Diogenes was knee deep in a stream washing vegetables. Coming up to him, Plato said, “My good Diogenes, if you knew how to pay court to kings, you wouldn’t have to wash vegetables.” “And,” replied Diogenes, “If you knew how to wash vegetables, you wouldn’t have to pay court to kings.”
Diogenes of Sinope was a philosopher of the 5th-4th century B.C. He was a contemporary and often an adversary of Plato. Unfortunately we don’t have available to us any of his writings, however there are stories about him, such as the one quoted above, that remain.
Diogenes was exiled from his hometown after he was caught defacing the currency that his father minted. He then left Sinope and travelled to Athens where he began following the philosopher Antisthenes.
It is said that Diogenes once visited the oracle at Delphi after he was exiled. The oracle told him that it was his calling to continue to deface the currency. Diogenes, deciding that he wouldn’t like to also be exiled from Athens chose to interpret this as a call to deface the societal or cultural currency, rather than the money itself.
Diogenes lived a life of extreme poverty and rejected the comforts that many Athenians took for granted. He believed that such comforts and pretensions were actually an obstacle to happiness and the way he taught this to his followers and those around him was by “defacing the currency” of the society or culture of ancient Greece.
By this, I mean he rejected what was valuable to those in the society or, by his actions, he would show the folly of living for those things. This outraged the people of Athens. For this reason he was called “a Socrates gone mad” by Plato, whose public lectures Diogenes would disrupt. Many of the stories about Diogenes are examples of his mission to deface the currency.
For instance, it is said that Alexander the Great was an admirer of Diogenes and at one time Alexander visited Diogenes and standing in front of him asked if there were any special favor that Alexander could grant him. Diogenes, instead of asking for some gift or paying his respects to the man instead asked “Move a little out of my sunlight.”
Because of Diogenes’ homelessness and his apparent lack of civility he was called a dog by those who mocked him which led to his title ‘Diogenes the Cynic’ (from the Greek for dog) and led to his followers being called cynics (not to be confused with what we call cynicism today.)
Some claim that the ministry and actions of Jesus were influenced by the methods of Diogenes and the cynic movement, and it is easy to understand why. Jesus was also a man who lived outside the comforts of society “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” and he openly opposed religious, and societal conventions through a public ministry.
However, I think the ministry of Jesus is influenced by a much older tradition than that of the cynics. In fact, the ‘defacing of currency’ is also a much older practice than Diogenes. One only need look to the Old Testament and the ministries of the prophets. These were ordinary men who were called to speak the words of God, often to those in powerful positions and usually against the society of Israel as a whole.
Think of Elijah, who in one of his most public examples challenges the prophets of Ba’al to a showdown. The question is asked, whose god is the real God? While the prophets of Ba’al cry out to their god to light their altar on fire while they dance around it and cut themselves, Elijah calls out to them, mocking. “Yell louder! If Baal is god perhaps he has fallen asleep. Or maybe he has gone to relieve himself.”
Or perhaps Hosea who married an unfaithful prostitute as a visible expression of the love of God toward Israel and an indictment of how Israel acted towards their God.
Last, and probably most famously, Ezekiel, who over the course of his ministry did so many strange things (lay on his side for 390 days, cooked his lentils using cow feces, shaved his head in various ways) that modern commentators have suggested he was mentally unstable.
We might ask, are there any modern men who follow in this tradition of defacing the currency? If I were pressed for an example, I would cite Wendell Berry’s poem Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front. He writes:
Love the quick profit, the annual raise,
vacation with pay. Want more
of everything ready-made. Be afraid
to know your neighbors and to die.
And you will have a window in your head.
Not even your future will be a mystery
any more. Your mind will be punched in a card
and shut away in a little drawer.
When they want you to buy something
they will call you. When they want you
to die for profit they will let you know.
It is, however, difficult to identify contemporary examples partly because those who deface the currency are never looked upon well by their peers. In fact, they are more regularly publicly mocked, ridiculed, and ostracized for the stances they take. Look back at Diogenes, at Jesus, at the prophets, which of these men lived a life of ease and comfort, respected by the educated or rich or famous of their day? Their own people put them to death because they refused to worship the gods of the age.
A warning for all those who would deface the currency. Be prepared for exile.