Diogenes, a citizen of the cosmos


An essay by Shanti on “a fascinating man’s life.”

Diogenes by Jean-Léon Gerôme (1860)
Diogenes by Jean-Léon Gerôme (1860)

I spent most my teenage years learning to translate classical Greek and Latin into proper Dutch. So, both Diogenes and Herakleitos [aka Heraclitus, ed.] were occasional guests during our Greek classes, dominated by Herodotus’ Histories, Plato’s Dialogues and, above all, Homer’s Odyssey and Ilias.

Of course, being so young, we couldn’t fully grasp the insights of these writers and poor Diogenes remained the most obscure figure of all of them. We just scratched the surface of this fascinating man’s life.

It wasn’t until I heard Osho speak on him in my thirties that I at least began to understand something about this wonderful man and about ‘Lao-Tzu-an’ Herakleitos as well. Osho’s book on Herakleitos, The Hidden Harmony, was my first taste of Osho.

Today I feel so ‘high’ on Diogenes that I can’t wait to savour his words myself and to share them with you. My main guides and sources for this article are a little book by Guy Davenport, who translated his words from the Greek in Herakleitos and Diogenes, published by Gray Fox Press, and an article by Joshua J. Mark, The Life of Diogenes of Sinope in Diogenes Laertius, published in the World History Encyclopedia.

Diogenes was a slave, belonging to Xeniades. “Sell me to that man,” Diogenes had said at the slave market, “he needs a master.” He seems to have welcomed slavery. He became the teacher of Xeniades’ sons and a member of the family. “A benevolent spirit has entered my house,” Xeniades said.

Diogenes taught by being a living example: his own behavior was his teaching. He was driven into exile from his native city of Sinope and settled in Athens. He had written to a friend to rent him a small house there but, when this friend failed to find a place, Diogenes threw his cloak into a large, empty, wine cask outside the temple of Cybele near the Agora and called it ‘home’. He lived in the cask his entire time in Athens.

Diogenes believed in the rejection of all that 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 owned nothing, lived on the streets of Athens, and seems to have subsisted on the charity of others. He owned a cup which served also as a bowl for food, but threw it away when he saw a boy drinking water from his hands and eating food off a piece of bread, realizing one did not even need a bowl for sustenance.

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. Some of the most amusing anecdotes about him are those relating his continual feud with Plato, whom he considered a pretentious, prattling snob. When Plato defined a human being as a “featherless biped,” Diogenes plucked a chicken and brought it to Plato’s Academy. He released it into one of the classrooms, saying, “Behold – Plato’s human being.” Plato was then forced to add “with broad, flat nails” to his definition.

All of Diogenes’ writings are lost. What remains are his comments as passed down through folklore to be recorded by various writers, among others by Diogenes Laërtius and Plutarch.

Here they are, my personal choice of his words of wisdom, of humor, of insight, so clear as a lightning, so impressive as a thunderclap.

I am not an Athenian or a Greek, but a citizen of the world.

Before begging it is useful to practice on statues.

Happy the man who thinks to marry and changes his mind, who plans a voyage he does not take, who runs for office but withdraws his name, who wants to belong to the circle of an influential man, but is excluded.

For three thousand drachmas you can get a statue, for two coppers a quart of barley.

Against fate I put courage, against custom nature, against passion reason.

We are more curious about the meaning of dreams than about things we see when awake.

I pissed on the man who called me a dog. Why was he so surprised?

Love of money is the marketplace for every evil.

A good man is a picture of God.

Why not whip the teacher when the pupil misbehaves?

We have complicated every simple gift from the gods.

The only real commonwealth is the whole world.

When asked where he was from, Diogenes said, “I’m a citizen of the world.” The word he used was kosmopolites, from which our ‘cosmopolitan’ derives, so strictly speaking he was expressing allegiance with the cosmos, but the term is usually translated as ‘citizen of the world’.

When Diogenes said, “I am not an Athenian or a Greek, but a citizen of the world,” it started a mass movement. Suddenly people were calling themselves “cosmopolitans” – cosmos meaning the entire known world and polites meaning citizen. His radical claim of world citizenship contained a pointed criticism of the warring city-state system, and impacted the entire civilized world as it spread. It helped start the philosophical school of Stoicism, which held that every person belongs to two communities: the local community of their birth and the entire human community.

Ultimately it strongly influenced the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius, the playwright and political advisor Seneca and the slave turned prominent teacher, Epictetus, and later on philosophers and thinkers like Immanuel Kant, Jacques Derrida, Thich Nhat Hanh and many others. And ultimately it inspired the formation of the growing Global Citizenship movement. Global citizenship is more than a title, it’s the ‘mind-set’ that all people have civic responsibilities to the world as a whole, rather than just their local communities or countries.

Diogenes surely is one of the many beloveds of Osho. In many of his discourses Osho’s love for Diogenes is so clear and tangible. It radiates, for example, from the next couple of articles, published here in Osho News, and from this quote as well:

In Greece he was not understood at all. He belongs to the category of people like Bodhidharma, Chuang Tzu, Hotei.”

Osho, Beyond Psychology, Ch 14, Q 2

Related discourse excerpts
  • Osho Speaks on DiogenesDiogenes (ca. 400 B.C. – 325 B.C.) was born in the Greek colony Sinope (modern day Turkey) and lived in Athens, Greece
  • Alexander meets Diogenes…Twice!Osho tells a rare account of a second meeting between Alexander and Diogenes, published here in the series 1001 Tales, compiled by Shanti
  • Plato meets Diogenes“Your mind is nothing but a teaspoon and with it you are trying to exhaust the oceanic existence.”

Shanti is the creator and compiler of series, including Home in the Universe and 1001 Tales.

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