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Greek Philosopher Diogenes: Biography & Quotes

Instructor: Tommi Waters

TK Waters has a bachelor's degree in literature and religious studies and a master's degree in religious studies and teaches Hebrew Bible at Western Kentucky University.

When people tell stories about ancient philosophers, they often recount Diogenes' absurdity of living in a tub. Learn more about Diogenes, and why he lived in a tub, by reading this lesson.

Diogenes' Early Life

If the lofty and complex writings of most Greek philosophers seem confusing and over-complicated, Diogenes will be a welcome relief. From bringing a chicken into a lecture, to living in a tub, his story is intriguing and entertaining, mixed with an anti-conventional philosophy.

Diogenes was born in Sinope, a city located in modern-day northern Turkey, around the year 404 BCE. At some point, Diogenes either fled or was exiled from Sinope as a result of defacing the currency. Since there are multiple, divergent accounts of this, and many other, events in Diogenes' life, it is unclear whether he or his father was the one who defaced the currency.

Some stories claim Diogenes visited the oracle of Delphi, a messenger of Apollo, who gave advice and predictions to visitors, who told him to vandalize the currency. Whatever happened, this event led to Diogenes' arrival in Athens, where he developed his philosophy more fully.

Diogenes in Athens

When you move to a new city, you probably try to find a house or apartment to movie into. Diogenes, on the other hand, found a tub and lived in it! His living situation was not just out of desperation or poverty, but an attempt to live out his philosophical beliefs. After watching a mouse and seeing how little it needed in order to live, Diogenes realized that humans are also adaptable, which led him to live in the tub to display the adaptability of the human race.

By some accounts, Diogenes studied under Antisthenes, who was a previously a student of the great Socrates and a contemporary of Plato, while in Athens. Diogenes' philosophy was rooted in some of Antisthenes' teachings and was a form of cynicism. You might think cynicism is about negativity and pessimism, but philosophical cynicism is different. Instead, ancient Greek Cynics (philosophers who ascribed to cynicism) believed that reason is connected with nature, which is superior to social convention.

Diogenes living in his tub
Painting of Diogenes living in his tub

Diogenes' Philosophy

Encapsulated in Diogenes' philosophy, and working alongside cynicism, was the notion of asceticism, or renouncing worldly pleasures and living apart from society as a way of connecting with nature. Diogenes would ponder, ''Why then do you live, if you do not care to live well?'' Since he considered reason to be above social convention, he thought living ''well'' was living a life with nature, filled with reason.

He often tried to get his point across in humorous ways. He thought social conventions were absurd, and that what people were allowed to do in private should be allowed in public as well. He noted the fine line that separated convention from madness in Athenian tradition, saying, ''...if you go along with your middle finger stretched out, someone will think you mad, but if it's the little finger, he will not think so.''

Diogenes even went so far to make his point that there was no one who understood the superiority of reason over convention that he ''lit a lamp in broad daylight and said, as he went about, I am searching for a human being.''

Diogenes was a rather humorous figure, criticizing Plato's philosophy in absurd ways. Plato was a proponent of metaphysics, wanting to understand the basis and true nature of reality. Plato explained that humans are essentially animals who are ''biped and featherless.'' Diogenes, focusing on reason and nature, thought this was over-simplifying humanity and was contrary to nature, so he brought a plucked bird into the lecture hall where Plato was, saying, ''Here is Plato's human being.''

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