The Tale of Alexander and Diogenes

The Tale of Alexander and Diogenes

There is a famous and almost certainly apocryphal story about the cynic philosopher, Diogenes, which was related to us by Plutarch.

As you know, Diogenes believed in the mastery of the self.  He was considered to be eccentric and did outlandish things such as walking about Athens in the daytime with a lit lamp, ‘looking for an honest man.’

In his later life Diogenes was visited in Corinth by Alexander the Great, the king of Macedonia, who would go on to conquer Egypt and India.

Diogenes had been sitting in the sunshine, when Alexander walked up to him and asked what he might do for him, given his deprived state, because he owned only his cloak and a dog.

Diogenes looked up at Alexander and said, “You stand aside, so as not to rob me of the light by your shadow.”

Alexander’s guards and followers were scandalized at such blatant disrespect for a king.

And Diogenes asked them, ‘Is your lord a good man or a bad man?’   ‘Good!’ they said. ‘Then my request is reasonable,’ said Diogenes.

And the guards were ready to deal with him harshly, because the implication was that Alexander stood between the people and the truth by his own willfulness pursuit of wealth and power.

But Alexander intervened on the philosopher’s behalf, saying, ‘If I were not Alexander, I would be Diogenes,’  to which Diogenes replied,  ‘If I were not Diogenes, I should also wish to be Diogenes.’

And Diogenes died at age 89, owning little more than his cloak and his dog, and Alexander died at age 32, having conquered most of the known world.