Last time, I suggested the name Diogenes had become by Victorian times a coded method of criticising the industrial-age nouveau riche, and I concluded that Conan Doyle’s ‘Diogenes Club’ was intended as discreetly satiric. However, although Diogenes lived in the classical equivalent of a cardboard box under Waterloo Bridge (a wine cask in the marketplace), he was distinguished by his ability to think “outside the box”, to use the modern metaphor, and we here in our modern-day Diogenes Club try to do the same.
So: returning to the puzzle of the paradoxical name ‘Diogenes Club’, perhaps we ought to take a step back and just reconsider the allusion to Diogenes. For a glance at the classical dictionary shows there was more than one well-known figure of that name. It’s true the best-known classical figure of this name was indeed Diogenes The Cynic. But he is usually referred to as Diogenes Of Sinope, the geographical epithet being needed as there were other famous men of that name in antiquity. Discussing Greek philosophy on his Radio 4 history-of-ideas series In Our Time last year, Melvyn Bragg noted: “… the name Diogenes was much in evidence in the ancient world. .. There was Diogenes of Babylon, who was in the stoic tradition and brought us much of Zeno. Diogenes Apollonia, who was a pre-Socratic philosopher. Diogenes of Sinope, who was a Cynic philosopher who rejected social conventions and advocated self sufficiency and simplicity of life, is also known as Diogenes the Dog and supposedly lived in a barrel and urged his followers to go naked to the market place and behave shamelessly in order to relinquish pride. There was Diogenes of Oenoanda, who was a minor Epicurean philosopher and Diogenes Laertius, who was a biographer of important philosophical figures, including Chrysippus the Stoic which takes us back to Zeno whose pupil he was.” To this list we can add the brutal 2nd-C. BC military advisor Diogenes of Judea, the 1st-C. Greek trader Diogenes who explored the Nile’s sources, another 'philosopher' called Diogenes who accompanied Alexander The Great to Asia as scout and mapmaker, and Antonius Diogenes, 2nd-C. author of the Greek travel-romance, The Incredible Wonders Beyond Thule.
We could ask: which one was the Diogenes Club named after? But why an either/or choice? I would suggest Conan Doyle was aware there was more than one such classical figure, and was quite content with this ambiguity, which helped mitigate the incongruity of Diogenes The Dog as founding inspiration for a gentleman’s club. In other words, it’s quite possible Conan Doyle used the name Diogenes as it was (unlike other ancient names such Socrates) not unique, but shared by other noteworthy classical figures. The question thus becomes, would any of the other men of that name also fit as part-inspiration for the name of a gentlemen’s club?
On our list, the Epicureans Diogenes of Oenoanda and Diogenes Laërtius sound tempting, as Epicurean came to mean a love of good food and fine living – though its original meaning, like that of Cynicism, differed, focussing ironically more on the simple life. Besides the Epicureans and other philosophers, we also have several Diogenes who have associations with early exploration, and I suggest this is itself worth exploring here. Many fans seem to have accepted this aspect may be a clue to the real answer, particularly since the dialogue exchange in The Private Life Of Sherlock Holmes, scripted by Billy Wilder’s writer-producer partner I. A. L. Diamond (who claimed his initials stood for "Interscholastic Algebra League"). In the Diogenes Club scene with Mycroft, Sherlock makes explicit a heretofore vague suspicion:
Sherlock: I’ve always suspected there was some kind of underground connection between this stodgy and seemingly calcified establishment and the Foreign Office in Whitehall.
MYCROFT: That is neither here nor there.
SHERLOCK: It seems to me the Diogenes Club is here, there and everywhere! When there are rumblings of revolt in the Sudan, an expedition subsidized by your Club conveniently shows up to study the source of the Nile. When there’s trouble along the Indian Frontier, some of your fellow members pop up in the Himalayas, allegedly looking for the Abominable Snowman!
Diogenes Club would be an apt name for such a setup. As well as our Diogenes the Cynic, who was like explorers of all ages prepared to sleep rough, we have others writing or telling of expeditions here and there. If not everywhere, these reach out to the far corners of the Oikemene - the known world of antiquity. We have one who wrote of a journey west and north to the farthest known northerly point, legendary Thule. Another Diogenes went east with Alexander on his incredible trek to India. A third Diogenes went south: blown southward for 25 days by a monsoon down Africa’s east coast, he travelled overland to the west, and reported seeing on the Equator great snow-capped peaks called the ‘Mountains of the Moon’, whose glaciers fed two great lakes near the head of the Nile.
Modern writers like Rhys Carpenter accept this Diogenes’s description, which Ptolemy included in his Geography, as too accurate to be made up. In the Victorian Age, rival expeditions under Burton, Speke, Livingston, Stanley and others went out and eventually found the 2 great lakes, which they called Victoria and Albert, and the Equatorial snow-capped peaks they named Mts Meru and Kilimanjaro. This lengthy saga took place in the first half of Conan Doyle’s lifetime, and was the subject of considerable debate in London circles and the press. Doyle later wrote a series of ‘scientific romances’ on controversial expeditions in his The Lost World and followups featuring Professor Challenger, with scenes reminiscent of the Nile-source debates held by the Royal Geographic Society. Of course Conan Doyle himself was involved in a real-life organisation of explorers, outdoorsmen, and assorted adventurers - on which more soon.