Will the Real Cynic Please Stand Up?

In a New Yorker article last fall, Kathryn Schultz attacked the legacy of Henry David Thoreau, calling Walden’s author “pond scum” and dismissing as unrealistic any political vision built upon his “rugged individualism.”  Based on her reaction to Thoreau, she’d likely recoil in horror from Diogenes of Sinope (412-323 BCE), founder of the Cynic school of philosophy in ancient Greece.  Known as “The Dog,” Diogenes lived in a tub, begged for food, and went barefoot, haranguing rich and poor alike for their pointless conformity, irrational behavior, and moral bankruptcy.  Compared to Diogenes, Thoreau was pampered and tame.

You might be familiar with the image of a white-haired man carrying a lamp in  daylight, searching for an honest man.  That was Diogenes.

Statue of Diogenes in Sinop, Turkey.  Source:  Wikipedia

Brilliant philosopher, shameless exhibitionist, ragamuffin — take your pick, but before we concede to people like Schultz and dismiss the man, we have to ask the question, why is Diogenes still remembered some twenty-four hundred years after his death?

I recently came across a book by Professor Luis Navia of New York Institute of Technology, Diogenes the Critic:  The War Against the World, which sheds some interesting light on this question.

diogenes book

The story of Diogenes emerges from the mists of the distant past, based on scraps of evidence and second-hand accounts, and while little is known for sure, Professor Navia pieces together the clues, assesses their reliability, and provides alternate interpretations.

The story begins with scandal.  Diogenes’ father was a banker in charge of the mint for Sinope (a town in northern Turkey).  Apparently he and his son were caught “defacing the currency.”  This may mean they were minting coins with less precious metal than what they were supposed to contain, or perhaps they were destroying currency to remove it from circulation for political reasons — the details of what happened are not understood.  It is believed that the father was imprisoned, while the son was exiled or fled in disgrace.

The story continues with Diogenes arriving in Greece and seeking guidance from the Oracle at Delphi.  The message he received was to once again “deface the currency” — but this time it a play on words, as the ancient Greek word for “currency” refers not only to coinage, but also to the accepted moral values of society.  In other words, Diogenes was encouraged to challenge the social norms of the time.

Arriving in Athens penniless and without friends, Diogenes was forced to live the “simple life.”  He embraced necessity and turned it into a virtue, reasoning that he was better off “wanting nothing” than were other people who could “never get enough of anything.”  A large earthenware cistern or tub became his abode, and his possessions were only what he carried with him:  cloak, staff, satchel, and a ceramic vase for drinking.  One day he saw a child drinking with cupped hands and threw away the vase.


Despite having no training in philosophy, Diogenes was a man of “considerable literary and philosophical sophistication,” according to Navia.  Initially he studied under Antisthenes of Athens, who was a disciple of Socrates.  But Diogenes was impatient with lectures, theory, science, rhetoric, and other forms of acquired knowledge.  Attending one of Plato’s lectures in which the great philosopher categorized man as a “featherless biped,” Diogenes left in disgust and returned with a plucked chicken which he proclaimed “Plato’s man.”  Plato in turn referred to Diogenes as “Socrates-gone-mad.”

For Diogenes, philosophy was to be lived, not talked about.  He practiced askeisis or severe disciplines meant to strengthen the will, which included rolling about on hot sands or walking barefoot on snow.  His purpose was to battle with and overcome unruly emotions, like hunger, greed, lust, and laziness, and in so doing live a life governed by reason.

Nothing in life, Diogenes would say, has any chance of success without self-discipline. With it, however, anything was possible. So why not choose to be happy by avoiding vain effort and focusing only on what nature demands, instead of making ourselves miserable with unnecessary exertion? You can even derive pleasure from despising pleasure once you have got used to it. Then pleasure becomes as distasteful an experience as being deprived of pleasure is for people who have not acquired self-discipline.

Robert Dobbin, ed., The Cynic Philosophers: from Diogenes to Julian

Diogenes played the role of self-appointed social gadfly and moral critic of ancient Athens.  Invited to a dinner party, Diogenes was repulsed by the opulent pictures covering every inch of the walls and needing to clear his throat, spat in the host’s face.  There was nowhere else to aim, he explained.  Alexander the Great is supposed to have approached him and out of respect offered to grant him a request.  Diogenes replied, “move out of the sun, you’re blocking my light.”

Diogenes sneered at high birth, honors and all such worldly distinctions, calling them “camouflage for vice.”  But that doesn’t mean he spared the common people.  He was exasperated at the rampant irrationality and mindless activity that seemed to characterize human existence at all levels of society.  One day he was found rolling his tub through the market place and when asked why, replied “just to make myself look as busy as the rest of you.”

Diogenes communicated his criticism of contemporary behavior not only through caustic and vituperative comments, but also through exhibitionist behavior.  He advocated shamelessness, that is, acting without regard to social conventions which he regarded as arbitrary and unnatural.  Taking dogs as his model, Diogenes made a point of eating and drinking in the market place, which was considered uncouth, and went further, urinating and defecating there as well.  These antics earned him the nickname, “The Dog,” which he seems to have approved of, saying, “I fawn on people who give me alms, I bark at them if they refuse me, and I snap at scoundrels.”  When caught masturbating in public, he replied, “if only rubbing the stomach were as effective at alleviating hunger.”

Diogenes’ shamelessness knew no bounds, recognized no exceptions,and accepted no prohibitions, just as if he were a street dog, because such a dog does whatever nature calls him to do, indifferent to the restrictions of customs and conventions.

