One of the mysteries of the Sherlock Holmes stories which engages aficionados is the life of the man himself. And one of the unanswered mysteries here is the origin or nature of the Diogenes Club co-founded by Sherlock’s brother Mycroft. The question here is: why call a gentleman’s club after a man who lived like a dog, sleeping in a tub or barrel in the street? Is there some sort of code involved in the name?
Conan Doyle says the Club is for men who are ‘unclubable’, but who ‘are not averse to comfortable chairs and the latest periodicals.’ Diogenes the Cynic might fit as inspiration for the idea of being unsociable or anti-social, but not with the orientation towards comfort. Mycroft of course is a sedentary figure, more or less living at the Club, and only calls Sherlock in to help with cases which involve legwork, to which he remains averse even in matters of national importance. The idea of him admiring someone who preferred to live in a barrel and eat and drink with his fingers and hands is out of character, to put it mildly.
Perhaps the choice merely reflected the way Diogenes was taken up in posterity as a symbol - of simple outdoors abstemious living. In this interpretation, the less savoury aspects of his behaviour are ignored, perhaps only alluded to by euphemisms in approved biography, so that they were unknown to the hoi polloi. The Victorians were always willing to embrace things Classical, provided they could be made to symbolise espoused Victorian values such as thrift and self-reliance, my old school offering a coded reminder of this.
It occupied a hill where once had stood a Roman fortress. Atop this, in the Victorian era, was built a sort of mini St Paul’s, a building in the shape of a Greek Cross topped by a lofty cupola. Inside, in the octagonal central hall underneath this dome, where school assemblies and religious services were once held, stands a life-size statue of Diogenes. Although the school was turned into executive flats in the 1990s, it is a Listed Building refurbished with public money and the public can view the statue on Heritage Open Days. As the photo shows, it depicts a rather unkempt figure, nude except for a robe draped over one shoulder and carrying a stick and a bowl. This is our Diogenes, whose only possession was a wooden bowl (which he later threw away as unnecessary). The bowl is actually an upturned model of the school dome, a discreet tribute to its Victorian architect, as well as a pun on its local nickname - the Pudding or Porridge Bowl. (The stick was presumably to beat off dogs, with whom Diogenes supposedly competed when locals threw bones for him to gnaw on.)
A man nicknamed The Dog after his lifestyle and repudiation of civilisation may seem an incongruous choice for such a setting, with its walls painted in Regency pastels and high dome symbolising Victorian self-improving aspirations. (The modern term Diogenes Syndrome refers to a self-neglecting condition seen in elderly men that usually gets them taken into care.) But by the Victorian era, Cynicism had evolved as a school of philosophy beyond Diogenes’s extreme personal example, pursuing ideals of self-sufficiency, perhaps even (to the more religious or austere-minded), self-denial. He thus could be seen as the slightly eccentric pioneer of a respectable school of thought. Cynicism had by then evolved away from its let’s-all-live-like-dogs crude beginnings, more towards the sort of self-reliance preached by Baden-Powell.
The official Open Day leaflet says Diogenes was chosen for his “austere life style, intended to contrast with that of the modern day residents” – hinting at the possibility of a discreet censure of the materialist ethic. In his landmark cultural-history TV series Civilisation, Sir Kenneth Clark called his final episode, on the Victorian builders, “Heroic Materialism.” Cynicism in its modern meaning rejects this, and it seems Diogenes served as a stick with which to beat this Victorian ethic about the head.
In the 19th Century, there was a tendency to give gentlemen’s clubs classical names (‘The Athenaeum’ was much used), a pretentious trend soon satirised by writers. Conan Doyle may have been joining in on this with his ‘Diogenes Club,’ an allusion that would not be lost on the better-educated reader versed in the Classics. For the term is really an oxymoron - a phrase which seems self-contradictory (the usual example given is “Military Intelligence”). It was thus perhaps meant to serve as a discreetly ironic name, given its focus on comfortable armchairs and subscriptions to the latest periodicals – a tradition maintained by our own present-day Diogenes Club.