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date: 25 March 2019

Diogenes (2), 'the Cynic', c. 412/403–c. 324/321 BCE

The general distortions in the ancient traditions about Cynicism (‘doggishness’) multiply in the case of Diogenes. Ancient and modern reactions range from appreciation of his wit to admiration for his supposed integrity, anxiety to integrate him into a formal philosophical succession from Socrates to the Stoics, denial of his philosophical significance, revulsion at his shamelessness, dislike of the threat he posed to conventional social and political values, and doomed attempts to make him respectable. All accounts are controversial, but the ancient traditions show certain constants and Diogenes (6) Laertius 6. 70–3 preserves his essential thought.

Accused with his father, moneyer at Sinope, of ‘defacing the currency’ (a phrase which would yield a potent metaphor), Diogenes was exiled some time after 362 and spent the rest of his life in Athens and Corinth. (His capture by pirates, consultation of Delphi, and discipleship of Socrates' follower Antisthenes (1) are fictitious.) He evolved a distinctive and original way of life from diverse, mainly Greek, elements: the belief (espoused by certain types of holy men and wise men) that wisdom was a matter of action rather than thought; the principle (advanced by various sophists, 5th-cent. primitivists, and Antisthenes) of living in accordance with nature rather than law/convention; the tradition, perhaps sharpened by contemporary disillusionment with the polis, of promulgating ideal societies or constitutions; a tradition of ‘shamelessness’ (reflected by the symbol of the dog in literature and by the supposed customs of certain foreign peoples); Socratic rejection of all elements of philosophy except practical ethics; Socrates' pursuit of philosophy in the agora rather than in a school; an anti-intellectual tradition; the tradition (variously represented by Odysseus, Heracles, the Spartans, and to some extent by Socrates) of physical toughness as a requirement of virtue; the image of the suffering hero and the wanderer (Odysseus, Heracles, various tragic figures); the tradition of mendicancy (represented both in literature and in life); the life of asceticism and poverty (as represented by various wise men and holy men and labourers and praised by moralists); the tradition of the wise or holy man who promises converts happiness or salvation; and various humorous traditions (the jester's practical and verbal humour; Old comedy's outspokenness and crudity (see comedy (Greek), Old); Socrates' serio-comic wit).

Diogenes pursued a life as close as possible to the ‘natural’ life of primitive man, of animals, and of the gods. This entailed the minimum of material possessions (coarse cloak, staff for physical support and protection, bag for food) and of sustenance (obtained by living off the land, stealing and begging); performance in public of all natural functions; training in physical endurance, and a wandering existence in harmony with natural conditions. Freedom, self-sufficiency, happiness, and virtue supposedly followed. It also entailed not merely indifference to civilized life but complete rejection of it and of all forms of education and culture as being not simply irrelevant but inimical to the ideal life. Hence Diogenes' attacks on convention, marriage, family, politics, the city, all social, sexual, and racial distinctions, worldly reputation, wealth, power and authority, literature, music, and all forms of intellectual speculation. Such attacks are imposed by the Cynic's duty metaphorically to ‘deface the currency’. Hence the modern implications of the word ‘cynic’ are misleading. Indeed, humane attitudes came easily to Diogenes (e.g. his advocacy of sexual freedom and equality stemmed naturally from rejection of the family).

Although proclaiming self-sufficiency, Diogenes tried to convert others by his own outrageous behaviour (which went beyond the simple requirements of the natural life), by direct exhortation employing all the resources of his formidable wit and rhetorical skills, and by various written works. Notwithstanding ancient and modern doubts, it is certain that Diogenes expounded his views in a Politeia (‘Republic’, largely reconstructible from Diog. Laert. 6. 72 and Philodemus' On the Stoics) and several tragedies. Such writings, which compromise the ideal of the practical demonstration of philosophical truth and the formal rejection of literature, did not imply real debate with conventional philosophers. Diogenes sparred verbally with Plato (1) but dismissed his philosophy as absurd; his Politeia, while a serio-comic statement of Cynic positions, parodied ‘serious’ philosophers' pretensions.

Diogenes' varied missionary activity entailed what his aggressiveness sometimes obscured: recognition of the common humanity of Cynics and non-Cynics. ‘Philanthropy’ (concern for one's fellow human beings) is integral to Cynicism and essential to Diogenes' celebrated concept of ‘cosmopolitanism’ (the belief that the universe is the ultimate unity, of which the natural and animal worlds, human beings, and the gods are all intrinsic parts, with the Cynic representing the human condition at its best, at once human, animal, and divine).

That Diogenes’ was a genuine philosophical project was recognized by his immediate followers, by Plato, who dubbed him a ‘mad Socrates’ (Diog. Laert. 6. 54), and by the Stoics Zeno and Chrysippus, who imitated his Politeia.

See also Crates (2); Cynics.

For bibliography see under Cynics.

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