— Luis Navia, Diogenes the Cynic

Cynic on Cynic

It’s hard not to be intrigued by such a colorful character.  As I was reading the early chapters in Navia’s book, I appreciated the professor’s balanced assessment of Diogenes’ character.  He acknowledged that many historians describe Diogenes as pseudophilosopher, primitivist, nihilist, pyschopath, or ragpicker.  However, other historians consider Diogenes to be a “giant in the history of humanity in general and in the history of ideas in particular” and attribute to him a number of worthy characteristics:

an absolute commitment to honesty, a remarkable independence of judgment, an unwavering decision to live a simple and unencumbered life, a steadfast devotion to self-sufficiency, an unparalleled attachment to freedom of speech, a healthy contempt for human stupidity and obfuscation, an unusual degree of intellectual lucidity, and, above all, a tremendous courage to live in accord with his convictions.

As I read further into the book, Navia seemed sympathetic to the idea that ancient Greek culture was morally bankrupt and in need of a critic like Diogenes to point out the lies and absurdities.  This seemed like a harsh indictment for a culture that produced so much in the way of art, philosophy, and literature that it is considered the birthplace of western civilization — but I let it pass.

By the end of the book, however, Navia was expressing the concern that things have gotten no better since Diogenes’ time and are perhaps worse:

Centuries later, however, the noise has increased exponentially, partly on account of the execrable alliance between ethical nihilism and sophisticated technology. The deafness becomes total. Blind irrationality triumphs and engulfs everybody. Hybris (arrogance), the sin never forgiven by the gods, is king. With it, violence reaches gargantuan proportions and all rules of behavior are suspended. Blind greed dehumanizes all relationships and convinces us that oil is more precious than human life. God is dead, the gods have abandoned us, and reason has been starved to death.

— Luis Navia, Diogenes the Cynic

In the concluding chapter, Navia holds nothing back:  “the human world is bankrupt and human beings are mad.”  In fact, “conditions have already reached a lamentable point of no return for the human species,” the professor states. “Arrogance may have made our condition terminal.”

Now I remembered a comment that Navia had made earlier in the book: “in order to understand and appreciate the value of Diogenes as a philosopher, one may have to be a Cynic oneself or at least have certain Cynic tendencies.”

I got it:  professor Navia is a modern Cynic.


Who’s Right — Navia or Schultz?

As a modern Cynic, Navia’s rant against humanity suggests that there is a strong streak of misanthropy (distrust, contempt, or hatred of the human species) at the heart of the Cynic worldview.  Maybe Schulz is right and people like this are to be dismissed.

Navia acknowledges the charge of misanthropy.  He admits with regard to Diogenes that “nowhere do the sources report him as having said anything positive or complimentary about anybody.”  As far as we know, Diogenes had no wife or girl friend, no friends at all for that matter, and no disciples.  He walked Athens carrying a lamp in daylight, searching for an honest man, but never found a single person that met his standard.  He is reported to have said that “if the human species should one day cease to exist, there should be as much cause for regret as there should be if flies and wasps should pass away.”

In addition to the misanthropy, it’s hard to overlook Cynicism’s internal contradictions.  Diogenes advocated living shamelessly like a dog, but for humans, there are legitimate reasons for shame, which is an emotion that keeps people from violating norms that help us to work together.  For example, norms against urinating and defecating in public exist because of hygiene and health considerations.  Since our sense of reason is more developed than that of a dog, it cannot be our nature to live exactly like them.

One wonders whether Diogenes really lived a life governed by reason, or whether there was a deep current of anger or confusion that tormented him and drove some aspects of his extreme behavior.

Why We Value Cynics

Oscar Wilde defined the cynic as someone “who sees things as they are, rather than as they’re supposed to be.”  Regarding “how things are supposed to be,” we get a daily torrent of opinions from politicians, religious leaders, government agencies, the media, the scientific establishment, celebrities, academia, and not to mention friends and family.

Diogenes had his vision of how things should be:  the simple life, free of shame, lived in accordance with nature, and governed by reason.  This vision was, of course, different from the accepted values of his contemporaries, who sought money, power, fine food, fancy art, and other possessions.  Although not as extreme as Diogenes, Thoreau was marching to the beat of a different drummer than the rest of 19th century America.  Today Navia recoils from the face of modern humanity, while Schultz would have us see Thoreau’s life as she thinks it really was.  In other words, we’re all cynics — searching for truth, skeptical that others have got it right.

The problem is that no-one knows “how things are supposed to be.”  We can’t know, because the evolution of the human race is an ongoing process.  Even Nature doesn’t know, rather she “shoots in the dark,” throwing out new ideas randomly in every direction.  Perhaps she is surprised to see how her “featherless bipeds” have flourished.

Few people today would spend two years in a cabin by a pond, let alone live in a tub.  But when we encounter strong voices advocating simplicity, we stop to listen, because they help us appreciate our choices.  And that’s why their messages endure.

In addition to Navia’s book, I also read and found helpful The Cynic Philosophers from Diogenes to Julian, translated and edited by Robert Dobbin

Will the Real Cynic Please Stand Up?

3 thoughts on “Will the Real Cynic Please Stand Up?

  1. Dear Kenneth:

    Thanks for this piece. It is brilliant.

    One of my favorite stories about Diogenes is when he was being sold at a slave market in Corinth, he was asked what he could do. He answered, “I can command men. Sell me to someone who needs a master.”

    Another story is that he was asked by one of the emperor’s minister what he was doing. Diogenes said, “As you can see, I am eating gruel.” Minister said, “If you make friends with the emperor, you would not have to eat gruel.” Diogenes: “If you learn how to eat gruel, you won’t need to be friends with the emperor.”

    Atanu Dey

    Liked by 1 person

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