Diogenes of Sinope was a Greek philosopher who lived a life of radical simplicity some 2,300 years ago. While other philosophers spent their time in discussion, Diogenes turned his life into a kind of subversive performance art. He would walk backwards, heckle other philosophers, and lived in a clay wine barrel with almost no possessions. Despite his disreputable behaviour, which included defecating in public places, he was considered a sage. In his most famous encounter, Alexander the Great came to visit, and asked if there was anything he could do for him. Diogenes asked him to stop standing in his sun.
Little fragments about Diogenes’ life exist, but no more than that. There are references to his writings, but nothing survives. He certainly made an impression in his own time, but we really don’t know much about what he actually thought and taught.
Which brings us to Deface the Currency: The Lost Dialogues of Diogenes, Samuel Alexander’s imaginative reconstruction of one of those lost texts. It’s speculative of course, but woven around what we know. The title comes from the seditious act for which Diogenes was exiled from Sinope, and it’s how he described his own calling in life: to deface the currency of social convention.
“The crazier the world is, the crazier sanity will look” says our fictionalised Diogenes as he explains himself to a curious boy, and this opening dialogue has a nice sense of the absurd, as befits Diogenes’ reputation as a prankster. The account of the conversation with Alexander the Great is amusing, as Diogenes repeatedly insults him and belittles his empire, telling him he has wasted his life and calling him “a friendless megalomaniac admired only by scoundrels and fools.”
The book definitely works better when it’s treated as an imaginative exercise in recreating Diogenes’ thought rather than using it as a vehicle for modern ideas. Some chapters veer dramatically towards the latter, and when Diogenes and Plato discuss the limits to growth and how “the economy cannot expand limitlessly on a finite planet”, it rings rather inauthentic.
Of course, the main reason for recreating the lost dialogues is that Diogenes’ message of simplicity is very apt for our own times, and Alexander (Samuel Alexander that is, not the Great) puts plenty of wisdom into his mouth. “To aim for comfort lacks ambition”, he tells the emperor. When he’s arrested and awaiting execution, he simply tells a young visitor to “be honest, be brave, be creative”. Reflecting the author’s view of our own times, Diogenes sees the seeds of a revolution in a civilization that is fraying. “This revolution is already underway, and you can find nourishment in it, even if the revolution does not ultimately succeed.”
Whether or not this short book is a faithful recreation of Diogenes thought is debateable, but it’s an entertaining way to celebrate an intriguing historical character and the simple life that he demonstrated. Deface the Currency is available here, with proceeds will go towards Wurruk’an village, the experiment in simple living and subject of the Simpler Way documentary. The ebook is also available on a ‘pay what you like’ basis from the Simplicity Institute.