When the Isthmian games were in progress, Diogenes, who probably was sojourning at Corinth, went down to the Isthmus. He did not attend the great public gatherings, however, with the same motives as the majority, who wished to see the athletes and to gormandize. No, I warrant he came as an observer of mankind and of men's folly. He knew that men show their real character most clearly at public festivals and large gatherings, while in war and in camp it is more concealed owing to the presence of peril and fear. Moreover, he thought they were more easily healed here (for bodily diseases are more readily treated by the physician when they are plain to be seen than while the trouble remains hidden), but that those who are neglected when engaged in such pursuits most speedily perish. Therefore he used to attend the public gatherings. And he would jestingly remark when taxed for his currish manners, “Well, dogs follow along to the festivals, but they do no wrong to any of those attending; they bark and attack rogues and thieves, and when their masters are in a drunken sleep, they stay awake and guard them.”
No Corinthian, however, paid any attention to him when he appeared at the gathering, because they often saw him in the city and around the Craneion. For men do not pay much attention to those whom they are constantly seeing and whom they think they can approach whenever they wish, but they turn to those whom they only see at intervals or have never seen before. So the Corinthians derived the least profit from Diogenes, precisely as if sick people would not consult a physician resident in their midst but thought the bare sight of him in the city sufficient.
As regards other persons, it was those from a distance who visited him chiefly, all who came to the festival from Ionia, Sicily, and Italy, and some of those who came from Libya, Massilia, and Borysthenes, and the motive of all those was to see and hear him speak for even a short time so as to have something to tell others rather than to get improvement for themselves. For he had the reputation of having a sharp tongue and being instantly ready with an answer for his interrogators. Accordingly, just as those who know nothing of the Pontic honey try a taste of it and then quickly spit it out because it is bitter and unpleasant in taste, so people in their idle curiosity wished to make trial of Diogenes, but on being put to confusion by him would turn on their heels and flee. They were amused, of course, when others were railed at, but on their own account they were afraid and so would withdraw out of his way. Again, when he jested and joked, as was his wont at times, they were pleased beyond measure; but when he warmed up and became serious, they could not stand his frankness. The situation was the same, I fancy, as when children delight to play with well-bred dogs but are terrified and scared to death when they show anger and bark more loudly.
At these meetings also he held to the same line of conduct, not changing his ways nor caring whether anyone of his audience commended or criticized him; no, not even if it was some wealthy and prominent person such as a general or ruler who approached and conversed with him, or some very humble and poor individual. When such people talked nonsense, he usually scorned them merely, but those that assumed airs and prided therefore on their wealth or family or some other distinction he would make the especial object of his attack and castigate thoroughly. Some admired him, therefore, as the wisest man in the world, to others he seemed crazy, many scorned him as a beggar and a poor good-for‑nothing, some jeered at him, others tried to insult him grossly by throwing bones at his feet as they would to dogs, yet others would approach him and pluck at his cloak, but many could not tolerate him and were indignant. It was just like the way in which Homer says the suitors made sport of Odysseus; he too endured their riotous conduct and insolence for a few days, and Diogenes was like him in every respect. For he really resembled a king and lord who in the guise of a beggar moved among the slaves and menials while they caroused in ignorance of his identity, and yet was patient with them, drunken as they were and crazed by reason of ignorance and stupidity.
Generally the managers of the Isthmian games and other honourable and influential men were sorely troubled and held themselves aloof whenever they came his way, and passed on, all of them, in silence and with scowling glances. But when he went so far as to put the crown of pine upon his head, the Corinthians sent some of their servants to bid him lay aside the crown and do nothing unlawful. He, however, asked them why it was unlawful for him to wear the crown of pine and not so for others. Whereupon one of them said, “Because you have won no victory, Diogenes.” To which he replied, “Many and mighty antagonists have I vanquished, not like these slaves who are now wrestling here, hurling the discus and running, but more difficult in every way — I mean poverty, exile, and disrepute; yes, and anger, pain, desire, fear, and the most redoubtable beast of all, treacherous and cowardly, I mean pleasure, which no Greek or barbarian can claim he fights and conquers by the strength of his soul, but all alike have succumbed to her and have failed in this contest — Persians, Medes, Syrians, Macedonians, Athenians, Lacedaemonians — all, that is, save myself. Is it I, then, think you, that am worthy of the pine, or will you take and bestow it upon the one who is stuffed with the most meat? Take this answer, then, to those who sent you and say that it is they who break the law; for they go about wearing crowns and yet have won in no contest; and add that I have lent a great lustre to the Isthmian games by having myself taken the crown, which ought to be a thing for goats, forsooth, to fight over, not for men.”
