Diogenes of Sinope in a barrel surrounded by dogs

A Radical Philosopher

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In today’s Friday Philosophy post we’ll be taking a brief look at the ancient Greek philosopher Diogenes of Sinope. We’ll learn about his radical approach to philosophy – an approach which had a marked influence on the Cynics and Stoics who followed him.

Who Was He?

Born in Sinope, an Ionian colony, some time around 400 BC, Diogenes was a philosopher who adopted a vagrant lifestyle in rebellion against the civic life of his day. He was a contemporary of Aristotle, but is notable for embracing a very practical approach to philosophy in stark contrast to the metaphysical pondering that those attending Plato’s academy were accustomed to.

What’s the Big Idea?

Diogenes believed that one’s life should be lived as an example to others, and that civilisation is antithetical to happiness. He survived by begging and fulfilled his natural urges in public (I won’t go into details!), believing, for instance, that if it’s okay to eat in private it’s okay to eat in the marketplace – an activity which was frowned upon in his culture.

Diogenes had nothing but disdain for the abstract philosophy of Plato, believing instead that one’s worldview should be lived out rather than merely speculated upon. He shunned the aristocratic way of life, instead living in a very basic way, wearing few clothes and sleeping rough in a large clay jar in the marketplace.

My Reflections

I feel that Diogenes was very brave to live in the way he did. His rebellion in some respects reminds me of the radical commands of Jesus and the Christian life we read about in the book of Acts, where the ways of the world are rejected in favour of living a radical lifestyle. The major difference, of course, is that with Jesus the underlying message is clearly spiritual, whereas Diogenes appears to have been taking a philosophical or even political stance. Jesus’ focus is on the world to come, and the kingdom of heaven, whereas Diogenes’ philosophy was very much focused on earthly living.

By living out his philosophy Diogenes encapsulated an important principle – that beliefs and lifestyle are not opposing things but should be in harmony with one another. All too often we see intellectuals living in a kind of bubble, while at the other extreme we see cults emerging in which people are so swept away by a certain lifestyle that they lose sense and reason in relation to what they are doing. I would argue that balance between these two extremes is desirable for a healthy spiritual life.


Next week we’ll be moving on from ancient Greek philosophy and looking at a big idea from the Roman politician and thinker, Marcus Tullius Cicero. If you’re interested in following this series, please consider subscribing. Thank you for reading!

14 comments

  1. Great post, Steven. I definitely agree with you that what made Diogenes of Sinope stand out from the other philosophers is that he lived what he taught and believed in. This is indeed admirable (“bathroom” habits excluded!!). Regarding your conclusion, which I thought you communicated very well, I just disagree in one small point. You are right in saying that much of Jesus’ teaching was spiritual in nature and focused on the coming kingdom, but (and I’m not sure you meant it) you made it seem as though Christians have no earthly responsibility.

    However, it is clear that Jesus taught much about our behavior right now here on earth. Matthew 5:16 says, “Let your light shine before men that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in Heaven.” Also, Matthew Chapters 5 through 7 (Sermon on the Mount) focuses primarily how Christians should live in this world.

    Again though, I think you know all this, but in your desire to be brief, this probably didn’t come across. (Same thing happens with me because of “brevity” concerns.)

    Otherwise, excellent post, and excellent series on the philosophers!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi David!

      I absolutely agree with what you said and didn’t mean to imply that Christians have no earthly responsibilities. I understand how you could have read it that way, and I could have been clearer. I was just trying to highlight that Christians have a spiritual dimension to their worldview that I didn’t find in my research into Diogenes.

      Glad you enjoyed the post! Have a great weekend 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Sounds like Diogenes turned vagrancy into a philosophy. 🙂 I see lots of young folks shuffle in where I work – they aren’t working or even looking for jobs, they’re camping out in the woods around town, When one of them actually got a job, his buddy said “I thought you were smarter than that.” Jesus was a very industrious fellow, doing a whole lot of ministry work, often sunup to sundown. Hard work has always been a Christian hallmark. Maybe Diogenes – like the young men I see every day – was really just rebelling against the notion that a man ought to earn the bread he eats. Not only did he shun the aristocratic way of life, he shunned a working life. Virtuous? To some, maybe. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I see the connection and correlation you’ve placed between Diogenes’ life and beliefs, as to Christianity. Uniquely displayed. And perhaps dettinger47 forgets that that was 2000 to 2400 years ago. A big difference in societal customs and civilized hierarchy. I’m pretty sure I’ve read Jesus’ comments to…’render unto Caesar that which is Caesars and unto God, that which is God’s’.
    He never said not to be responsible for ourselves, and especially not to be responsible for those around us; if we’re going to decipher the Sermon on the Mount.
    This was an impressive post, and my favorite thus far.

    Liked by 1 person

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