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Diogenes of Sinope › Who Was

Definition and Origins

by Joshua J. Mark
published on 02 August 2014
Diogenes of Sinope (Wikipedia User: Singinglemon)

Diogenes of Sinope (c. 404-323 BCE) was a Greek Cynic philosopher best known for holding a lantern (or candle) to the faces of the citizens of Athens claiming he was searching for an honest man. He was most likely a student of the philosopher Antisthenes (445-365 BCE) and, in the words of Plato (allegedly), was “A Socrates gone mad.” He was driven into exile from his native city of Sinope for defacing currency (though some sources say it was his father who committed the crime and Diogenes simply followed him into exile).


Diogenes came to Athens where he met Antisthenes who at first refused him as a student but, eventually, was worn down by his persistence and accepted him. Like Antisthenes, Diogenes believed in self-control, the importance of personal excellence in one's behavior (in Greek, arete, usually translated as `virtue'), and the rejection of all which was considered unnecessary in life such as personal possessions and social status. He was so ardent in his beliefs that he lived them very publicly in the market place of Athens. He took up residence in a large wine cask (some sources claim it was an abandoned bathtub), owned nothing, and seems to have lived off the charity of others. He owned a cup which served also has a bowl for food but threw it away when he saw a boy drinking water from his hands and realized one did not even need a cup to sustain oneself.


This much can be said with more or less assurance but any other details become increasingly uncertain owing to the many fables which grew up around Diogenes and his time in Athens. Even the claim that he was Antisthenes' student has been challenged as a fable. It seems clear, however, that Diogenes believed what people called `manners' were simply lies used to hide the true nature of the individual. He was known for brutal honesty in conversation, paid no attention to any kind of etiquette regarding social class, and seems to have had no problem urinating or even masturbating in public and, when criticized, pointed out that such activities were normal and that everyone engaged in them but hid in private what he did openly.
According to Diogenes society was an artificial contrivance set up by human beings which did not accord well with truth or virtue and could not in any way make someone a good and decent human being; and so follows the famous story of Diogenes holding the light up to the faces of passers-by in the market place looking for an honest man or a true human being. Everyone, he claimed, was trapped in this make-believe world which they believed was reality and, because of this, people were living in a kind of dream state. He was not the first philosopher to make this claim; Heraclitus, Xenophanes, and, most famously, Socrates all pointed out the need for human beings to wake from their dream state to full awareness of themselves and the world. Plato's famous Allegory of the Cave is devoted to this very theme. Diogenes, however, confronted the citizens of Athens daily with their lifelessness and shallow values, emulating his hero Socrates whom he never met but would have learned of from Antisthenes. Although it seems many people thought he was simply mentally ill, Diogenes would have claimed he was living a completely honest life and others should have the courage to do the same.


This behavior of Diogenes was informed in part by the belief that if an act is not shameful in private then it should not be shameful in public. The rules by which people lived, then, were non-sensical in that they forced people to behave in a way different from how they would naturally have behaved. Manners and etiquette were both regarded by him as staples of the false life in the dream world and should not be indulged in. Accordingly, he insulted his social superiors regularly, including Plato and Alexander the Great. When Plato defined a human being as "a featherless biped", and was praised for the cleverness of the definition, Diogenes plucked a chicken, brought it to Plato's Academy, and declared, "Behold - Plato's human being." Plato then added "with broad, flat, nails" to his definition. This is not the only time Diogenes insulted Plato publicly but is the best known incident.
Diogenes of Sinope

Diogenes of Sinope

In the case of Alexander the Great, both Diogenes Laertius and Plutarch relate how, when Diogenes was living in Corinth, Alexander came to the city and was very interested in meeting the philosopher. He found Diogenes resting in the sunlight, introduced himself, and asked if there was anything he could do for him. Diogenes replied, "Yes. Get out of my sunlight."Alexander admired his spirit and said, "If I were not Alexander, I would wish to be Diogenes" to which Diogenes replied, "If I were not Diogenes, I would also wish to be Diogenes." On another occasion, when some people were discussing a man named Callisthenes and the fine treatment he received from Alexander, Diogenes said, "The man then is wretched, for he is forced to breakfast and dine whenever Alexander chooses." Another time, at a banquet for some Athenian elites, some of the guests threw Diogenes some bones and referred to him as a dog; so he lifted his leg and urinated on them. In spite of, or because of, his outrageous behavior, the Athenians loved him and, Laertius relates, when a boy broke Diogenes' cask, the people had the boy beaten and replaced the broken cask. It is unlikely, however, that Diogenes cared very much for the cask or what state it was in; to him, possessions were a trap.
To be truly free, and live a virtuous life of complete awareness, was the ultimate meaning of one's existence. As Diogenes Laertius writes,
On one occasion he was asked, what was the most excellent thing among men; and he said, `Freedom of speech.' He was in the habit of doing everything in public, whether in respect of Venus or Ceres; and he used to put his conclusions in this way to people: `If there is nothing absurd in dining, then it is not absurd to dine in the market-place. But it is not absurd to dine, therefore it is not absurd to dine in the market-place'.
This was in reference to the prohibition on eating in the Agora (the public market) which, like all such prohibitions, Diogenes ignored.


