Washing the lettuce

It is said that Plato once came upon Diogenes the Kynic washing wild lettuce for his supper. “If you had paid court to Dionysius, you wouldn’t be reduced to washing lettuce,” said the philosopher. “If you had learned to wash lettuce, you wouldn’t have had to pay court to Dionysius,” replied the Kynic.

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Diogenes believed in direct, unconventional responses rather in the manner of a Tang Dynasty Zen master. Once, when someone tried to convince him of the merits of Plato’s philosophy of Ideas, he squatted down and took a shit.

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Once, on a sea voyage, Diogenes was captured by pirates who took him to Crete and put him on sale at the slave market. The auctioneer asked him whether he had any marketable talents. “Yes,” he said, “I excel at giving orders. Sell me to someone who needs a master.” It is said that a man called Xeniades was so impressed by this, he purchased him to tutor his children. Diogenes was soon in control of the man’s entire household. Years later, living in his tub, he used to deride rulers as slaves to their people.

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Someone once asked Diogenes why it is that people give alms to beggars, who do little to deserve it, and not to philosophers, who perform such valuable services for all humanity. “Everyone expects that they themselves might someday be reduced to beggary,” Diogenes observed, “but no one ever expects to be reduced to philosophizing.”

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