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A Dog’s Life

Dogs and philosophers do the greatest
good and get the fewest rewards.
-- Diogenes of Sinope

While reading up on a forensic research facility known as the body farm, I came across a curious fact. Fans of detective fiction may recognize the term “body farm” from Patricia Crowell’s novel of the same name in her series featuring medical examiner Kay Scarpetta. The actual facility at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville is a 2.5-acre enclosure, surrounded by a razor-wire fence, where researchers study the effects of decomposition on human bodies. Forty or so corpses at any given time are exposed to the elements for extended periods, prey to maggots, vultures and other scavengers. Where does the facility find fodder for this grisly undertaking? Here’s the curious fact: hundreds of individuals or their next of kin have donated earthly remains to rot outdoors. Needless to say, while this may save on the cost of a funeral, it also shows a total disregard for cultural norms on the proper handling of the dead.

As it happens, there is some precedent for this flouting of funerary custom. The philosopher Diogenes of Sinope (412-324 BCE) once shocked his followers by instructing them to toss his corpse over the city wall so animals might devour it. The one thing everyone knows about Diogenes is that he went about with a lamp in broad daylight, searching for an honest man. But, as you might imagine from his comments on the disposal of his remains, his theatrical pursuit of an honest man was the least of his antics. He was popularly known as Diogenes the Cynic, from the Greek word kunikos, meaning “dog-like” – a term he embraced. Diogenes, who lived like a beggar on the streets of Athens and Corinth, said he didn’t mind being called a dog “because I fawn upon those who give me anything, and bark at those who give me nothing, and bite the rogues."

Diogenes’ career as a philosopher and gadfly began inauspiciously enough after he was implicated in debasing currency in his native Sinope (in Asia Minor) and sent into exile. He declared himself a citizen of the world and thereafter lived largely by his wits – and by his wit. He practiced an extreme form of asceticism, sleeping in a large ceramic jar in the marketplace in Athens. He gave away his last possession, a wooden bowl, after he saw a small boy drinking from his cupped hands. He proclaimed, "A child has beaten me in plainness of living." For Diogenes, poverty was the key to self-sufficiency, which was a prerequisite for freedom, especially the freedom to speak one’s mind. The good life was lived in accord with nature, as a dog would. Accordingly, he practiced a kind of studied shamelessness, in which he ate, slept and masturbated in public and occasionally urinated on his antagonists.

As might be expected of someone who so obviously distained social convention, Diogenes did nothing to ingratiate himself with his betters. He showed up at Plato’s lectures to disrupt them. When Plato endorsed Socrates’ definition of a man as a “featherless biped,” Diogenes brought a plucked chicken to Plato’s Academy and announced, "Behold! I've brought you a man." Likewise, Alexander the Great once came upon the philosopher while he was sunning himself and said, “Ask of me any boon you like.” To which Diogenes replied, “Stand out of my light!”

Whether or not Diogenes’ encounter with Alexander actually took place is anyone’s guess. He left no writings behind, and most of what we know about him is anecdotal at best, if not downright fanciful. He is believed to have lived a long life, but the circumstances of his death are uncertain. According to one version, he died of an infected dog bite, which is altogether too ironic to be entirely credible. In Lucian’s Dialogues of the Dead, Diogenes continued his disputations in the underworld, where he came upon Mausolus, the Persian satrap in Caria for whom mausoleums were named. Mausolus’ wife had erected a huge shrine for him that was regarded as one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. Mausolus bragged that he had been handsome, of noble stature and a great warrior. His magnificent tomb had “the perfect semblances of man and horse, carved in the fairest marble.” Diogenes was unimpressed. He pointed out that both their skulls were now bald and bare of flesh. As for which had the more magnificent tomb, the philosopher knew only that his name was on the tongues of the wise – “a higher monument than yours, vile Carian slave, and set on a firmer foundation.”

Diogenes died in Athens. Did his followers carry out his wish to toss his corpse over the city wall? There are indications they found this to be a bit much. Didn’t he mind having his body devoured by animals? "Not at all,” he insisted, “as long as you provide me with a stick to chase the creatures away!" But how would he use the stick if he lacked awareness? He replied, "If I lack awareness, then why should I care what happens to me when I am dead?" Why, indeed? But whether he ever received a proper burial, the Corinthians erected a monument in his memory. It was not so grand as the Mausolus tomb, but it did have a marble figure on top – a dog.

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