For Diogenes, a reasonable life is one lived in accordance with nature and with one's natural inclinations. To be true to oneself, then, no matter how `mad' one may appear, was to pursue a life worth living. Whether true or another fable, the tale of Diogenes' capture by pirates and his being sold into slavery in Corinth bears testimony to the strength of his convictions. When asked what talent he had he replied, “That of governing men” and then demanded to be sold to Xeniades saying, “Sell me to that man; for he wants a master.” Even though he was a slave at this point, and in no position to demand anything, he believed so completely in himself that others felt compelled to listen to him and do what he said. Xeniades, for example, placed Diogenes in charge of tutoring his young sons and, in time, the philosopher became part of the family. He lived in Corinth with Xeniades' family for the rest of his life and died there at the age of ninety. His cause of death has been given as either severe food poisoning from eating a raw ox's foot, rabies from a dog bite, or suicide by holding his breath. The citizens of Corinth, like those of Athens, had come to greatly admire the philosopher and buried him in honor by the city gate, erecting a monument over his grave. This would have amused Diogenes who, when asked what he wished done with his body after his death, replied that it should be thrown outside the city for the dogs to feed on. A statue of him stands in modern-day Sinop, Turkey, depicting him holding out his lantern with a dog sitting by his side.

Marcus Annaeus Lucanus › Who Was

Definition and Origins

by Elaine Sanderson
published on 06 November 2015

Marcus Annaeus Lucanus (39-65 CE), grandson of Seneca the Elder and nephew of Seneca the Younger, was a Romanstatesman and Latin poet. Born in Corduba, he came to Rome as an infant and later held the positions of quaestor and augur.Lucan's elite education made him not only eligible to hold political office but also allowed him to indulge in the writing of literature, notably his Bellum Civile. He was a key figure within the inner circle of the Emperor Nero, a great patron of the arts.


Lucan's poetic talents were highlighted when he was honoured with a prize at the first Neronian Games in 60 CE for a poem praising Nero. His literary output continued with the publication of part of his epic, the Bellum Civile, around 62-63 CE. It is for this historical poem that Lucan is most famous. Spanning ten books, it tells the story of the brutal civil conflict between Caesarand Pompey (49-45 BCE). The conflict erupted following the refusal of the Senate to allow Caesar to stand for a second consulship while absent from Rome, and the crossing of the Rubicon River by Caesar and his army. The war concluded with the defeat of the Republican side at the Battle of Munda, following the death of their leader Pompey in Egypt. However, Lucan's poem breaks off with Caesar still in Egypt before the ultimate conclusion of the conflict, thus leading to intense modern scholarly debate as to the completeness of the work.
The Bellum Civile is an incredibly complex work. The topic of civil war was somewhat taboo in Ancient Rome, and Lucan's decision to write about such a loaded subject has raised questions about his political motivations. Was he, despite his privileged position beside the emperor, a republican at heart? Lucan's violent, gory, and rhetorically flamboyant portrayal of the conflict might be interpreted as evidence for his resentment of what Rome had become under the Imperial system. However, his unflattering characterisation of Pompey, the Republican front man, casts doubt over this interpretation.


Despite his early favour, Lucan's relationship with Nero turned sour. Ancient sources debate the causes behind this.Suetonius, a Roman historian, attributes this deterioration to Nero walking out of one of Lucan's public readings, thus planting seeds of anger and resentment within the young poet. Tacitus, a Roman senator and historian, offers an alternative explanation, claiming that their relationship broke down due to Nero's jealousy of Lucan's poetic and artistic talents. Indeed, Tacitus pours scorn on Nero's own poetic works, suggesting that the emperor would pass off the jumbled lines of other poets as his own compositions. Although the exact reasons behind the declining relationship between Nero and Lucan remain unknown, we know that Lucan joined the Pisonian Conspiracy to overthrow Nero in 65CE. The ultimate aim of the conspiracy are not fully known. Did the group intend to overthrow the emperor, thus forcing a return to the Republican regime? Or did they merely wish to replace a tyrannical ruler with a more moderate figure? The discovery of the conspiracy ultimately led to the forced suicide of all involved. Tacitus provides a chilling account of Lucan's final moments:
He next ordained the despatch of Lucan. When his blood was flowing, and he felt his feet and hands chilling and the life receding little by little from the extremities, though the heart retained warmth and sentience, Lucan recalled a passage in his own poem, where he had described a wounded soldier dying a similar form of death, and he recited the very verses. Those were his last words. ( Tacitus Annals XV.70)


Despite his brutal self-murder at such a young age, Lucan left behind an impressive legacy. His Bellum Civile offers an example of an epic that echoes canonical works such as Virgil ’s Aeneid, while also distancing itself artistically and ideologically from earlier epic poetry. Indeed, Quintilian, a Roman rhetorician, considered Lucan to be a better model for orators than poets, highlighting the unusual tone of his poetry. Lucan provides a window into the artistic world of the Neronian court, with the influences of rhetorical training, Stoic teaching, and youthful zeal clear within his writing. Despite this, Lucan was not studied as extensively as, say Virgil, until the late 20th century CE, when scholars began to bring Lucan to the forefront of academic discussion. A tantalisingly esoteric writer, Lucan will continue to challenge and inspire readers and scholars for many centuries to come.


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