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The Other Greek Philosophers

How To Be A Cynic

Roger Caldwell contemplates the life and thinking of Diogenes the Dog.

Diogenes the Cynic (c.412-c.323 BCE) lives on in folk-memory as the ancient Greek philosopher who lived in a barrel (actually a kind of storage-jar), and who supposedly told Alexander the Great to move out of his sun. In his own time his fame was such that Aristotle in his work on rhetoric could refer to him simply as ‘the Cynic’ without need of further identification. For Plato he was ‘Socrates gone mad’, on account of his having taken Socrates’ simple way of life to extremes. To posterity he seems something of an eccentric, or an exhibitionist, the subject of numerous anecdotes, many of them of highly dubious historical worth. No writings of his remain, if there ever were any – only numerous records of his ‘sayings’ and deeds, some in mutually contradictory versions, and many of questionable accuracy.

Yet if Diogenes remains by far the most famous of the Cynics, he wasn’t the first of his line. That honour belongs to his teacher Antisthenes, who had in turn been influenced by Socrates, whom he knew. In general the Socratic inheritance of Cynicism lies in an indifference to wealth, comfort, and convention, and the emphasis on living one’s life in the single-minded pursuit of virtue. Diogenes took over this inheritance and remade it as his own. Socrates, after all, may have had little taste for material comforts, and may have gone barefoot, but, like most people, he lived in a house not a barrel; he had a wife and children: he even had a profession, although he rarely seemed to practise it. The Cynic, by contrast, has no family, no ties to kith and kin, thumbs his nose at all social conventions, is averse to work except in times of extreme necessity, and revels in his freedom from constraints.

Diogenes was no isolated eccentric, simply the most famous exponent of a philosophical movement that lasted (with intermissions) close to a thousand years. Saint Augustine in his City of God (426 AD) reports with a certain distaste that “Even today we still see Cynic philosophers” although by then they were beginning to be a diminishing species: the last known Cynic, Sallustius of Emessa, expired at the beginning of the following century. Cynicism was a serious issue to early Christian apologists, and Diogenes was the subject of a surviving work by Emperor Julian of Rome (332-363 AD, known as ‘the Apostate’ because he tried to reintroduce paganism to the Roman Empire). In it Julian praises Cynicism in general as “a type of philosophy – not the worst or meanest either, but one of the best” and sets Diogenes up as an exemplar of how to live, comparing him with the decadent Cynics of his own times. (It should be said that Julian’s Diogenes is a somewhat sanitised version.) In general, it appears that Cynicism enjoyed less popularity among the Romans than the Greeks – perhaps because it offended too much against reverence and custom – and flourished best in the Hellenized cities of the Eastern Provinces. In these cities Cynics – recognized at once by their ‘uniform’, consisting of a single cloak (folded double when it was cold), a walking-staff, and a travelling-bag, and by their matted hair and unkempt beards – were, it seems, a familiar sight, anticipating hospitality in return for a display of wit and wisdom: that is, for their satirical tongues and their unlicensed telling of home truths.

Unlike Julian, few would now claim Cynicism to be among the ‘best’ of philosophies, and many would find it difficult to regard it as much of a philosophy at all. But to have achieved such distinguished mention over the centuries, and indeed, for the movement to have survived over so long a period, there must be more to Cynicism than the tale of a man and his tub. Even so, can it be said to constitute a viable philosophy of life?

Diogenes 1
Diogenes living the dog’s life by Jean-Léon Gérome, 1860

Lessons In Cynicism

Diogenes came from Sinope, a city on the Black Sea, where his father, who managed the local bank, had apparently become involved in a fraudulent scheme to debase the currency, for which he was forced into exile. Diogenes saw it as his own mission to “deface the currency of custom”: that is, to show to people the worthlessness of the values they lived by – in order to replace them by better ones. Nietzsche, who admired Diogenes as a fellow ‘free spirit’, appropriated this Cynical theme in his own ‘transvaluation of all values’.

The word ‘cynic’ comes from the Greek word for ‘dog’, kunos: Cynicism was seen as a sort of dog-philosophy that reduced human beings to the level of animals. It would, however, be more accurate to say that the Cynics elevated animals above humans, seeing them in their relative self-sufficiency and simple capacity for happiness as closer to the gods than humans are. Animals were content with little. Human beings were never content, however much they had, but were always striving to acquire possessions of which they had no need. Thus they lived lives of fear and anxiety, spending their time work to obtain things of no intrinsic worth.

Work does not figure high in the Cynic ethos, and certainly is not a value in itself: it is in leisure, the freedom to do what one wants, that life’s essence lies. In Xenophon’s Symposium (c.360 BCE), Antisthenes says that by embracing the simple life, “leisure, the most enviable thing of all, is always mine to enjoy. It allows me to delight in those sights and sounds that I most prize.” This emphasis on the enjoyment of what sources of pleasure are immediately available to you, of finding gratification in what’s here today and not worrying about tomorrow, goes to the heart of the Cynic message. The fewer wants you train yourself to have, the more likely it is that you will find satisfaction in life. William Desmond in Cynics (2008) sees the Cynics as opportunists – when Diogenes is asked what wine he prefers, he answers “Someone else’s” (in which one-liner one glimpses a hint of the modern meaning of ‘cynicism’). Desmond further argues that, if Cynicism is a form of asceticism, it is one that is cheerful and hedonistic, not one that is life-denying.

