place in broad daylight. When asked why he was carrying a lantern during the day, he replied “I am looking for an honest man”. The impression given from this story is that he did this on a regular basis. In reality, as a servant of Xeniades, he was required to maintain the cooking fire. When the fire ran out, he had to go some distance to obtain oil and a ‘re-light’ of the lamp. On his way back home, he took a short-cut through the market-place, carrying the lit lamp. In reply to the question, which was tinged with ridicule, he gave his famous reply. Apparently the incident occurred only once but was repeated orally many times.
According to the prevailing version of his death, he died in Corinth at the age of 90 in 323 BCE, on the same day that Alexander the Great died. The monument erected to him in Corinth was a white marble pillar topped by the sculpture of a white dog.
I am not suggesting that we emulate the lifestyle and behavior of Diogenes – behavior that would still be considered bizarre in our time – but I am proposing that the core values of Cynicism are still valid ideals for today. Even though his writings have disappeared, the example he set in his daily life, as portrayed by the legends, reveal that he lived by the ideals that he taught. Honesty and openness in our relationships with others, independent thinking in regards to religion and politics and the willingness to live humbly with only the material possessions that are required (no ‘luxury’ items) is compatible with the tenets of agnosticism. If Diogenes were alive during the 3rd or 4th century AD, he would definitely have been considered to be a Heretic.
Personally, as a man whose closest companions are dogs, and who lives a humble lifestyle in the woods of N.C., I am inspired by Diogenes and I feel a deep, inner connection to him. The courage displayed by Diogenes as he flaunted his lifestyle against the established traditions of his day is required by the Agnostics of today, especially in the Bible-Belt of the U S A.
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