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November 13, 2023

Alexander The Great Vs Diogenes The Cynic

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There’s a famous anecdote about an encounter between Alexander The Great, whose army is arguably the most dominant there has ever been in history, and Diogenes the Cynic, a Greek philosopher. There are many versions of this but today I wanted to highlight one in particular.

When the two encountered each other, and Diogenes chose not to be accommodating to Alexander, someone from Alexander The Great’s staff said “What have you done? This man has conquered the world.” 

Diogenes is said to have responded “I have conquered the need to conquer the world”.

It creates an interesting contrast. Alexander The Great has used power and force to manipulate the world to his liking, conquering new territories and building a reputation that made history. His value system is based on domination and conquest, seeing that as the ultimate pursuit of his potential.

Diogenes almost mocks that and attempts to humble Alexander by pointing this trait out as a flaw. He argues that he actually has more power than Alexander The Great because he’s developed the self-awareness and perspective to play a different game that is in his control, and in his mind. Diogenesis’ value system is also based on authority and domination, but it's an internal expression that is a pursuit of self-mastery rather than an external expression of it that is a pursuit of fame, fortune, and conquest.

So what do we have to learn from this? I think we all have a version of this happening in our lives right now. One part of us is motivated by achievement of things and another part of us is motivated by having freedom from things. Both play an important role, and the more aware we can be of when they surface, the better balance we can have with it.

Interestingly, there are accounts of Alexander The Great wanting to be more like Diogenes. He’s known to have admired the freedom and independence he practiced. But if Diogenes had no action toward acquiring things like money, food, and shelter, then he wouldn’t have survived. So more than anything this example gives you perspective on the two extremes of the spectrum that we belong somewhere within.

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