Ancient Greek Philosophy, Philosophy, Videos

Diogenes the Cynic

The following is a transcript of this video.

In this lecture we are going to investigate the life and ideas of Diogenes the Cynic. The word cynic comes from the Greek word for dog (kyon) and Diogenes is a name which means “the man from God”. Hence, Diogenes was also called Diogenes the Dog which means “the man from God who acted like a dog”.

Diogenes was one of the founders and most famous members of the philosophical movement known as Cynicism. Cynicism as a philosophical movement lasted approximately 900 years, commencing in the 5th century BC with Diogenes.

The Ancient Cynic movement influenced many schools of thought, most notably Stoicism whose doctrines were said to be “written on the tail of the dog”, and many individual philosophers such as Friedrich Nietzsche, who claimed that “the highest one can reach on earth is Cynicism”.

The modern meaning of the word cynicism is very different from the classical or ancient meaning of the word, and to differentiate the two scholars capitalize the word Cynic or Cynicism when referring to Ancient Cynicism.

A modern cynic is generally an individual who thinks negatively about human beings and existence in general. Life, for the modern cynic, would have been better if it never happened at all.

Like the modern cynic, the Ancient Cynic, as exemplified by Diogenes, did not think very highly of the general run of mankind. Most people are vain, lazy, ignorant, and blindly obedient, or at least this was Diogenes’ opinion.

Yet contrary to the modern cynic, the Ancient Cynic was not pessimistic about life itself, and believed that each individual had the power to transform their life so as to achieve freedom, self sufficiency, and happiness. Once, when someone mentioned to Diogenes that life itself was evil, Diogenes corrected him by saying: “Not life itself, but living an evil life.”

While he saw practically all individuals as immersed in an evil life, enslaved by their own ignorance and conforming blindly to the herd that is mankind, Diogenes proclaimed to have escaped such a life. He alone, he boasted, was free, self sufficient, and happy. He was an autonomous individual, that is, an individual who has shaken off all social constraints, norms, and expectations, and lives according to his own internal laws and ideals.

Because of his self achieved freedom, happiness, and self sufficiency, Diogenes considered himself a king among men, an interesting claim given that he begged for his daily sustenance, lived in a pithos, which is a storage jar or tub, and owned nothing except for a worn and tattered cloak and staff. Diogenes’ belief that he was a king among men is exemplified in a tale which tells how once a ship which Diogenes was on was captured by pirates and he was sold as a slave in the marketplace. When asked what his occupation was he responded: “To govern men”, and said that if anyone was in need of a master, they should purchase him.

Although Diogenes claimed to have attained knowledge as to how to live the proverbial “good life”, he didn’t express this knowledge by writing a philosophical treatise or an expansive ethical system. Instead, Diogenes expressed his ideas through his actions and in the conversations he had with his fellow citizens. He, perhaps more than any other philosopher in history, epitomized the Greek ideal of philosophy as a “way of life”.

A great example of the way in which Diogenes’ actions expressed his ideas and ideals is found in a tale which describes him being surrounded by a number of philosophers who were arguing that motion does not exist, a position most famously held by the Presocratic philosopher Parmenides. Diogenes, upon hearing their carefully thought out and detailed arguments, simply got up and walked away, thereby proving without saying a word that motion does indeed exist.

Central to Diogenes’ philosophy was the conviction that it is pointless to concern one’s self with abstract contemplation or metaphysical speculation, and instead that the sole concern of one’s attention should be with the concrete here and now, for it is only in the here and now that we can attain happiness. Any abstract speculation divorced from the here and now, about whether motion exists, for example, only distracts one from this all important concern.

Diogenes thought that when one turned their attention away from abstract speculation to the concrete here and now, they would soon observe that most human beings are, to put it in the nicest way possible, quite pitiful creatures. In one of the more famous anecdotes about Diogenes, it is said that one day he went into the marketplace in broad daylight with a lantern saying, “I am looking for a man.” He never found what he was looking for, that is, self sufficient, free, and happy individuals, but instead found only ignorant, obedient, and worthless creatures.

Diogenes treated others with the disrespect he thought they deserved. One day when a few people were throwing bones at Diogenes as they would to a dog, he got up and urinated on them. He thought that if the human species should go extinct, “there should be as much cause for regret as there should be if flies and wasps should pass away.” He even went so far as to try to quicken the rate of the extinction of mankind. When Diogenes was begging on the street a man started to mock him and said “I will give you, but only if you can persuade me”, to which Diogenes responded, “If I could have persuaded you of anything I would have persuaded you to hang yourself.”

