Alexander and Diogenes
The meeting of the regal Alexander and the Cynic philosopher Diogenes is one of the most popular stories in philosophical history. Versions of the event span antiquity all the way through the Middle Ages and Early Modern period, told by writers from Plutarch to Shakespeare. The amount of attention given to the meeting is even more staggering when you consider that it historically never happened.
Diogenes was one of the ancient world’s most controversial figures. A strict adherent to the philosophical school of Cynicism (cynic, in Ancient Greek, means “dog-like”), he embraced a life of total self-sufficiency. This involved the rejection of societal values and aspirationsâwhich the Cynics believed ran in opposition to natureâin favor of a life revolving around doing exactly what you wantâwhich they believed ran in accordance with nature.
Diogenes took this to extremes. He flouted almost every social convention there was: masturbating in the forum, urinating on those who taunted him and living in a giant barrel just being a few. This earned him the nickname “Diogenes the dog“; a particularly appropriate given one famous legend.
At one stage the only thing Diogenes owned was a begging bowl, which he used to collect up water. One particularly hot day he was passing by a stream and saw a dog lapping up water with its tongue. Immediately realizing his one earthly possession was superfluous, Diogenes threw his vessel away and joined in with his canine companion.
As mentioned, many versions of the meeting between Alexander and Diogenes exist. However, they’re all more or less based on an original anecdote which goes like this. One day Alexander was passing through Diogenes’s city (which city differs according to different versions). He was struck by the fact that although the whole city had flocked to see him, its famous resident philosopher was not in the least bit bothered. So Alexander resolved to go to him. Arriving at Diogenes’s giant barrel, Alexander asked the philosopher if he would like anything from him. Diogenes’s response was that he’d like Alexander to stand aside a little as he was blocking his sun.
While Alexander’s companions fell about laughing, the king himself was in awe of this man who cared nothing for regal power and had no issues speaking out of line with a king. Alexander was reported to have said “But truly If I were not Alexander, I would be Diogenes”, longing for the carefree existence of the Cynic philosopher.