My hero Diogenes the Cynic

Diogenes searching for a human being.

Diogenes of Sinope or Diogenes the Cynic was a contemporary of Socrates’ pupil Plato, whom Plato described as ‘a Socrates gone mad’. Like Socrates and, to a lesser extent, Plato, Diogenes favoured direct verbal interaction over the written account. When a man called Hegesias asked to be lent one of his writing tablets, he replied, ‘You are a simpleton, Hegesias; you do not choose painted figs, but real ones; and yet you pass over the true training and would apply yourself to written rules.’ After being exiled from his native Sinope for having defaced its coinage, Diogenes moved to Athens, took up the life of a beggar, and made it his mission to metaphorically deface the coinage of custom and convention, which, he maintained, was the false coin of morality. He disdained the need for conventional shelter or any other such ‘dainties’ and elected to live in a tub and survive on a diet of onions. He proved to the later satisfaction of the Stoics that happiness has nothing whatever to do with a person’s material circumstances, and held that human beings had much to learn from studying the simplicity and artlessness of dogs, which, unlike human beings, had not ‘complicated every simple gift of the gods’. The terms ‘cynic’ and ‘cynical’ derive from the Greek kynikos, which is the adjective of kyon or ‘dog’. 

Diogenes placed reason and nature firmly above custom and convention, which he held to be incompatible with happiness. It is natural for a human being to act in accord with reason, and reason dictates that a human being should live in accord with nature. Accordingly, he taught that, if an act is not shameful in private, then it should not be shameful in public either. Upon being challenged for masturbating in the marketplace, he replied, ‘If only it were so easy to soothe hunger by rubbing an empty belly’. Upon being asked, on another occasion, where he came from, he replied, ‘I am a citizen of the world’ (cosmopolites), a radical claim at the time and the first recorded use of the term ‘cosmopolitan’. Although Diogenes privileged reason, he despised the sort of abstract philosophy that was being practiced elsewhere and in particular at Plato’s Academy. When, to great acclaim, Plato defined a human being as an animal, biped, and featherless, Diogenes plucked a fowl and brought it to the Academy with the words, ‘Behold! I have brought you Plato’s man.’ Plato consequently revised his definition, adding to it ‘with broad nails’. 

Diogenes was not impressed with his fellow men, not even with Alexander the Great, who came to meet him one morning while he was lying in the sunlight. When Alexander asked him whether there was any favour he might do for him, he replied, ‘Yes, stand out of my sunlight.’ Much to his credit, Alexander still declared, ‘If I were not Alexander, then I should wish to be Diogenes.’ In another account of the conversation, Alexander found Diogenes looking attentively at a pile of human bones. Diogenes explained, ‘I am searching for the bones of your father (King Philip of Macedon), but cannot distinguish them from those of a slave.’ Diogenes used to stroll about in broad daylight with a lamp. Whenever curious people asked him what he was doing, he would reply, ‘I am just looking for a human being.’ Much to his chagrin, all he ever found were rascals and scoundrels. When asked how he wished to be buried, he left instructions to be thrown outside the city wall so that wild animals could feast upon his body. After his death in the city of Corinth, the Corinthians erected to his memory a pillar upon which they rested a dog of Parian marble. Diogenes taught by living example that wisdom and happiness belong to the person who is independent of society. He was, I think, a shining example of the art of failure. 

Adapted from The Art of Failure – The Anti Self-Help Guide.

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7 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. The Blogs Rocket
    Jul 18, 2010 @ 17:45:57

    Very nice article, thanks! I’ve subscribed to your RSS feed. Please keep up posting.

    Reply

  2. John Madron
    Aug 02, 2010 @ 03:37:50

    Of course, and perhaps very pertinent to psychiatry, there is the story that Diogenes was once asked why he was talking to the statues in the marketplace and replied “I am becoming accustomed to being ignored”. Hegel eat your heart out!

    Reply

  3. Neel Burton
    Aug 03, 2010 @ 17:30:44

    Hello John, thank you for reading my blog. I hope you are well, and look forward to reading more from you!

    Reply

  4. Boris Bakunas
    Nov 11, 2010 @ 03:09:29

    Greetings Neel,

    How delightful to find another Diogenes fan. I just added your book The Art of Failure to my Amazon Wish List and will buy it as soon as I add enough books to qualify for free shipping. I’m trying to live cheaply.

    What did Diogenes show the world? One thing for sure: Why worry about being leaders, artists, writers, or even great lovers when we can be free?

    Reply

    • Neel Burton
      Nov 11, 2010 @ 04:20:03

      Thank you Boris for those words of wisdom, although I will not be giving up on being a writer (or a great lover!) anytime soon.

      I hope you enjoy the Art of Failure. Please write to tell me what you thought of it.

      Reply

  5. Boris Bakunas
    Nov 11, 2010 @ 16:36:56

    Neel, don’t give up! By all means, don’t give up! Just avoid worrying about it.

    If I like your book even half as much as I like the title, it will join my list of recommended readings in the classes I teach.

    Reply

  6. Trackback: Review of ‘The Talking Cure – Wittgenstein’s Therapeutic Method for Psychotherapy’ by John Heaton « Outre monde

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