Diogenes was born in Sinope, in Ancient Greece. While he was
still young his father, a banker, was accused of forgery, and he and his family
fled to the city of Athens.
In those days Athens was a famous centre of learning and culture, and one of its most famous men was a philosopher called Antisthenes. He spoke of how to be happy and virtuous, and Diogenes soon wished to become his pupil. When he went to visit Antisthenes, however, the old man began to beat him with a stick.
|Once a man said to Diogenes,
“I am not made for philosophy.”
“Why then do you live,” asked Diogenes, “if you have no desire to live properly?”
“You may strike me, O Antisthenes,” said Diogenes,
“but you will not find a stick hard enough to drive me away, so long as you
say anything worth hearing.”
Antisthenes was delighted with this answer, and accepted Diogenes as his pupil.
Soon Diogenes began speaking to large audiences, and his fame spread far and wide. He would often say, “Antisthenes has set me free, and now I cannot be enslaved,” – and indeed, no man had any power over him.
He had no house and no possessions, and sometimes even slept on the streets in a barrel, but all who saw him were attracted by the beauty and majesty of his person. Some were suspicious of him, and criticised what he taught, but Diogenes only cared for those who wished to hear him speak.
|Once a man called Hegesias begged Diogenes to lend him one of his books. “You are a silly fellow, Hegesias,” said Diogenes. “You would not eat painted figs, but real ones; yet you overlook the genuine practice of virtue, and seek for what is merely written.”|
He spent many years living and speaking in Athens, and possibly
travelled to other parts of Greece. On one such voyage he was captured by
pirates and, although he was now seventy years old, he was carried to the public
market in Crete. People had gathered to buy slaves, and the auctioneer asked
Diogenes what he could do.
“I can govern men,” replied Diogenes. “Therefore sell me to one who wants a master.”
One of the bystanders was greatly struck by this reply. His name was Xeniades, and he purchased Diogenes and returned with him to his home in Corinth. Here, he gave him his freedom, and put him in charge of all his affairs and the education of his children. Diogenes carried out these duties with fidelity and wisdom, and Xeniades was often heard to say that the gods had sent him to be a blessing to the house.
For the rest of his life Diogenes lived in Corinth. He passed away at the age of ninety, and was remembered with love and respect by those who knew him.
In this extract from a discourse given by Epictetus, a Greek philosopher, we have a beautiful description of Diogenes. One of Epictetus’s pupils has implied that philosophers only love themselves, and Epictetus is warmly refuting the idea.
“What! Did Diogenes love nobody, who was so gentle and benevolent that he cheerfully underwent so many pains and miseries of body for the common good of mankind? Yes, he did love them, but how? As became a servant of Zeus; at once taking care of men and submitting himself to god. That is why the whole earth, not any particular place, was his country. And, when he was taken captive, he did not long for Athens and his friends and acquaintances there, but got to know the pirates, and tried to reform them; and later, when he was sold, he lived at Corinth just as he had previously lived at Athens. In such a way is freedom attained. That is why he used to say “Ever since Antisthenes has set me free, I have ceased to be a slave.”
(Epictetus, The Discourses, Chapter 24, Book 3)
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