An Anecdote for Contentment

What we can learn from Diogenes about the secret to happiness
The default profile picture

Created by Moeid Irfan

Published on Aug 29, 2023
man sitting overlooking the mountains
Photo by Manh LE on Unsplash

A feeble and unkempt man sat blissfully in a rundown barrel with the gentle sunlight stroking his face. No possessions could be seen in his vicinity for he had no possessions. Prior to this day, he only owned a wooden bowl from which he drank, but when he saw a peasant boy drink from the hollow of his hands, the man’s head hung shamefully as he threw away his one and only possession and remarked: “A child has beaten me in plainness of living”. On this fateful evening, he sat relishing the sunlight but all of a sudden, a young man in royal attire garnished with indispensable jewelry stood in front of him and spoke: “I am Alexander the Great, and I have great admiration for you, Diogenes of Sinope so tell me Is there anything I can do for you?” The old man calmly replied: “Yes, stand aside you are blocking the sunlight”. The Roman King was taken aback and displayed his immense respect and admiration for the philosopher, saying: “If I were not Alexander, I wish I were Diogenes”

It is bewildering to think that this exchange from 336 B.C. between two historical figures of polar opposite social and economic statuses is still widely discussed to this day. A logical question from reading this exchange is why Alexander, an emperor known as the great conqueror, would admire Diogenes, a peasant. The root of the answer is the emperor admired the philosophy of cynicism, which Diogenes played a pivotal role in founding. Alexander’s final parting comment to Diogenes is a testament to his overwhelming approbation for the philosopher.

Cynicism, like many other schools of philosophy, tried to answer one ever-prominent question. What is the secret to contentment? Diogenes’s answer was a minimalist lifestyle devoid of all unnecessary luxuries. A prime teaching of cynicism is avoiding a materialistic mindset and instead opting for a life free of all these futile and meaningless possessions. Diogenes’s whole life was a true testament to his ideals, and this is plainly shown in his encounter with Alexander. During their meeting, Diogenes practically demonstrated by turning down Alexander’s proposal that he was as content as the man who stood before him, who seemingly had every imaginable luxury while he seemingly had none. According to cynicism, every man, regardless of his social or economic prosperity, can be happy because the secret of contentment lies in being virtuous, enjoying nature, and not adhering to the conventions of society. Diogenes practically demonstrated this by living as a peasant and being as content as the greatest emperors. Hence, the crux of his philosophy was that title, rank, and money could not grant us happiness; instead, they deviate us from focusing on being virtuous, which is the secret to contentment. Therefore, a peasant can be happier than a King.

Oscar Wilde wrote: “Nowadays people know the price of everything and the value of nothing”. In this day and age, this viewpoint is more relevant than ever as people fret over the things they don’t have rather than appreciate the things they do. This money-oriented lifestyle that dominates our life is making us oblivious to the splendors of everyday life. Nowadays, we’re in constant pursuit of obtaining obsolete things which distract us from the things that matter the most. This is the main reason why cynics advocated against materialism and endorsed minimalism.

Now I wouldn’t say living in a barrel like Diogenes is the best way of practicing cynicism. There is no need to go to such extremes.  Incorporating even fragments of this philosophy into our lives can do wonders for us. It not only makes us less money-oriented but also allows us to give more thought to our relationships. This school of philosophy makes us ponder, should we try to paint the never-ending societal portrait of happiness or should we break free from the conventions of society that deem a materialistic mindset a must for contentment?

More for you