The contempt for mere material possessions is taken to extremes by Diogenes. Seeing a child cupping his hands to drink water, he discards his own cup, leaving him one less item to carry around on his travels. Here surely a perverse sort of idealism takes precedence over practicality: it is, after all, hardly an obscure matter that cups are more efficient than hands in holding fluids, and that’s why we have them. The Cynic lesson remains, however. We can’t all be like Diogenes, but we can all see the lesson about how much we could simplify our lives – how much our needs can be met without surrounding ourselves with superfluous material possessions.

Along with the disparagement of luxury and wealth goes a contempt for, or levelling-down of, the great ones of the earth. This is the point of the story about the supposed meeting with Alexander the Great, which is historically improbable, to say the least: as is the latter’s supposed quip that “If I were not Alexander I would be Diogenes.” Instead we should take it as an exemplary Cynical tale: that the likes of Alexander with all their riches have nothing to offer the likes of Diogenes, who are sufficient to themselves. The contrast is between the man for whom the conquest of the whole world was not enough to satisfy him, and the man who was satisfied with almost nothing. Wealth and power are seen not only as without intrinsic value, but as positive evils in that they take from you your own inner freedom. The radical implication is that we can be not only as happy as kings, we can be happier by virtue of our self-sufficiency. Diogenes in his tub is more fortunate in every way that counts than Xerxes on his golden Persian throne. (The ancients, it seemed, found these comparisons more persuasive than we do.) Diogenes is said to have spat into the face of a rich man, explaining that he could find no better receptacle for his spittle. For him, the love of money is “the mother-city of all evils.”

The Cynic was supposed to be inured to physical hardship, and to be used to a simple diet – in which lupin-seeds and lentils seem to figure large, being cheap and easily available. However, if offered honeycake and wine, the Cynic will not refuse them, on the basis that they too are sustenance: the point is to satisfy the needs of the belly but not to indulge it. From the point of view of the physical needs they exist to satisfy, honeycake and wine have no superiority over lentil soup. (Nonetheless it is hard not to believe that the Cynic enjoyed the occasional relief from his otherwise abstemious diet.) If one part of the Cynic’s training is to achieve indifference to physical discomfort, another is to prepare for the derision and contempt he or she is likely to receive from other people. This training in becoming used to and learning to withstand the mockery of others involved, for example, appearing in public with only one side of the head shaved, or carrying some embarrassing or ridiculous object. (One may also detect here the sort of provocation or exhibitionism that is an undoubted feature of Cynicism in general.)

There are a number of themes in Cynicism – the nomadic way of life, the giving up of worldly possessions, the praise of the poor and disparagement of the rich, the taking no heed for the morrow – that (tone apart) are uncannily congruent with the Christianity of the Gospels. However, the similarities may be more than fortuitous. The world in which Jesus carried out his mission was very much a Hellenised one, and the city of Gadara, famous in the Gospels for the story of the Gadarene swine, was the home city of no less than three prominent Cynics, whose names remain on record. Nevertheless, although the call of Diogenes is as radical as the call of Jesus, it is to a very different end. For Diogenes the only world was this world, the gods were of no account, and the giving up of material goods was not the prelude to an eternal life in heaven but the better to secure happiness on earth. Indeed, it can be said that the main purpose of Cynicism is to lead humanity to a better understanding of what happiness is. Cynics wanted people to live their lives in the light of that understanding – to free themselves from their self-imposed fetters, and to live in a way that in modern terms we would call ‘authentic’.

Diogenes himself was clear enough that there were few such authentic human beings around. In a famous story he goes out in broad daylight with a burning lamp: when asked what he is doing, he declares, “I am looking for an honest man.” This is a story borrowed by Nietzsche, though with a twist: the madman in Also Sprach Zarathustra who goes out in daylight with his lamp is instead looking for God. Nietzsche’s madman fails to find God, just as Diogenes fails to find his honest man. For Nietzsche this is because the one is dead and the other is yet to come.

The Cynics did not themselves deny the existence of the gods – few of the ancient philosophers did – but neither were they exactly reverential to them. They mocked what they saw as mere superstition or excessive credulity, as in the making of sacrifices, taking heed of oracles, or wearing amulets, and they refused to treat shrines or temples as sacred places. The gods were self-sufficient, and needed no worship by humans. Humans in turn, in order to be self-sufficient themselves, had no need of the gods. This meant also that any idea of a divine spark in human beings – often identified by the Greeks with reason itself – very much sputtered out in the Cynic creed. Human beings were just a sort of animal that had lost the simple capacity for happiness that other animals had. There was nothing sacred about humanity, nor for Diogenes would it be a tragedy if the human race died out any more than if flies ceased to exist.