And on a later occasion when he saw a person leaving the race-track surrounded by a great mob and not even walking on the earth, but carried shoulder high by the throng, with some following after and shouting, others leaping for joy and lifting their hands towards heaven, and still others throwing garlands and ribbons upon him, he asked, when he was able to get near, what was the meaning of the tumult about him, and what had happened. The victor replied, “I have won the two hundred yards dash for men, Diogenes.” “And what does that amount to?” he inquired; “for you certainly have not become one whit more intelligent for having outstripped your competitors, nor more temperate than you were, nor less cowardly, nor are you less discontented, nor will your wants be less in the future or your life freer from grief and pain.” “No, by heavens,” said he, “but I am the fastest on foot of all the Greeks.” “But not faster than rabbits,” said Diogenes, “nor deer; and yet these animals, the swiftest of all, are also the most cowardly. They are afraid of men and dogs and eagles and lead a wretched life. Do you not know,” he added, “that speed is a mark of cowardice? It is in the order of things that the swiftest animals are likewise the most timid. Heracles, for instance, on account of being slower than many and unable to catch evil-doers by running, used to carry a bow and arrows and to employ them against those who ran from him.” “But,” was the reply, “the poet states that Achilles, who was very swift-footed, was, nevertheless, very brave.” “And how,” exclaimed Diogenes, “do you know that Achilles was swift-footed? For he was unable to overtake Hector although he pursued him all day.
“Are you not ashamed,” he continued, “to take pride in an accomplishment in which you are naturally outclassed by the meanest beasts? I do not believe that you can outstrip even a fox. And by how much did you beat the man after all?” “By just a little, Diogenes,” said he; “for you know that is what made the victory so marvellous.” “So,” replied Diogenes, “you are fortunate by just one stride.” “Yes, for all of us who ran were first-rate runners.” “How much more quickly, however, does a crested lark get over the course than you?” “Ah, but it has wings,” he said. 1”Well,“ replied Diogenes, “if the swiftest thing is the best, it is much better, perhaps, to be a lark than to be a man. So then we need not pity the nightingale or the hoopoe because they were changed from human beings into birds according to the myth.” “But,” replied he, “I, a man, am the fleetest of men.” “What of it? Is it not probable that among ants too,” Diogenes rejoined, “one is swifter than another? Yet they do not admire it, do they? Or would it not seem absurd to you if one admired an ant for its speed? Then again, if all the runners had been lame, would it have been right for you to take on airs because, being lame yourself, you had outstripped lame men?”
As he spoke to the man in this vein, he made the business of foot-racing seem cheap in the eyes of many of the bystanders and caused the winner himself to go away sorrowing and much meeker. And this was no small service which he rendered to mankind whenever he discovered anyone who was foolishly puffed up and lost to all reason on account of some worthless thing; for he would humble the man a little and relieve him of some small part of his folly, even as one pricks or punctures inflated and swollen parts.
On this occasion he saw two horses that were hitched together fall to fighting and kicking each other, with a large crowd standing by and looking on, until one of the animals, becoming exhausted, broke loose and ran off. Then Diogenes came up and placed a crown upon the head of the horse that had stood its ground and proclaimed it winner of an Isthmian prize, because it had “won in kicking.” At this there was a general laugh and uproar, while many applauded Diogenes and derided the athletes. They say, too, that some persons actually left without witnessing their performances — those who had poor lodgings or none.
Source: Discourses by Dio Chrysostom published in the Loeb Classical Library, 1932. The text is in the public domain.