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Diogenes believed that the plaudits, power, honor, and gain that people spent their lives seeking were “mere fancy and illusion.” But did Diogenes truly practice what he preached?…

DiogenesDiogenes is one of my heroes. When I think of him I often think of a well-known story: As a throng exited a theater, the famous philosopher walked directly against the flow of the crowd, into the theater, jostling against the unanimous multitude. He told a questioning onlooker that he spent his entire life doing just that: taking a contrary path, thinking differently, refusing to pursue the goals of conventional society. There are many similar stories about Diogenes—in one, he walked backwards in a public place, and after being mocked, replied that it was others, not he, who took the wrong direction in life.

The scholar Robin Hard described Diogenes’ ideas by saying that he dismissed “almost everything that people value and pursue, not only luxury and pleasure but also civic and cultural endeavor, as being utterly worthless.” Diogenes believed that the plaudits, power, honor, and gain that people spent their lives seeking were “mere fancy and illusion.”

I admire Diogenes not only because he was a true original and a profound thinker, but because I often agree with him. I cannot help but feel that many of the people around me are constantly and energetically pursuing illusions. For some, there is the illusion of power. I see people at my workplace who are consumed with anxiety about securing a slightly higher pay grade, or getting a little more responsibility at work. There are the illusions of status and luxury. I see people who spend months and years trying to get a slightly nicer or bigger house, to have something better than their neighbors and friends. There are illusions of fame, popularity, and many others besides in which I see people caught up.

Of course, power, status, luxury, and fame are not illusions in themselves; they really exist, and people do gain and lose them according to their efforts and fortune. The illusion is that they have any value, or enough value to dedicate one’s life to pursuing them. The worldly power of a CEO is real, for example, but it is not power over anything that really matters, like the contentment of the soul or the loving relationships that connect the soul to others. Material luxury is real, but its value is illusory since its greatest comforts are nothing next to the comfort of, say, a guiltless conscience. Diogenes had the unfortunately rare gift of seeing through these illusions and advocating the rejection of their pursuit.

Abandoning the pursuit of wealth and status in favor of the austere idea of cultivating the soul is a rare choice, and those who do so are walking against the crowd like Diogenes did in the crowded theater. I have always wanted to walk against the crowd like him, living a simple life, not worrying about my popularity, my job title, or the square footage of my house, enjoying only the wealth that he said comes from having a calm and cheerful spirit.

In place of those illusions, Diogenes believed that we should be content to satisfy our basic needs. True, there were other philosophers in ancient Greece and elsewhere who advocated the cultivation of the mind and soul as the proper pursuit of mankind. But Diogenes singularly made a way of life of what he preached.

Or did he? Did Diogenes really walk against the crowd? He gave up material luxury, certainly, living on the streets with few or no possessions. He gave up wealth and positions in corporate or state hierarchies, living independently and without servants or employees. But among the illusions he decried, there is one important one that he constantly and energetically pursued, contrary to his own teachings. I am referring to fame. He frequently criticized the orators of his day who spoke only to gain fame, and once said that the noblest of men were those who despised reputation. But Diogenes’ own reputation did not come about by accident. He made sure to hang out in the most public places, to shout about his beliefs, to make big scenes that were noticed and talked about in his day and all the way until ours. He didn’t need to find the biggest crowd in Athens and then walk against it to prove that he was the type of person who was different. He could have just been different. Despite his protestations to the contrary, he must have had an intense hunger for fame that he was unable to suppress. By spending his life reviling fame in speech but pursuing it in his actions, he was a hypocrite… at least in that respect.

What is the problem with this? Many people pursue fame; though desiring fame may be folly, there are much worse sins. Hypocrisy is also common to humankind, and Diogenes is far from the worst hypocrite known to history. In most areas of life, he was actually quite consistent. I do not condemn him for his desire for fame or his hypocrisy. However, I cannot shake the feeling that he was not “the real Diogenes.” By that, I don’t mean that he wore a disguise or changed his name. I mean that in books and classes we are taught, supposedly about Diogenes, that there was a man in ancient Greece who denounced wealth, fame, and power, and lived a virtuous life devoid of a desire for these “illusions.” But that man, if he did exist, was not Diogenes. Diogenes pursued fame and honor energetically. We have never heard the name of the “real Diogenes,” who actually eschewed the fame and honors that he denounced. We will never know his name simply because he did not pursue fame and honors.

I wonder who the “real Diogenes” was, if any such man existed. Maybe there was some Greek peasant who actually practiced all of the Diogenetic principles, denouncing the illusions of the world and also eschewing them. While the Diogenes we have heard of was making a public statement by walking backwards into a theater, maybe the real Diogenes was taking a nap or washing simple vegetables for a small meal. Maybe the Diogenes of history and the real Diogenes knew each other, or maybe they only met once or not at all. Maybe the Diogenes of history stole all his teachings from the real Diogenes. The real Diogenes wouldn’t have cared, knowing that improving the virtue of the people was more important than getting credit for the ideas. My guess would be that they didn’t know each other, since the real Diogenes probably wouldn’t have lived in Athens, which was the magnet for everyone (like the historical Diogenes) who lusted after fame.

It would have been nice to meet the real Diogenes in person, and to learn more about who he was and how he lived. I wonder if he had any insights about life or philosophy that haven’t filtered through history to us. I wonder what he would think about the illusions that people pursue today.

I imagine that Diogenes, either the historical one or the “real” one, would be shocked at the energy that people spend on pursuing fame today. The rise of the social media conglomerates and the selfie paint a picture of a population starved for the recognition that Diogenes said we should reject. One of the worst things about fame as an idol is that it is so limited—nearly a zero-sum game. With billions of people on Earth, only a vanishingly small proportion of them can ever become household names or even attain any fame outside of their own small social circle. The rise of one person to fame typically means the fall of another, as our limited attention spans and memories clear the way for new celebrities. Fame cannot be a satisfying goal for most of us, so the more robust strategy is to learn to be satisfied without it.

It’s too late to meet Diogenes, either the one recorded in history or the hypothetical “real” one that I’ve described. But I will try to be my own version of Diogenes, not needing fame or wealth or honor or glory to be happy, living a simple life, and cherishing only virtue, friendship, and love.

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