“Diogenes was the first, some might claim the best, stand-up comic.”
—Joyce Carol Oates
If you read Diogenes Laertius’s The Lives and Opinions of Eminent Philosophers, the stories about Diogenes of Sinope start to read like a joke book of one-liners:
Seeing some women hanging on olive trees, he said, “I wish every tree bore similar fruit.”
He was begging once of a very ill-tempered man, and as he said to him, “If you can persuade me, I will give you something.” [Diogenes] replied, “If I could persuade you, I would beg you to hang yourself.”
On one occasion he saw the son of a courtesan throwing a stone at a crowd, and said to him, “Take care, lest you hit your father.”
The cartoonist John Porcellino had the brilliant idea to turn a handful of these punchlines into single-page comics in a section of King-Cat #68, which is collected in his book, From Lone Mountain. (I would read a whole series of Porcellino comics based on his favorite philosophers: see his book, Thoreau at Walden.)
Here’s a comic not in the book, from King-Cat #70:
Jenny Odell writes about Diogenes in the chapter “Anatomy of a Refusal” in her book, How To Do Nothing, examining him alongside performance artists, Thoreau (Walden is much better if you think of it as performance art), Bartleby the Scrivener, and the comedian Tom Green.
Many people are familiar with “the man who lived in a tub,” scorning all material possessions except for a stick and a ragged cloak. Diogenes’s most notorious act was to roam through the city streets with a latern, looking for an honest man; in paintings, he’s often shown with the lantern by his side, sulking inside a round terra-cotta tub while the life of the city goes on around him. There are also paintings of the time he dissed Alexander the Great, who had made it a point to visit this famous philosopher. Finding Diogenes lazing in the sun, Alexander expressed his admiration and asked if there was anything Diogenes needed. Diogenes replied, “Yes, stand out of my light.”
Tim Kreider asked in his essay, “Power? No, Thanks, I’m Good”:
Who was ultimately more powerful: the conqueror Alexander, who ruled the known world, or the philosopher Diogenes, whom Alexander could neither offer nor threaten with anything? (Alexander reportedly said that if he weren’t Alexander, he would want to be Diogenes. Diogenes said that if he weren’t Diogenes, he’d want to be Diogenes too.)
In a 1983 issue of Artforum, Thomas McEvilley called Diogenes “arguably the great prototype for much performance art,” and reframed a selection of Diogenes stories as performance pieces, or “Performance Philosophy,” later collecting them into an artist’s book, Diogenes: Defictions.
Some more of Diogenes’s greatest hits:
One day Diogenes was seen sitting in the public square all afternoon gluing shut the pages of a book.
When a play had just ended and the crowds were swarming out, Diogenes made his way into the emptying theater against the flow. When asked why, he replied, “This is the kind of thing I practice doing all the time.”
When a rich man took Diogenes into his house and cautioned him not to spit on the rugs and furnishings since they were very expensive, Diogenes spat in the man’s face and explained that it was the only thing there cheap enough to spit on.
Diogenes praised people who intended to get married, or go on a journey, or enter a profession, and being just about to do so, decided not to.
When he was captured by pirates after a shipwreck and put up for sale at a slave auction, the auctioneer asked him what he could do. “Govern men,” he replied, and told the crier to call it out in case anyone wanted to buy a master for himself.
One day Diogenes was seen making the rounds of the ornamented porticoes of Athens, begging alms from the public statues.
He would walk backward through the city streets.
I thought about Diogenes last night when I was watching David Shields’ excellent film, Marshawn Lynch: A History, with its clips of Joseph Campbell talking about the trickster and stand-up comedians like Dave Chappelle contextualizing the football player’s silence and refusals to engage with the media.
Which made it even funnier when I found this old tweet from Odell, with a .gif from the Rick James episode of Chappelle’s Show:
just learned that Diogenes would "soil his feet with mud before entering Plato's house" pic.twitter.com/kJe3B6wJ69
— jenny odell (@the_jennitaur) July 10, 2018