The King, the Dog, and the Most Famous Encounter in History.
One day, at his esteemed Academy, Plato was asked to define a “person.”
“A featherless biped,” Plato answered, after some thought. The students applauded the definition.
One person in attendance did not agree with this definition, however. Angry and holding up a plucked chicken, he proclaimed, “here is Plato’s man.” (Later, Plato added “with flat nails” to his definition of a person.)
The interjector with the plucked chicken was Diogenes of Sinope.
Exiled for debasing the currency and sold into slavery by pirates, Diogenes eventually settled in Corinth.
While there, the unruly philosopher scorned norms and criticized convention. He urinated, defecated, and masturbated in public.
Diogenes lived in a wooden barrel, and his only possession was a wooden bowl to drink from. One day, after seeing a peasant boy drinking water with his hands, Diogenes discarded his wooden bowl. “Fool that I am, to have been carrying superfluous baggage all this time,” he muttered to himself.
But perhaps most famously, Diogenes was known for carrying a lantern around in the bright light of day, seeking to find an honest man. He never did.
Diogenes believed that personal moral virtue (in Greek, “arete”) was better practiced than discussed. His actions sought to undermine what he saw as corrupt institutions and decadent culture.
One individual who was particularly captivated by this ascetic philosopher was Alexander the Great.
Alexander, who was tutored by Aristotle, became so enraptured by Diogenes that he vowed to one day meet him.
That day came in 336 BC.
Fresh off his successful campaign in Chaeronea, effectively conquering Greece, the young Macedonian arrived in Corinth and sought the philosopher.
After searching for some time, Alexander finally found Diogenes sleeping in his barrel. “To sleep the whole night through ill befits a man of counsel,” Alexander began.
Diogenes, waking up but still half-asleep, finished the line from The Iliad, “who has people to watch over and a multitude of cares.”
Alexander glanced at Diogenes. Flanked by a league of advisors and draped in full military garb, the young conqueror was initially unimpressed with the feeble philosopher.
Following a pause, Alexander introduced himself. “I am Alexander the Great King.”
Indifferent, the philosopher replied, “I am Diogenes the dog.”
Alexander was confused. Why did Diogenes refer to himself as a dog?
“I fawn on those who give me anything, I yelp at those who refuse, and I set my teeth in rascals,” he explained.
Slowly warming to the old sage, Alexander asked if there was anything he could do for him.
“Yes,” Diogenes responded. “Stand a little out of my sun.”
Alexander’s advisors were baffled, even enraged. How dare some old, homeless man insult the young king who had just conquered Greece! Alexander himself, however, took no issue with the philosopher.
Turning to walk away, he told his advisors that if he were not Alexander, he would wish to be Diogenes.
Diogenes, still within earshot, proclaimed, “If I wasn’t Diogenes, I would be wishing to be Diogenes too.”
The famed encounter spawned heated disagreements among historians. Diogenes Laertius claimed that Diogenes said, “stand out of my light,” while Plutarch insisted that Diogenes instead said “stand a little out of my sun.” Cicero disagreed with both, and claimed that Diogenes said, “now move at least a little out of my sun.” Valerius Maximus offered his own version of the exchange, where Diogenes replied, “to this later, for now I just want you not to stand in the sun.”
Irrespective of these minute differences, the impact of the discussion itself is immense.
It is believed that William Shakespeare drew inspiration from the encounter when writing King Lear. (In the play, the titular character approaches a poorly dressed Edgar and says, “first let me talk to this philosopher.”)
The Assyrian satirist Lucian reimagined Alexander the Great and Diogenes meeting in the underworld for a second round of witty exchanges. (In this imaginary part two, Diogenes once more bests Alexander).
Edwin Landseer’s visual representation of the encounter, which portrays Alexander as a white bulldog and Diogenes as an unkempt mutt, is believed to have inspired Disney’s The Lady and the Tramp. (Charles Darwin took umbrage at the biological accuracy of the dog’s coat.)
With over fifty artistic renderings, the encounter of Alexander and Diogenes is said to be “one of the most frequently portrayed moments from classical antiquity.”
Alexander and Diogenes met just once, on that autumn afternoon in 336 BC.
Alexander, full of ambition, went on to conquer most of the ancient world, including Persia, North Africa, and modern day India. Alexander, upon learning that there were no more worlds left to conquer, is reported to have wept.
Diogenes, full of contempt, went on to denounce much of Corinth and her traditions. Diogenes, upon being called a dog by wealthy onlookers, is reported to have lifted his leg and urinated.
And while Plutarch and Diogenes Laertius disagreed over the specifics of the conversation, they did agree on one thing.
Both historians contend that Alexander the Great and Diogenes the Dog died on the same exact day.