Diogenes: mad, bad and dangerous to know

 

Aristophanes, perhaps the funniest man in history, often characterized the crooks, villains and scoundrels he wrote about in his plays as, “men you wouldn’t want to bump into in the Agora.”

The Agora was the central marketplace of classical Athens; also, the location of the city’s law courts and various other temples and government buildings. It was a busy place, the hub of Athenian life from sun up to sun down.

One of the maddest, baddest and most dangerous denizens of the Agora was Diogenes of Sinope (404-323BC). By occupation he was beggar and philosopher; by vocation, a royal pain in the ass. Plato once described him as “A Socrates gone mad.”

He hailed from the city of Sinope, where his father was a banker and which he was forced o flee because of his involvement with his old man in a scam to debase the local currency.

Diogenes was the archetypal representative of the ancient Greek philosophical school called Cynicism. The root of that word in Greek is “dog” and it actually means “dog-like”. The Agora crowd nicknamed him The Dog. When someone asked him why he was thus called, he replied:

“Because I fawn upon those who give me anything and bark at those who give me nothing and bite the rogues.”

According to Wikipedia: For the Cynics, the purpose of life is to live in virtue, in agreement with nature. As reasoning creatures, people can gain happiness by rigorous training and by living in a way which is natural for themselves, rejecting all conventional desires. Instead, they were to lead a simple life free from all possessions…One can become free by unshackling oneself from any needs that are the result of convention…By embracing shamelessness.

Diogenes embraced shamelessness shamelessly.

The bugger lived in a bloody big pot. Some writers call it a tub. It was lying cracked and unused in a corner of the Agora. Tired of waiting for a cottage someone had promised to get him, Diogenes moved into the pot or the broken tub or whatever it was and lived there for many years.

When asked what wine he enjoyed most, he responded: “The wine other people buy me.”

He used to beg in front of a stone statue. When asked why there, his answer was, “To get used to being refused.” When should a man marry? “A young man,” he said, “ought not to marry just yet and an old man, not at all.” Someone once criticized him for drinking in a tavern. He replied that he also had his hair cut in a barber shop.

I don’t know if the Gods exist, he said, but they ought to.

He is most famous, perhaps, for walking through the Agora in broad daylight, with a lit lamp, peering intently around. When someone asked, what the hell are you doing, he responded: “Looking for an honest man.” Finding in the Agora, alas, only rogues and rascals.

Where in Greece do you see good men? His answer, “Good men, nowhere. But good boys at Lacedaemon.” No doubt with a lecherous twinkle in his eye.

The story goes that one day he was invited to a rich man’s mansion and warned by its owner, who obviously knew him very well, “Don’t spit on my floor, please.” Diogenes cleared his throat and spat phlegm mightily into the host’s face, with the comment, “I couldn’t find a meaner receptacle.”

He used to bait Plato mercilessly, eating and drinking with great gusto during the great man’s lectures, belching and farting with abandon. Plato defined Man as – an animal, biped and featherless. Diogenes bought a fowl in the marketplace, plucked it and brought it into the lecture hall, announcing, “Here is Plato’s man.”

(As a result of Diogenes’ cynic performance, another characteristic was added to the definition: Man is an animal, biped and featherless, having broad nails.”)

Once, in Corinth, while Diogenes was sunning himself, Alexander the Great came upon him. I have admired you for years, sir, Alexander said excitedly. He offered to give him anything he desired. Diogenes lifted his head, frowned and said, “You’re blocking the sunlight. I’d really appreciate it if you’d move your ass a step to the side.”

As a man who is getting old at an alarmingly fast rate myself, one of my favorite anecdotes is when Diogenes, because of his advancing age was advised to slow down. “If I was running in the stadium, ought I slacken my pace when approaching the goal?”

Finally, the most scandalous thing about Diogenes’ behavior was that he used to urinate, defecate and masturbate in public, whenever the mood took him. Once he said, ruefully. “I wish it was as easy to banish hunger by rubbing my belly.”

 

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David Turri

Although I was born in England, I have lived in Japan for the past forty years. That’s why this country, its people and history, form the backdrop to many of my novels. I have no big ideas to peddle; I consider myself a simple story-teller and work hard at my craft. I spin my stories in such disparate genres as horror, espionage, war, occult - and humor. I live in Osaka with a wife, two grown daughter and two young grand-daughters – the whole catastrophe, as Zorba describes married life.