Cynic meant dog in Ancient Greek. The first cynic was Diogenes of Athens; part madman, part homeless vagabond and part philosopher and social critic.
He was the 1st performance artist; living in a large funeral urn in the Athenian market, doing his business anywhere he felt like and famously wandering around with a lamp in the middle of the day, searching for an honest man.
He tangled with Plato, who described him as “Socrates gone mad.” When Plato declared man a biped with no feathers, Diogenes showed up at the next lecture with a plucked chicken and shouted, “look Plato, I’ve brought a man.”
Diogenes would be right at home wandering any modern urban center, harassing passersby with his direct, jagged insights, coupled with such a rude, abrasive nature, that they couldn’t get him out of their heads.
“Of what use is a philosopher who doesn’t hurt anybody’s feelings,” he declared.
His contempt for social conventions, distain for material wealth and comfort, and open mockery of abstract philosophy, were a jolt to a society that was perhaps going a little mad itself.
Diogenes’ writings are gone. All we have are quips and quotes and his famously eccentric behavior.
When a group of Athenians, the fashionistas of the day, walked by in their finery he remarked, “there goes vanity.” Then, when some rustic islanders proudly followed in tattered, thread bare clothes he added, “there goes a different kind of vanity.”
Alexander the Great, headed off to conquer the world, insisted on meeting this infamous Athenian. He asked the street philosopher, sprawled across the pavement of the marketplace, “is there anything I can I do for you ?” “For now, just stand out of my sunlight,” was the philosopher’s simple reply.
When asked to what city he belonged, Diogenes uttered his most famous line. “I am not an Athenian or a Greek. I am a citizen of the world.”
Diogenes’ idea of one world, rode with Alexander as he conquered half of Asia and inspired the idea of a cultural fusion and harmony between Greeks and Persians - ancient enemies for centuries.
Imagine the most powerful man on earth, so taken with a street corner philosopher, that he would mold his foreign policy and a good part of his personal life on the utterings of this wise, mad, fool.
After Alexander’s death, Ptolemy, one of his generals, founded the first world city- Alexandria - on the Egyptian coast. Named for Alexander the Great, it was inspired by Diogenes’ new cosmopolitan ideal.
The Ptolemy rulers welcomed scholars, artists, mathematicians, and scientists from Spain to India to their thriving, teeming, metropolis. The population at its height, was over a quarter of a million people – a true meeting place of East and West.
It’s library was the greatest in the world – it contained over one hundred thousand books. Next door was a temple to the muses -the world’s first museum. Together they combined research labs, living quarters, gardens for conversation, and lecture halls to listen to the great minds of the day, from all over the Greek world and what we call the Middle East. It was like a modern day university/cultural complex. You went to live and learn.
The city was the Queen of the Mediterranean for centuries, and if you were a genius- Archimedes, Euclid, Eratosthenes- who discovered the world was round, seventeen hundred years before Columbus - you went to Alexandria. Three hundred years after its founding, the city was ruled by the last Greek Queen of Egypt- Cleopatra, last of the Ptolemys.
A simple lifestyle distaining all social pretense, speaking truth to power, in search of an honest man, the creator of a new world city, the first cynic: Diogenes was the original.
The debate about his ideas still rages. What is the worth of reputation and social standing, how much respect de we owe our rulers, what behavior do we allow in public, are we world citizens or members of particular states? What are human beings ?
Not a bad showing for a man who spent his time living in a barrel, harassing passersby, and walked around with a lamp in the heat of the day, looking for an honest man.