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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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.