Above, Edwin Landseer’s wonderful take on the meeting between the Cynic philosopher Diogenes and Alexander the Great. The Greek word ‘kynikos’, from which Cynicism took its name, means ‘dog-like.’ Diogenes is the scruffy dog in the barrel on the left. Alexander is of course the grand white dog. The posh dogs on the right represent his courtiers.

GRAND WHITE DOG:  Anything you like, Scruffy Dog, anything at all. I’ll do it for you.

SCRUFFY DOG:  In that case, stand out of my light.

This dialogue is by me, not Landseer, and is based on an anecdote told by the writer Diogenes Laertius. (Lives of the Philosophers 6.38)

 Photo courtesy of Sabine Grauel-Baumann


THERE ARE A NUMBER OF REASONS why the nickname ‘Dog-like’ or ‘Doggy’ may have been attached to the philosophers we call the Cynics. Perhaps it was because they despised social conventions, and insisted on doing in public many of the things which we ourselves are pretty keen to keep private. According to the Cynics all human bodily functions are natural, and nothing to be ashamed of.  So why not perform them in full view of our fellow citizens? They put their beliefs into practice and like the dogs we know and love, used to pee, defecate, masturbate and fornicate on the street or in the theatre or market-place.

They may also have been called ‘Doggy’ because they saw themselves, like dogs, as guard animals, keeping a watchful eye on public morals and behaviour.



The barrel where Scruffy Dog is living in Landseer’s painting is an invention of later European artists and writers, but it is not too wide of the mark. When Diogenes, the founder of the Cynics, was about to move to Athens from Sinope on the Black Sea, he wrote to a friend in the city asking him to find a place for him to live. But the friend took his time, so on his arrival Diogenes set up home near the agora in a large clay jar – a pithos – once used for storing wine. He remained there for the rest of his time in Athens (Diogenes Laertius 6.23).