Know Your School of Athens Grumpy Old Dude: Diogenes

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Raphael, The School of Athens, 1511
Girolamo Forabosco, Diogenes Drinking from the Palm of his Hand, 17th Century

“Of what use is a philosopher who doesn't hurt anybody's feelings?” ― Diogenes

Diogenes, the founder of Cynicism, certainly stands out among the other philosophers chosen by Raphael for his masterpiece, The School of Athens. He sits alone on the marble steps, mulling over the document in his hands, and appears wholly unnoticed by the other savants, who form groups and appear to share ideas. Diogenes’ philosophy mirrors his positioning in this painting, as he preferred to stay as far from other people as possible and believed that man is selfish, foolish, and thoroughly flawed.

Diogenes had a multitude of interesting encounters in his life – including his capture by pirates and subsequent sale into slavery – but the most momentous was his trip to the Oracle of Delphi, during which Diogenes received instructions to deface currency. He took this to mean political institutions above actual coin, and this prompted his mission to challenging authority, which continued after his exile to Athens and throughout the rest of his life.

Presuming that virtue in action trumped that in theory, Diogenes followed his own teachings religiously and even devoted himself to a life of poverty in efforts to critique corrupt society. He constantly challenged himself to give up more, because he believed that “it is the privilege of the gods to want nothing, and of godlike men to want little.” Diogenes focused on the influence of custom and criticized those who blindly followed tradition instead of paying attention to the true nature of the world. He once roamed the streets of Athens in daylight, lantern in hand, and told all who asked that he was “looking for an honest man.” Diogenes philosophized a life shaped by ethics and added humor, which was an altogether original practice at the time.

Raphael clearly understood the importance of Diogenes when he created The School of Athens, seeing that he set him in the forefront of the painting. Diogenes taught Cynicism to Crates, and he passed it on to his pupil Zeno, who changed it to the popular school of Stoicism. Diogenes’ placement on the right side of the painting with Aristotle represents his realism. His brazenness enabled him to openly mock many of the other philosophers pictured in The School of Athens, incorporate humor into ideology, stand resolute in his principles, and gain a place in one of the most famous works of the Italian Renaissance.

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