Chatting with Diogenes

For most English speakers today, the word ‘cynicism’ implies suspicion or distrust of another person’s motives. “She has a very cynical view of politicians,” someone might say. But like most words, ‘cynicism’ has morphed dramatically over its long history. So for the time being, forget everything you think you know about cynicism — we’re going back to the late fifth century Athens.

Walking along the street, we happen upon a man named Diogenes. By his appearance, we probably assume that he is homeless: his only belongings appear to be a walking stick, a satchel, and a ceramic mug. His cloak is dirty and worn. He notices that we are eyeing him up.

“What do you think poverty is?” Diogenes asks us, at point blank range.

“Well,” we stammer, “poverty is the state of not possessing adequate resources to live.”

“You are absolutely right!” says Diogenes. “Nothing is missing from my life. None of my needs go unsatisfied. Therefore, do not call me poor!” (Kynikos 3, Dobbin 2012:4)

Diogenes pauses, staring us square in the eyes, anticipating our next question. We oblige. “With all respect, then,” we say, “why do you then choose to live in this squalor, sleeping out here in the streets with the dogs?”

“Listen here,” says Diogenes, “Poverty should not be defined by the need for money: rather, poverty is really just the desire to have everything. It is people like you — people who never have enough to be satisfied — that are the ones really living in poverty.” (Diogenes, Letter 33.3, Dobbin 2012:58 )

“But would your life not be better if you had just a few modest comforts and luxuries?” we ask.

“Better? How could my life be ‘better’ than it is right now? I go wherever I want to go. This whole world is my home. I have no fear of thieves, because I have nothing of worth to be stolen. I have no public enemy. No one has anything to gain by suing me. When the economy tanks, I am not affected in the least. When disasters strike, I lose nothing. I can be none the poorer and none the worse off than I am now — even though right now I have everything I need to live content and free.” (Dio Chrysostom, Oration 6.60-61, Dobbin 2012:102)

Diogenes continues,

My prayer is that my feet be just like hooves…that I need bedclothes no more than do lions, expensive food no more than dogs. Let the whole world be large enough for me, let me call the universe my home; and may I always prefer the food that’s easiest to acquire. May I never need gold or silver; and I wish the same for my friends, since greed for money is the source of society’s wars, plots, murders and divisions. And behind it is the unceasing lust for more. So let such desires keep their distance. I hope never to hanker after more than others, but instead be granted the capacity to do with less. (Kynikos 3, trans. Dobbin 2012:15)

Diogenes is the archetypal Cynic. He has not only concluded that society’s obsession with comforts and luxury is counter-productive to happiness, but he physically embodies the belief in every aspect of his lifestyle. For him, theory and practice are truly inseparable.

As a philosopher, he will do whatever it takes to get our attention: today he might engage in earnest debates with pedestrians like us. Tomorrow might wander around with a lit lamp at high noon, claiming to be in search for a single honest person behind the facade of social convention. Next week he might even defecate or masturbate in public just to shock his audience into thinking about the subjectivity of their moral customs. He berates, he offends — he does whatever he can do to provoke anyone he can to listen. As far as he is concerned, his fellow citizens are bustling about their lives in a blinding daze of confusion about what really matters today.

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