The Magazine

Jaded But Wise

An ancient school teaches us moderns.

Aug 3, 2009, Vol. 14, No. 43 • By LAWRENCE KLEPP
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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.

But he finally rejects this line of conjecture. Jesus and his followers were radical iconoclasts, but they remained fervently religious, and the self-denial of early Christians was meant to ensure a swift passage to another, better, purely spiritual life. The Cynics, on the other hand, were irreverent to the point of blasphemy and had no heaven to promise, just a frugal but real happiness and peace in this life, which was achieved by reducing desires to their natural minimum and then freely indulging them: self-mastery, yes; self-mortification, no.

"Hunger is the best sauce," as Diogenes, with one foot in austerity, the other in joie de vivre, would say.

Jesus being ruled out, none of the later Cynic philosophers, despite (or because of) the fact that in some cases portions of their written work survive, measures up to Diogenes in originality and interest. Still, there was, for instance, Hipparchia, one of the handful of female philosophers in antiquity, who married Crates, another Cynic, making a rare Cynical marriage (cynical marriages are not so rare). They supposedly had sex with each other in public, much like Diogenes with himself. Most Cynics avoided marriage as a superfluous social convention.

There were also literary Cynics, since the movement bred a robust satirical tradition. The great second-century Syrian-born satirist Lucian, who scorned the itinerant Cynic philosophers of his own day as idlers and leeches, praised Diogenes and carried on his mission of puncturing pomposity and complacency and conventional belief with playful, absurdist wit.

But Lucian was right. By late antiquity what was left of Cynicism seems to have degenerated into an indolent pre-modern bohemia, and we know how tiresome self-righteous hedonists--reformed addicts, affluent hippies, shrill Hollywood actors--can be.

When Julian the Apostate, the fourth-century emperor, tried to revive a dying paganism some 700 years after Diogenes, he portrayed him as a holy ascetic, the pagan equivalent of a saint, devout and pure, editing out the outrages. It was too late. The last few disconsolate Cynics coincided with the last few emperors of Rome. (In the Byzantine East, solitary bearded hermits and monks were a very faint reminder of the solitary bearded Cynics who once roamed the same territory.)

Every civilization seems eventually to suffer from a sense of surfeit and overcomplication that makes it look for an exit marked "nature" or "simplicity." It took only a few centuries of Greek civilization, and, at roughly the same time that the first Cynics were annoying Athenian Platonists and prigs, the Taoists were confusing Confucians in China. The Taoists were far more mystical, but like the Cynics, they used wit and paradox and sought return to a natural, pared-down, poor but peaceful life.

In modern Western civilization, Rousseau and Thoreau and D. H. Lawrence and nudists and New Agers have all, in turn, taken up the back-to-nature theme, or wild goose chase, unfortunately losing the Cynic and Taoist sense of humor along the way.

In his chapter on the Cynic legacy, Desmond aptly discusses Rousseau at some length. And he finds Cynic subtexts, plausibly enough, in King Lear and Huckleberry Finn. He pays tribute to modern anarchists and bohemians and hobos, but he doesn't specifically mention existentialists. Existentialism, with its distrust of system and abstraction, its focus on the here and now and on the solitary individual estranged from arbitrary social imperatives, and its affinities with absurdist writers like Pirandello, Ionesco, and Beckett, could be seen as a modernized--that is, a more convoluted, solemn, and sanctimonious--form of Cynicism.

He does take up Nietzsche, who bluntly said that Diogenes was superior to Alexander the Great and that Cynicism is "the highest one can reach on earth." He liked their self-mastery, simple food, and nomadic, free life, and he borrowed Diogenes and his lantern for his parable of the madman looking for God. And Nietzsche's own unsystematic, aphoristic style, laced with provocative diatribes and asides, resembles the anti-philosophy of Diogenes--and they both mocked Plato, too.

Desmond is right to bring him in, yet Nietzsche lurched into portentous prophetic posturing and an aristocratic and aesthetic elitism far from Diogenes' populist, earthy, slapstick streak. For all his insistent praise of lightness and laughter, Nietzsche, too, finally lost his sense of humor along the way.

I would suggest that satirists and comedians are on more familiar terms with Diogenes' ghost than any modern philosopher. Rabelais invoked him, Ambrose Bierce's terse sardonic jibes in The Devil's Dictionary seem at times to be channeling him. Silent film comedians, the Marx Brothers, and the more reckless and obscene stand-up comics from Lenny Bruce on, are practicing Diogenists, too, since it's in popular entertainment that you find a match for his farcical theatrics and aggressive shamelessness.

Rabelais made up a neo-Greek word--agelasts, those who cannot laugh--for the puritans and fanatics and conceited fools of his day. We have our own versions of the same thing. The true heir of Diogenes the Cynic would probably be any dog that bites any agelast in the seat of the pants.

Lawrence Klepp is a writer in New York.