Hesperus is Bosphorus

A group blog by philosophers in and from Turkey

On the steps of Ancient Philosophers in Turkey: Diogenes of Sinope.

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Not much is known about this Diogenes, if only because, although he seems to have written some texts, including letters, none have survived. The other Diogenes (Laertius, the Perez Hilton of the ancient world) tells us that he was originally from Sinop, on the Black Sea. His dad minted coins. Diogenes helped him deface them, or he did it all by himself, or someone else did it and they were framed. Diogenes exiled himself to Athens, his father ended up in jailed and died there.

On his way to Athens, he stopped off at Delphi, to find out from the oracle whether he would be famous. He wrote to someone announcing his arrival and asking to be given cheap lodgings. But of course, when he got to Athens, his acquaintance had either not received the letter, or else not bothered to act on it. Diogenes found himself without a place to stay.

Rather than beg for hospitality, he found himself a tub, or a barrel on the market place, and slept there. I fancy that this was one of these huge amphorae that we see today on ancient sites, with plenty enough space for a smallish adult to curl up in. I’ve no idea how big Diogenes was.

In Athens he took to following the philosopher Antisthenes around, a lot, devoted to what he saw as his perfect virtue. Antisthenes took little notice of him, and once took his stick to him, in exasperation (and probably because he was smelly). In contrast Diogenes did not like Plato. He turned up to his lectures to harangue him, once bringing a live plucked chicken, to ridicule Plato’s definition of human beings as ‘featherless, beings on two legs’.

Most anecdotes about Diogenes show him as a rude individual who often went against society’s limits (he ate and masturbated in public). Was this a deliberate attempt to provoke, or was there something about him which meant he found it harder to fit in? Or of course, his namesake and biographer could have made it all up.

We took a family holiday to Sinop a few years ago. The modern town doesn’t really speak to lovers of ancient philosophy. It’s fairly industrial, and the seaside is not the prettiest of the ones we’ve visited on the Black Sea coast. We found a shop called Diogenes and went in. It sold Black Sea berry-juices, and pekmez, a molasses made of grapes, mulberries, and in that case also chestnuts. We saw the prison as well. I wasn’t expecting to see the jail where Diogenes’ father had been thrown, but something historical at least. It wasn’t. It had been in operation until very recently. One memory I’ll find it hard to lose is of visiting the children’s prison there. You could still see graffiti on the walls of the corridors the children had moved around. Not a pleasant visit.



Written by Sandrine Berges

February 18, 2012 at 8:46 pm

5 Responses

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  1. Defaced coins from the same period has been found in the site by archaeologists. So, at least that part of Diogenes Laertius’ story (a part I find philosophically interesting) has some support. Thanks for the post.

    ömer orhan aygün

    February 22, 2012 at 12:32 pm

  2. That’s interesting. Any idea why he was defacing coins? I remember reading something about it being political but I forget where.


    February 22, 2012 at 3:42 pm

    • I am not sure. Foucault and others offer political, ethical and economic reasons. For a while, I thought that the gesture was supposed to erase “nomos” and restore “physis” underneath. Yet, apparently, Diogenes and/or his father did not simply erase the stamp and let the metal shine, but they restamped the coins with the word “Hikesio”, the name of Diogenes’ father. In short, contrary to my interpretation, the act is not one of erasing, but of altering. (cf. parakharattein to nomisma)

      ömer orhan aygün

      February 22, 2012 at 5:05 pm

  3. To be exact, it is thought that Diogenes lived in a pythos, not a barrel or tub. He is by far one of the most interesting figures in the history of philosophy I have come across. I really recommend Diogenes Laertius’s “The Lives of Eminent Philosophers.”


    March 11, 2012 at 7:59 am

    • Ah. So I was right then, it was one of these giant amphorae. Having seen them lying around ancient sites in Turkey I’d always thought this was what DL meant. I am a big fan of Diogenes Laertius too. We named our cat after him.

      Sandrine Berges

      March 11, 2012 at 10:09 pm

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