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.
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!