Free as Diogenes: a fantasy


One of my idols–and everybody has many and mutually contradictory idols–is Diogenes, the ancient Greek sage famous for living with no material possessions in a barrel.

I have to be careful about saying that because it might be misunderstood. Diogenes lived, quite deliberately, like a dog. Above, you see him with dogs. The Greek word for doglike, kynikos (as in, via Latin, the English canine) is the root of our word cynical. Diogenes was a cynic in the original and pristine sense.

So, yes, Diogenes defecated in public, masturbated in the marketplace and generally displayed the same unapologetic honesty towards others as, well, dogs do. I don’t intend to do any of those things, you’ll be reassured to know. So….

What’s the point?

My point, and the point of original cynicism, is to live a life that is:

  • simple
  • virtuous
  • honest
  • free

And there you have them, my favorite themes, especially simplicity and freedom.

Put differently, Diogenes and his crowd reacted against the complexity and dross of human society, something that I have been criticizing especially in American life.

The goal, you might say, is no entanglements; no bullshit; no striving for success as defined by the consumer society or power politics, because all of that only causes … suffering.

And with that last word, you see the connection that I make between Diogenes and the Buddha, Patanjali and Laozi (all of whom lived very roughly during the same ‘axial age’). They all believed in radical uncluttering and simplification as a way out of human suffering and into a higher form of freedom.

And so I hereby include Diogenes in my list of the world’s greatest thinkers. He was really a …

Greek Buddha

Calling Diogenes a Greek Buddhist is funny, of course. The three Asians I am comparing him to above (and others have made the same connection) communicated their insight in an Asian way: They retreated to some banyan tree or rode off on some water buffalo, kept themselves very clean, remained resolutely gentle towards others and wore that perennial smile that we Westerners eventually find somewhat annoying. (We do, don’t we?)

The ancient Greeks, by contrast, were confrontational, in-your-face, bring-it-on types. That was as much part of their Hellenism as their great art and culture. And in that way, they are recognizably Western–ie, like us.

But I believe the message of the cynics was the same as that of the Buddhists, Yogis and Taoists. And Diogenes delivered that message without ever preaching it, by simply living the example.

Diogenes looked past the vain and venal veneer of ‘civilized’ people around him and sought honesty instead–he carried a lamp around (in the picture above) to symbolize his search.

To stay simple and free, he volunteered for blissful poverty because he only wanted what he needed and we humans, as it turns out, need almost nothing. He had a wooden bowl to drink but then saw a boy drinking with his cupped hands and realized that he did not even need his bowl; so he threw it away and was happier for it. When Alexander the Great came to him (Diogenes being something of a celebrity by this time) and granted him any favor, Diogenes replied: ‘Yes, please, step out of my sunlight.’ (Alexander, being great indeed, was not offended but impressed. The two great men would die in the same year.)


Sounding like Einstein, Diogenes once said that

Humans have complicated every simple gift of the gods.

When asked where he was from, Diogenes was also the first person ever to say

I am a citizen of the world (cosmopolites)

Cosmopolitan, eccentric, cynical (in the good way) and free: That was Diogenes. Wouldst that I had the same courage to bid all this crap in life adieu to live merrily in a barrel somewhere. Perhaps someday I will.

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9 thoughts on “Free as Diogenes: a fantasy

  1. No doubt the world would be better, were more of us to live as did the admirable Diogenes.

    But, what if we all did? In the picture, Diogenes sits inside a barrel, which protects him from the elements. He wears a garment for comfort, and he holds some object, which would be of some use to him, or provide pleasure. Diogenes would also need to eat and drink, else he would die.

    Many people had to do the unpleasant, or dangerous, or dirty, or boring work to make the things and produce the food, without which Diogenes couldn’t have lived his simple virtuous honest and free life.

    As then, so now. We can suffer only a few Diogeneses, else we’d soon all be dead.

    • You went Kantian on me. 😉 (ie: Categorical Imperative = Do only that which everybody else should also do under all circumstances)

      A creature like Diogenes necessariy reacts against the hypocrisy and discontent of society as he sees it. If everybody in society mysteriously became like Diogenes, there would be much less need for Diogenes to be like, well, like Diogenes.

      (Being a contrarian, I would then change tack and go into the barrel-manufacturing business.

      The object he holds, by the way, is a lamp that he carried around to symbolize his search for a genuine Mensch. (He is unlikely to have used the Yiddish word, however.)

  2. What if one aspires to live like a cat instead of dog? Canine => Cynical, Feline => Fynical. You language scholars probably didn’t know that fynical is a word. Simple, virtuous, free, honest – with none of the nuisance barking or pack mentality (maybe a bit sleepy (and peckish)). Since we’re talking fantasy, I’ll add playful. It’s sort of like finicky, but ignoring rather than obsessing about unimportant details. More fantasy.

    The trite homily that I’ve heard is that a cynic is someone who knows the price of everything and value of nothing. Being cynical is an art and a form of protection.

    Life in a barrel. Do a Google Image search on ‘Das Park Hotel, Ottensheim, Austria’.

    • That hotel in Austria looks so fun! You can stay in a barrel. A step up from Diogenes’, I might add.

      The choice whether to by cynical of fynical is intimately personal. I can only be cynical, because my Chinese zodiac sign is the dog and I display many doglike qualities, and no feline ones at all. Plus I object to catpoop in my garden.

  3. If I roll out the red barrel lining, when you get up there, you will see the place overrun with squatters, do-gooders, developers, and mountain climbers.

    No Trespassing is harsh but might accomplish the isolation and quiet necessary for contemplation.

    Ironic that one may need rules to be free.

  4. There is also the aspect of learning to “how to abound and be abased” and not have either circumstance change your heart. You can become a slave to anything. Elevating the importance of the barrel, or this way of life can be a crutch, or a manifestation of arrogance toward others. Like Flannery O’Conner said,”A good man is hard to find,” whether they are rich or poor, because the heart is poor and needs filling. The barrel makes no difference. I guess you can tell I’m not a Manichee. ; ) I appreciate Dio’s efforts, however.

    • You’re saying that I could go off and live in a barrel and still be a pathetic wretch; and that I could live in a McMansion with four SUVs and lots of IRAs and 401(k)s and this and that, and still find peace and simplicity inside.

      In theory, agreed.

      But as Yogi Berra said, in theory there’s no difference between theory and practice; in practice there is. 😉

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