While Diogenes was certainly a misanthrope who ridiculed and condemned human beings, he did not think human nature was corrupt and to blame for the depravity which permeates mankind. Instead, he believed that human beings are by nature good and virtuous, but that they are corrupted by the artificial social norms, customs, practices, and values which are inculcated into them via the process of socialization. These artificial social constraints are conforming forces which turn potentially strong and independent individuals into obedient sheep.

In fact, Diogenes made it his life’s mission to debase, or destroy, the artificial social norms, practices, and values which castrate and weaken individuals. To do this, he attempted to display, through his actions, how ridiculous and arbitrary they were.

Once, when the city of Corinth heard news that they were soon to be under attack, the citizens went into a panic and began preparing for the coming battle. Diogenes, oblivious as to what all the fuss was about, began rolling his pithos, or tub, up and down a hill. Someone asked why he was performing such a pointless task, to which he replied: “Just to make myself look as busy as the rest of you.”

According to Diogenes the goals and ends which people devote their lives to, and the flurry of pointless activity they engage in to achieve these goals, are as meaningless as rolling a tub up and down an hill over and over.

So convinced that social norms, customs, and values corrupt, weaken, and condemn the mass of mankind to a life of frustration and misery, Diogenes did everything he could to ensure that he did not fit in with the norm. He would frequently walk backwards through the streets and enter theaters at the end of performances when everyone was leaving. 

Clearly such odd behaviour garnered the attention of those around him. When someone called him mad, which must have been a pretty frequent occurrence, Diogenes replied: “I am not mad; it is only that my head is different from yours.” Normality, Diogenes believed, is no standard for mental health.

Diogenes’ ruthless attack against social norms and customs was not an end in itself. He did not want to destroy such customs solely for the sake of destroying something. Instead, he viewed such an attack as means to an end, that is, he wanted to help individuals break free from the chains of social constraints so as to enable them to live a happy and free life.

In order to live such a good life, Diogenes thought it was necessary to disregard all social norms and instead to live according to nature. He thought that happiness could be attained not by satiating the desires inculcated into us via the process of socialization, i.e., the desire for of wealth, power, social acceptance, status, and fame, but instead by living simply, in the present moment, and embracing the simple pleasures which the natural world has to offer.

There is a story that Alexander the Great heard about Diogenes and paid him a visit in Corinth where he was resting in the sunlight. Alexander, proud as can be, walked up to him and boasted: “Diogenes, ask of me whatever you want!”. Diogenes looked up at Alexander, annoyed that someone was interrupting his rest and said “Stand out of my sun.”

Alexander the Great had achieved dominion over many kingdoms, amassed a great fortune, and was revered and feared by every individual across the classical world. He had, in other words, achieved what the masses long for, or what is socially accepted to be good and worth striving for. However, Diogenes recognized the worthlessness of all these so called ‘achievements’.

The best is not to spend one’s life in a frantic commotion, exhausting one’s self each day trying to become rich, socially accepted, or powerful. Instead, the best is to relax and indulge in the simple pleasures which nature has to offer each moment: the feeling of warm sunlight against one’s skin after a long winter, the sight of a blossoming tree in the spring, or the taste of cool water on a hot summer day. These simple and natural pleasures make one far happier than the artificial desires which rule and chain the masses to a continual state of madness.

However, since human beings have been so corrupted via the process of socialization which inculcates into individuals at a young age these artificial desires, one must undergo a training regiment in order to re-learn how to live simply, that is, according to nature.  This training regiment, Diogenes held, involves seeking out and enduring pain and suffering. Diogenes was well known for approaching statues and asking them for money and food. When someone asked why he did such a ridiculous thing, he replied “To get practice in being refused”. He was also seen rolling around in the scorching hot sand on a blistering day, or walking barefoot in the snow.

Paradoxically, Diogenes believed that by seeking out and enduring pain and hardship he was actually living the most pleasurable life possible. For when one becomes used to pain and suffering, the simplest of pleasures, such as the sun against one’s skin, evoke intense feelings of joy and gratitude. However, when one spends their life avoiding suffering and pain, one needs the most intense pleasures to feel satisfied, and remains oblivious to the infinite pleasures which nature itself has to offer in each moment. “The scorn of pleasure is the greatest pleasure”, or so Diogenes was thought to have believed.

Having removed himself from society and all the norms and expectations which chain individuals to a life of conformity, misery and frustration, Diogenes considered himself a truly self sufficient individual. His happiness was solely in his own hands. Sickness, poverty, rejection, failure, pain, suffering, none of these things could rob Diogenes of his freedom and joy. As the Roman philosopher Seneca explained:

“Diogenes acted in such a way that he could not be robbed of anything, for he freed himself from everything that is fortuitous. It appears to me as if he had said: “Concern yourself with your own business, Oh Fate, for there is nothing in Diogenes that belongs to you anymore.”” (Seneca)

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