******* Biting Back ********
A fantasy about the life of Diogenes the Cynic
through the eyes of various contemporaries.
© Gavin Wraith 8/8/03
******* The eldest son ***********
My father, Xeniades, used to enjoy telling us how he
bought Diogenes in Crete on the way back from Egypt.
"The best bargain I ever made", he used to say.
"The herald at the slave market had been instructed to
say that this item was offering himself to whoever felt
the need for being governed wisely. Well, of course,
it was you boys that I had in mind for being governed,
so I simply put myself forward and did not argue. By the
time we got back to Corinth I knew that I could entrust
the running of my whole household to Diogenes. From that
moment a good spirit entered our house."
We thought we were going to get some stuffy pedant as a
tutor, like those of the other children we knew. Well,
reading, writing, arithmetic, singing, poetry and
memorizing, we got all that, of course, and running,
riding, archery, wrestling and javelin-throwing too.
He took us hunting and taught us to watch and observe the
quarry patiently. Everything was an adventure with him,
the reading and writing too. He was just as excited as us.
We would forget that he was an adult then. We adored him,
and he us. I suppose that our father had not had much time to
attend to us before, but when Diogenes came everything
got better. His rules of conduct were eccentric but definite,
and obeying them was easy, as if we were playing a secret
game. Other children were quite jealous of us, in a way, and
to begin with would often try to get invited home just to
see this strange creature who was our tutor.
I remember one special day when our father called the whole
household together. "Diogenes", he said, "I know that you
dislike what is unnecessary, and so I will ask you to be
patient if some of what I have to say seems redundant. When
we first met, you asked me whether I was prepared to take orders
from you, my own slave, and I replied that in the circumstances I
probably was. If I was making a joke then, I am in earnest now,
for I soon discovered that my decision to buy you was a
fortunate one. Now you have become part of our family. I believe
that your affection for us will always bind you to us far
better than the shackles of servitude. Therefore I pronounce
you a free man. Let no man ever say that you are our slave, for
you never were, except in a trivial sense that is better
put aside and forgotten."
Diogenes replied that my father was the proof that generosity
was the best armour against the dangers of money, and that he
himself would be proud to continue to wear the shackles of
He was never as sharp-tongued with us children as he was
with strangers. I think that having determined to carry on with
the eccentric way of life he had set out on, he had grown
a defensive shell against strangers and their endlessly
repeated assumptions about him. To us he was just one of the
family, and not a 'dog'. He was not one to show effusive affection,
of course. A lot had to be left unsaid.
When our father died Diogenes spent more time sleeping rough
in the grounds of the Cranium, Corinth's rocky gymnasium,
as by then we had our own households and of course he preferred
his independence. People came to see him from all
over the world. There was no letting up as he got older.
"What would you think of a runner who slowed down as he
came to the finishing post?" he used to reply when anyone
fussed him about his age.
One day I found him like a bundle of bones wrapped up in his
cloak, lying in one of his favourite spots in the Cranium.
He was dead. I picked him up; he was as light as a feather.
I could not believe he was dead. I had somehow assumed, I realised,
that Death would not have dared to take such an obstinate spirit
from us. Could this poor bundle really be the Diogenes we had
known? As I carried him home in my arms in tears, those I met
would run off to spread the news, and soon I was the centre of
Diogenes had given us various instructions about disposing his
body, uttered according to the whim of the moment. We were
to cast it into the Ilissus, feed it to dogs or ravens, and so
on. Once he said, "You had better bury me face down. Now that
Macedon is master of Greece, up is down and down is up". The
disposal of his body was a matter of the utmost triviality to
him. The city of Corinth voted to erect a monument to him
outside the gates: a statue of a dog.
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