Diogenes in a Jar (and Jarred by Diogenes)

The first Thoreau, a jar for a cabin, focused on the light:

File:Jean-Léon Gérôme - Diogenes - Walters 37131.jpg


The above painting, by Jean-Leon Gerome, was made in 1860, very near to the time that Thoreau wrote Walden (1854) and Darwin The Origin of Species (1859). Since 1931, the painting has been housed at the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore. The description of this painting as provided by the museum’s website is as follows:

The Greek philosopher Diogenes (404-323 BC) is seated in his abode, the earthenware tub, in the Metroon, Athens, lighting the lamp in daylight with which he was to search for an honest man. His companions were dogs that also served as emblems of his “Cynic” (Greek: “kynikos,” dog-like) philosophy, which emphasized an austere existence. Three years after this painting was first exhibited, Gerome was appointed a professor of painting at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts where he would instruct many students, both French and foreign.


The Walters also has a Renaissance plate that depicts Diogenes. He is shown as a man of contemplation with a book confronting a man of action on a horse (Alexander the Great). The plate shows the moment just prior to Diogenes famously asking Alexander to stop blocking the light of the sun.

Plate with Alexander and Diogenes


Let’s think about the plate a bit more. It has Diogenes, as it were, saying, Mick Jagger style, “Hey, you! Get out of my sun!” In other words, Alexander’s busy way of living is a light blocker. (Alexander, of course, might regard Diogenes as a downer: “Hey, you! Get off of my cloud!”)

You can also detect an allusion to Plato’s cave. Alexander, focused on a “loser” in his immediate range of vision, is missing the bigger conceptual picture. He has his back to the sun; his back to the light. He perceives but the shadow of a larger existence. He is a dreamy cloud of pageantry, blocking others who might turn to the light–and is, to himself, a dreamer, carried away, as on a cloud himself, by his own ambition, his own imagination.

Nietzsche would have liked this dreamy Alexander.

But for Diogenes, it’s all about turning toward the light and the truth–and the truth is the whole. It’s about seeking understanding and focusing on the light of Being; the ontological mystery, as opposed to the immediate utility and manipulation of beings toward some imaginative project.

Who lives the better life–Diogenes or Alexander? And is there a middle way between them?

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
This entry was posted in Uncategorized and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Diogenes in a Jar (and Jarred by Diogenes)

  1. Thanks,. Your posts always make me think

  2. F says:

    The one who survived longest.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s