The Ancient Minimalist

The Ancient Minimalist

Forget tiny houses. The ancient Greek philosopher Diogenes of Sinope lived in a rain barrel.

“There is a misconception that minimalism is a modern movement,” says William Stephens, PhD, professor of philosophy. “It is anything but a modern movement. It is almost 2,500 years old.”

Take Diogenes, the father of the cynic philosophy.

Born in Sinope, along the Black Sea in modern-day Turkey, around 412 BCE, Diogenes was banished from his hometown for “debasing the currency.” It’s a charge that has been debated among scholars, Stephens says. Some believe Diogenes, the son of a coin-maker, literally debased the currency — illegally removing some of the gold and silver content — while others argue that the charge was more figurative.

“Others take it to mean that he debased the customs of his hometown,” Stephens says. “So, he was the original nonconformist.”

Either way, Diogenes left Sinope and traveled more than 1,000 miles to Athens — the cultural center of the ancient world. There, he flouted many of the cultural conventions of the time.

“The Athenians started to call him ‘The Dog,’” Stephens says. The word cynic is derived from the ancient Greek word for dog. “He was the original — at least the original as recorded in Western history — homeless person. He was a vagrant. This is where the minimalism starts.”

Diogenes decided he didn’t need to live in a house.

“He figured out that in order to live a happy life, you have to live according to nature,” Stephens says, “in contrast to what the vast majority of people do, which is to unswervingly conform to custom.”

Customs, Diogenes argued, dominate all aspects of our lives — from what and how we eat … to how we dress … to ideas about work, money and possessions.

“Diogenes discovered that the way to happiness is through self-mastery and self-sufficiency, not mindlessly conforming to society’s customary values of accumulating possessions, social status, and materialistic ways of living,” Stephens says. “So he is the original minimalist.”

His home became a toppled 6-foot tall cistern, used in ancient Athens for catching rainwater. He had no money, Stephens says. His only possessions were one cloak, a walking stick and a little leather pouch, which he used to carry food he either begged for or collected in the countryside. While his habits were uncustomary, he developed a reputation in and around Athens, Stephens says, for his moral character, candor, and wisdom. He was often called upon to settle domestic disputes — including those around money.

“He tried to convince people that you don’t need money or lots of belongings to live a natural, happy life,” Stephens says. “You don’t need more than one cloak. You only need one garment. One. And once you have your one garment, to accumulate more becomes a burden, not a blessing. Because you have, literally, more to carry on your back.”

Stories about Diogenes the Cynic are shared by a later Diogenes, Diogenes Laertius, is his 10 volume Lives of the Philosophers. One of the stories involves a little wooden bowl that Diogenes the Cynic once carried, which he used for eating and drinking.  

“One day, the story goes, he saw a little boy drinking water by cupping his hands together. When Diogenes the Cynic saw that, he took his wooden bowl, and he threw it away,” Stephens says.

“That is minimalism!”