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  • Writer's pictureSimon Vincent

Diogenes of Sinope and Alexander the Great

Diogenes of Sinope by Jean-Leon Gerome.
"It is not that I am mad, it is only that my mind is different from yours." - Diogenes of Sinope

Diogenes of Sinope was one of the most famous (or infamous) philosophers of ancient Greece. He was a cynic, living in a barrel with minimal clothing and almost no possessions. Such was his commitment to the hermetical life that when he realized he could drink water with his hands, he threw away his cup and never used it again.

Such tales may be legends, but they also speak to Diogenes' strange desire to live differently. In a way, he embodied the Bible's Book of Ecclesiastes - being tormented by the meaninglessness of human societies. He would symbolically roam the streets of Athens with a lantern in search for an honest man, but would find none.

All the prestigious titles, the wealth and riches, the pride of vanity and fame, the foods and clothes and ornaments, the grandiose buildings and pompous political speeches - it was all empty vanity to Diogenes. Unbearable, foolish vanity. He was so sickened by modern society that he resorted to live as a hermit, seeking wisdom in silence, fasting and simplicity of life.

"Most men compete in digging and kicking - but none are in the pursuit of human excellence." - Diogenes of Sinope.

One day we will all die. And we are all equals in death. Likewise, we are all equals in our humanity. Material possessions are therefore meaningless in terms of our value as humans. Our pride, ambitions, and vain ideas about ourselves are mere self-flattering delusions that cause strife, regret, and pain.

Diogenes was once digging the earth in search of the bones of Philip of Macedon - the glorious warrior King who had conquered most of Greece - but struggled to find them. Why? Because the bones of a King can't be distinguished from the bones of a slave, Diogenes explained.

Diogenes searching for an honest man, by Jacob Jordaens.

Diogenes would eventually come to meet the son of Philip, namely, the famous Alexander the Great. King Alexander had successfully inherited the most powerful throne in Greek history, and had smashed all opposition. He had the most sophisticated military machine ever created under his command, wealth beyond measure, servants and mistresses at all quarters, widespread fame, with rumors that he descended from the god Zeus. All peoples of the world hailed King Alexander the Great as the greatest warlord in history.

The encounter occurred in Corinth. Alexander had just conquered the city. The entire city flocked around the victorious generals to pay homage and sing praises - except for Diogenes. He simply stayed put in his wooden barrel to enjoy the sunlight.

Alexander was baffled as to why Diogenes did not take the slightest notice of him, so he decided to visit the old philosopher in person. The other military officers surrounded the wooden barrel as Alexander approached him and greeted him. As Alexander had respect for philosophers (having been tutored by Aristotle in his youth), he asked elder Diogenes if he wanted anything. "Yes," Diogenes answered. "Stand a little out of my sun."

Alexander's companions burst into laughter when hearing this, but Alexander reacted differently. He found deep admiration for Diogenes. Having rebuked his officers, he affirmed: "But truly, if I were not Alexander, I would be Diogenes."

Alexander and Diogenes by Lovis Corinth.

This is one of the most famous anecdotes of ancient history - and it contains a great deal of wisdom. Here we have the most powerful and celebrated man on earth visiting a thin thinker living in a barrel with almost no possessions. The King offers the philosopher anything he would like - money, wealth, shelter, comfort. Yet, the philosopher only asks of the King to move slightly to the side so that the sun rays can keep warming his skin.

What does this anecdote teach us? Perhaps Diogenes was trying to make a point? I will leave this up to the reader to ponder.

"He has the most who is content with the least." - Diogenes of Sinope.
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