While transcribing the first Niagara Falls Museum Guest Register, our summer students began to notice an interesting phrase coming up again and again. In the column ‘Residence’, many people opted to write that they were a ‘citizen of the world’. The above examples are only three of many. It made us wonder- What does that mean? Where did this phrase come from? And why were so many people using it?
It turns out that the origin of that phrase was the philosopher Diogenes of Sinope (c.412 BCE - 323 BCE). Diogenes was born, as his name suggests, in Sinope, Turkey, but spent most of his life living in exile as punishment for debasing currency minted by his banker father. Cut adrift from his home, Diogenes became a wanderer. He chose to eschew possessions, survive by begging on the streets and even lived out of a pithos (a large ceramic jar, often depicted as a barrel in later art) in order to become inured to living out in the elements.
While none of Diogenes’ writings survive in their original form, many anecdotes about him are recorded in Diogenes Laertius’ “Lives and Opinions of Eminent Philosophers”. Among the many witty quips attributed to Diogenes is one where he is asked where he is from and he responds “I am a κοσμοπολ?της (kosmopolites)”, meaning “citizen of the world” (6.2.63). If this story is true as it is reported, Diogenes is the first person known to describe themselves as cosmopolitan.
So why was this one-line saying of an Ancient Greek philosopher so well-known to museum visitors? In the early 1800’s, it was still considered essential for an educated person to be familiar with the Classics- including Ancient Greek and Latin language, literature, art and philosophy. While today we may look back at the Niagara Falls Museum’s eclectic collection of curiosities and taxidermy (including the two-headed calf and two-legged dog), as indicative of a tourist trap, in its early days it was seen as a serious academic institution visited by all the ‘bright lights’ of the Arts and Sciences. Since it attracted an educated clientele and educated people were knowledgeable about the Classics, it stands to reason that many visitors would know and appreciate the quip. Of course, perhaps some of them did not know it’s origin at all and used it simply because they had seen others use it.
Undoubtedly, different visitors had different reasons for using the term. In many cases, it was probably used as a clever joke to be understood by others who knew the Diogenes anecdote. Others may have found the question of their place of residence too intrusive and used it to deflect the question or to protect their privacy. Others still may have been using it to make a political or philosophical statement; emphasizing their loyalty to humanity in general rather than to one country in particular, or renouncing their home country.
We can’t go back and ask those museum visitors what they were saying when they called themselves ‘citizens of the world’, but at least we now have an insight into what their answers might have been.