Minimalists in History: Diogenes


“Humans have complicated every simple gift of the gods.”
– Diogenes

Diogenes of Sinope (c. 412–323 BCE) believed we become happy by meeting our natural needs. He practiced what he preached and lived extremely simply.

Unfortunately for us, either Diogenes never wrote anything, or none of his works survive. All we know comes from anecdotes written by others.

“He has the most who is most content with the least.”
– Diogenes

A Greek Cynic, Diogenes rejected all he considered unnecessary, such as personal possessions and social status. He lived on the streets, slept in a barrel, and owned almost nothing.

It is said that he owned a cup, but threw it away when he saw a boy drinking water from his hands, saying “A child has beaten me in plainness of living.”

Diogenes thought civilization was toxic, and we need to rediscover the simple gifts nature affords us, such as health, freedom, and reason.

“It is the privilege of the gods to want nothing, and of godlike men to want little.”
– Diogenes

Cynics valued self-sufficiency, freedom of will, and freedom of speech. Self-sufficiency was easily attained through simple living.

Freedom of will included understanding of virtue, as well as being free from social obligations.

Freedom of speech meant the freedom to speak frankly, without fear of punishment or judgment. Diogenes is said to have stated, “The most beautiful thing in the world is freedom of speech.”

“I am called a dog because I fawn on those who give me anything, I yelp at those who refuse, and I set my teeth in rascals.”
– Diogenes

Even aside from the whole living-in-a-barrel thing, most of us aren’t going to accept all of Diogenes’ ideas. He and his followers were extremely anti-authoritarian and against all social conventions.

They urinated, defecated, and masturbated in public, since they believed that anything natural could not be shameful. Plato called Diogenes “Socrates gone mad.”

However, the below, quoted from The Song of the Bird by Anthony de Mello is a rebellious idea most of us can get behind. After all, one of the reasons many of us want to live more simply is so we can live more freely and get out of the rat race.

The philosopher Diogenes was eating bread and lentils for supper. He was seen by the philosopher Aristippus, who lived comfortably by flattering the king.

Said Aristippus, “If you would learn to be subservient to the king, you would not have to live on lentils.”

Said Diogenes, “Learn to live on lentils and you will not have to be subservient to the king.”

3 thoughts on “Minimalists in History: Diogenes

    • Sorry, hit post button before I wanted to!

      I’m rather shocked at what the Cynics did in public! On the other hand, I like many of Diogenes’ quotes, and I love the story at the end of your post.


      • Thanks, Carol. I’m pretty shocked, too, by the things they did in public – as were their peers at the time. On the other hand, I guess there is some logic to believing that natural behaviors don’t need to be private. After all, animals certainly don’t worry about it – why do we?

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