Diogenes “The Dog”

Painting of Diogenes in his jar with dogs by Jean-Léon Gérôme

I don’t know about you, but I find it to be so incredibly fascinating how dogs are woven into human history. It seems that at every turn, there’s something about a dog’s role in our evolution. And I’m not just talking about a caveman with a dog for protection and survival, but the ways that they’ve helped to shape our thinking and philosophy…

Diogenes of Sinope was a Greek philosopher and one of the founders of Cynic philosophy. A rebel, he turned his back on his banker father and chose to separate himself from regular society by living in a jar in the middle of town and hanging out with dogs. He was the kind of guy you’d meet and probably think to yourself “What a jerk!” and then realize, well, he’s got a good point. He was known for stunts like carrying a lamp around in the daytime, claiming to be looking for an honest man. When he met Alexander the Great, who was thrilled to meet the famous philosopher, and was asked if there was anything he could do for him, Diogenes replied “Yes, stand out of my sunlight.” Nice. After that, Alexander declared “If I were not Alexander, then I should wish to be Diogenes”, to which Diogenes replied “If I were not Diogenes, I should also wish to be Diogenes.” Well, okay then!

Alexander the Great meeting Diogenes

Now hold on, before we go any further, just because Diogenes was a Cynic, don’t start thinking of him as the original “Debbie Downer”. Like a lot of things, the meaning of the word “cynic” has evolved to be something negative in our modern world. According to The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, “classical Cynics regarded virtue as the only necessity for happiness. They sought to free themselves from conventions; become self-sufficient; and live only in accordance with nature. They rejected any conventional notions of happiness involving money, power, or fame, in the pursuit of virtuous, and thus happy, lives. In rejecting conventional social values, they would criticise the types of behaviours, such as greed, which they viewed as causing suffering.” And there were other things they stood for, like cosmopolitanism, freedom of speech, a woman’s right to choose her mate, constitutional law, and—as the name indicates—emulating the simple behaviors of dogs. By the 19th century, however, emphasis shifted to the negative aspects of the philosophy, leading to the modern understanding of cynicism to mean “a disposition of disbelief in the sincerity or goodness of human motives and actions.” Boo.

And what is the connection with dogs? Well, the term “cynic” derives from the Greek word kynikos which means “dog-like”. From Wikipedia: “Diogenes believed human beings live artificially and hypocritically and would do well to study the dog. Besides performing natural bodily functions in public with ease, a dog will eat anything, and make no fuss about where to sleep. Dogs live in the present without anxiety, and have no use for the pretensions of abstract philosophy. In addition to these virtues, dogs are thought to know instinctively who is friend and who is foe. Unlike human beings who either dupe others or are duped, dogs will give an honest bark at the truth.”

So it appears that even way back then, dogs were recognized by some important thinkers as role models for how society should be, and I’m down with that. Well, except for the public display of a few bodily functions. Shine on, Diogenes.

Diogenes statue, with lantern and dog

I realize this was a brisk breeze through the topic of Diogenes and Cynicism, but you can read more here if you are interested. Thanks to Wikipedia for the information and images. 

Images from top: Diogenes, Jean-Léon Gérôme, 1860; Alexander and Diogenes, Caspar de Crayer, c. 1650; statue of Diogenes at Sinop, Turkey.

11 thoughts on “Diogenes “The Dog”

  1. wow, that was enlightening! thanks for sharing (again!), i never would have guessed the word “cynic” had anything to do with dogs. :)

    love the idea that us humans can really learn a thing or two (or more) from dogs, though i do agree with you about the public display of bodily functions. some things are just strictly animals. ;)

  2. I feel like I should declare, “If I can’t be Diogenes then I want to be my dog!” Wait a minute, my dogs do everything with me…..I think I am already my dog. This is so confusing. I need a nap in front of the wood stove.

  3. Haha maybe it’s too much training from humans, but many dogs these days are picky eaters and sleepers! Dogs always manage to find a nice cozy spot to nap! Right on a sunny spot or on a cozy blanket. That sounds awfully good right now :)

  4. Can ANYone name the breed of Diogenes’ dog friends in the Gerome painting?? I’ve been searching in vain. He painted this in the late 1800’s, so it’s probably European. I like Diogenes, but I LOVE those pals of his!!

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