The Magazine

Jaded But Wise

An ancient school teaches us moderns.

Aug 3, 2009, Vol. 14, No. 43 • By LAWRENCE KLEPP
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts


by William Desmond

California, 296 pp., $18.95

The third-century B.C. philosopher Diogenes the Cynic was, arguably, Western civilization's first Marx Brother. He is known not for metaphysical treatises but for wisecracks and pranks.

Alexander the Great hears of this strange philosopher who lives outdoors on next to nothing and comes to see him, asking if there's anything Alexander can do for him: "Yes, get out of my sunlight." Asked what kind of wine he prefers, Diogenes says, "Someone else's." Hearing that Plato and his followers have defined man as a "featherless biped," he carries a plucked chicken into their lectures--"Plato's man!" And he roams the marketplace with a lantern in broad daylight, explaining that he's looking for a real human being.

There are over a thousand extant anecdotes about Diogenes, according to William Desmond, an Irish university professor and scholar of classical philosophy, in this wide-ranging history of the most eccentric and maybe the most modern of ancient philosophical movements. Diogenes was said to have written dialogues, tragedies, letters, even his own anarchist Republic. Only the anecdotes survive, and nobody knows which, if any, aren't apocryphal.

He was called "Socrates gone mad" and "cynic" comes from kynikos, "doglike," dogs being insouciant about what they eat, where they sleep, bodily functions, and so on. He famously lived in a tub (actually, Desmond tells us, a pithos, a large earthenware storage jar), but there was method in his Socratic madness, and a liberating ideal in his dogged shamelessness.

Because of Diogenes as much as Socrates, philosophy became associated with a simple and somewhat defiant life in which virtue is more essential to contentment and fulfillment than wealth, comfort, or conformity to arbitrary social conventions and laws. Together, they were the two most popular and influential archetypes of "the philosopher" in the ancient world.

Where Socrates used sly faux naif irony, Diogenes used insult and wit and Dadaist antics. And however outrageous his provocations, his purpose was to free humanity from its burden of artificial needs and false ambitions, allowing people to live simply and calmly in the present moment, where they might unexpectedly find themselves happy.

He was born in Sinope, a Greek town on the Black Sea. He seems to have been forced into exile, later remarking that it had turned him into a philosopher. He lived a long life in Athens and later Corinth.

According to one story, his father had been accused in Sinope of "defacing the coinage." In any case, the phrase became a metaphor and modus operandi for the Cynics. Their subversive jokes and diatribes were meant to rub away the customs and prejudices of this or that polis, revealing the more natural, universal values lying beneath. And Diogenes, in exile from philosophical and other forms of respectability as well as his birthplace, coined the word cosmopolitan--citizen of the universe--for himself, later taken up by the Stoics.

Cynicism may have set out to scandalize traditional Greek sensibilities, but it remained very Greek. While other Greek philosophical schools--especially Stoicism--overcame the initial Roman resistance to those clever, fast-talking, unreliable, duplicitous Greek intellectuals, and Greek philosophers eventually swarmed to Rome as teachers and gurus, Cynicism never caught on there. Its scabrous humor, Desmond says, clashed with Roman decorum and gravitas. But in the Greek-speaking eastern half of the empire, Cynicism transcended its Attic origins and eventually crossed over into other cultures and movements, maybe even Christianity.

Desmond notes the recent serious scholarly speculation about Cynicism as an influence on Jesus of Nazareth, a Galilean town near several flourishing Greek-speaking cities, where a common sight at the time would be wandering Cynic philosophers preaching a radically simplified way of life in which wealth and prudent conventional wisdom are abandoned. And he agrees that Jesus' "Consider the lilies" could have been any Cynic's paean to natural self-sufficiency, and that his praise of poverty and humility, his scathing denunciations of the rich and the rigidly pious, his exhortations to give away possessions, and his paradoxes such as "the last shall be first," all echo Cynic themes.