Featured Insights — 08 February 2015

Marc elaborates on Diogenes, who is considered one of the founders of Cynicism.

The ideas of Diogenes, like those of most other Cynics, must be arrived at indirectly. No writings of Diogenes survive even though he is reported to have authored over ten books, a volume of letters and seven tragedies. Cynic ideas are inseparable from Cynic practice; therefore what we know about Diogenes is contained in anecdotes concerning his life and sayings attributed to him in a number of scattered classical sources.

Diogenes maintained that all the artificial growths of society were incompatible with happiness and that morality implies a return to the simplicity of nature. So great was his austerity and simplicity that the Stoics would later claim him to be a wise man or sophos. In his words, “Humans have complicated every simple gift of the gods.” Diogenes is credited with the first known use of the word ‘cosmopolitan’. When he was asked where he came from, he replied, “I am a citizen of the world (cosmopolites).” This was a radical claim in a world where a man’s identity was intimately tied to his citizenship in a particular city state. An exile and an outcast, a man with no social identity, Diogenes made a mark on his contemporaries.

Diogenes the Cynic

Diogenes had nothing but disdain for Plato and his abstract philosophy. Diogenes viewed Antisthenes as the true heir to Socrates, and shared his love of virtue and indifference to wealth, together with a disdain for general opinion. Diogenes shared Socrates’ belief that he could function as doctor to men’s souls and improve them morally, while at the same time holding contempt for their foolishness. Plato once described Diogenes as “a Socrates gone mad.”

Diogenes taught by living example. He tried to demonstrate that wisdom and happiness belong to the man who is independent of society and that civilization is regressive. He scorned not only family and political social organization, but also property rights and reputation. He even rejected normal ideas about human decency. Diogenes is said to have eaten in the marketplace, urinated on some people who insulted him, defecated in the theatre, and masturbated in public. When asked about his eating in public he said, “If taking breakfast is nothing out of place, then it is nothing out of place in the marketplace.” On the indecency of him masturbating in public he would say, “If only it were as easy to banish hunger by rubbing my belly.”

Diogenes as dogged or dog-like
Many anecdotes of Diogenes refer to his dog-like behaviour, and his praise of a dog’s virtues. It is not known whether Diogenes was insulted with the epithet ‘doggish’ and made a virtue of it, or whether he first took up the dog theme himself. When asked why he was called dog he replied, “I fawn on those who give me anything, I yelp at those who refuse, and I set my teeth in rascals.” Diogenes believed human beings live artificially and hypocritically and would do well to study the dog.

Besides performing natural body functions in public with ease, a dog will eat anything, and make no fuss about where to sleep. Dogs live in the present without anxiety, and have no use for the pretensions of abstract philosophy. In addition to these virtues, dogs are thought to know instinctively who is friend and who is foe. Unlike human beings who either dupe others or are duped, dogs will give an honest bark at the truth. Diogenes stated that “other dogs bite their enemies, I bite my friends to save them.”

There are four reasons why the Cynics are so named. First because of the indifference of their way of life, for they make a cult of indifference and, like dogs, eat and make love in public, go barefoot, and sleep in tubs and at crossroads. The second reason is that the dog is a shameless animal, and they make a cult of shamelessness, not as being beneath modesty, but as superior to it. The third reason is that the dog is a good guard, and they guard the tenets of their philosophy. The fourth reason is that the dog is a discriminating animal which can distinguish between its friends and enemies. So do they recognize as friends those who are suited to philosophy, and receive them kindly, while those unfitted they drive away, like dogs, by barking at them.

Contemporary theory
Diogenes is discussed in a 1983 book by German philosopher Peter Sloterdijk (aka Dhyan Peter). In his Critique of Cynical Reason (English language publication 1987), Diogenes is used as an example of Sloterdijk’s idea of the ‘kynical’ – in which personal degradation is used for purposes of community comment or censure. Calling the practice of this tactic kynismos, Sloterdijk explains that the kynical actor actually embodies the message he is trying to convey. The goal here is typically a false regression that mocks authority – especially authority that the kynical actor considers corrupt, suspect or unworthy.

Sloterdijk 1983
Peter Sloterdijk (in orange with mala) at his book presentation Kritik der zynischen Vernunft, Amsterdam 1983. Photo: Ewout de Kat

In the first volume of Critique of Cynical Reason, Sloterdijk discusses his philosophical premises. The second volume builds on these premises to construct a phenomenology of action that incorporates the many facets of cynicism as they appear in various forms of public discourse. In both volumes, the relationship between texts and images is an integral part of the philosophical discussion.

Sloterdijk describes the evolution of middle and upper-class consciousness by employing negative examples, which he draws from European history and from the history of education. He describes World War II as a first climax of a “system of hollowing out the self” that, “armed to the teeth, wants to live forever.”

Sloterdijk concludes that, unlike the ancient Greek version, Cynicism no longer stands for values of the natural and ethical kind that bind people beyond their religious and economically useful convictions. Rather, it has become a mode of thought that defines its actions in terms of a “final end” of a purely materialistic sort and reduces the “ought” to an economic strategy aimed at maximizing profit. This contemporary sort of Cynicism remains silent, however, when it comes to social, and altruistic goals having to do with the “good life” the original Cynics were seeking.

In the final chapter, Sloterdijk points out that he regards a “good life” not simply as an external fact, but as a “being embedded” in a “Whole” that constantly reorganizes itself and renews itself, and that humankind creates out of its own understanding and motivations.


Related discourse, Osho Speaks on Diogenes
Related article, Peter Sloterdijk