Diogenes 2
Diogenes looking for an honest man in the market by Jacob Jordaens, 1642


Cynicism is as much an anti-philosophy as it is a philosophy: there is a clownish element in it which mocks excessive intellectualism. For example, many Greeks took seriously Parmenides’ arguments for the non-existence of change or motion, illustrated in the paradoxes of Zeno such as Achilles and the tortoise. Aristotle spends many pages in his Physics trying to counter Zeno’s arguments in an attempt prove that motion and change are real. However, when the question of the reality of motion came up in conversation, it is alleged that Diogenes, instead of arguing as the others did, simply got up and walked around the room. This is on a par with Samuel Johnson’s ‘refutation’ of Berkeley’s idealism by kicking a stone, or G.E. Moore’s ‘proof’ of objects in the external world by holding up first one hand, then the other. In each case the response is to refuse the terms of the discourse offered, to reply with an action rather than an argument, thus purporting to show that ‘common sense’ wins out over idle speculation. In Diogenes’ case the point is that we already know that there is such a thing as motion, so any argument to the contrary must be wrong.

Diogenes was happy to satirize the absurdities of academic philosophising. When Plato’s Academy repeated Socrates’ definition of man as ‘featherless biped’, he (in one version of the story) threw a plucked chicken over the wall. (The story sounds too good to be true, but it seems clear that at one point the Academy did arrive, if only temporarily, at this definition. The evidence comes in Plato’s late dialogue The Statesman.) By comparison with, say, the Stoics, the Cynics have a limited curiosity. There is no Cynic logic, no Cynic cosmology. There is even a sort of philistinism about them: of the written works of the Cynics, for the most part only the titles remain, and from these titles – such as an encomium on hair or a treatise on the fart – there seems little reason to lament lost Cynic works as missing masterpieces. The Cynics worked primarily by satire, scurrility, wit, and provocation: except for them, philosophy was (and is) largely a laughter-free zone.

Of their provocations none won them greater notoriety than their promulgation of shamelessness – as here they took their never clearly-formulated naturalism to extremes. For the Cynic what is not shameful for a dog should not be shameful for humans. Diogenes is said to have masturbated in public, and wished that hunger could be satisfied as easily as the sex urge. Similarly, the only known Cynic married couple, Crates and Hipparchia, are alleged to have engaged in sex in public. In his denunciation of Cynicism, Roman writer Cicero declared that “it is incompatible with our sense of decency and shame. And without that there can be nothing moral, nothing right.” In one way this misses the point, in that the Cynics try to rid us of the sense of shame, supposing it to come merely from convention. In another way it hits the point, in that the Cynical supposition that what is natural for a dog must be natural for a human being is absurd, biologically, and in every other way. Freeing us from unnecessary sexual taboos is one thing; urging us to be like dogs is another.

This is not to say that Cynicism in its radicalism doesn’t rub up against some false assumptions of the day left unmentioned by more conservative philosophers. There is a proto-feminism in the words attributed to Crates addressing Hipparchia that “women are not by nature the weaker sex” but rather are made so by convention. In a society where the institution of slavery was largely taken for granted, it is refreshing to find thinkers who question whether anyone is a slave by nature. Yet the comments by Cynics on this issue hardly attack the institution full on; rather, the master is simply mistaken in thinking that he does not do better by attending to his own needs without the aid of his slave.

There is a joyous irreverence in Cynicism, but there is also something of the eternal adolescent about it: so much that seems essential to human thriving – family, politics, the life of the mind – is simply jettisoned for the sake of unfettered freedom, for immediate gratification, and for a life on the open road. In its extreme individualism it ignores the needs of society at large. One could not imagine Cynics ever founding a city-state – although one could imagine them co-existing, temporarily and anarchically in a sort of commune. There is, however, an absence of tribal feeling in the Cynics: Diogenes is not a citizen of a particular town or country, he is not an Athenian, or a Corinthian, but in his wandering life, he is a citizen of the cosmos. He does not belong to any particular race, but is simply a human being, although in a way that few human beings achieve. Standing a little apart from the rest of society, he has the right to exercise frankness, and in this there is a proud record, particularly among the Cynics of the Roman Empire who were unafraid to address the Emperor himself in the sharpest tones, delineating his vices and shortcomings when no others dared to do so. Demetrius, the first true Roman Cynic, was the scourge of three successive emperors, Caligula, Nero, and Vespasian, and remarkably, suffered nothing worse than exile. Others, no doubt, were less lucky. In having the courage to tell what they saw as the truth without regard for rank or authority – in the capacity more-or-less of licensed jester – the Cynics are exemplary. And in a consumerist age, their overall message – to distinguish your wants from your needs, to simplify your life, to try to do with less – is hardly redundant.

© Roger Caldwell 2014

Roger Caldwell is a writer living in Essex. His latest collection of poetry, Waiting for World 93, is published by Shoestring Press.

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