GREAT TROLLS OF HISTORY
DIOGENES OF SINOPE
The most illustrious of the Cynic philosophers, Diogenes of Sinope (c. 404-323 B.C.E.) serves as the template for the Cynic sage in antiquity. An alleged student of Antisthenes, Diogenes maintains his teacher’s asceticism and emphasis on ethics, but brings to these philosophical positions a dynamism and sense of humor unrivaled in the history of philosophy. Diogenes made it his life's goal to challenge established customs and values. He argued that instead of being troubled about the true nature of evil, people merely rely on customary interpretations. He considered his avoidance of earthly pleasures a contrast to and commentary on contemporary Athenian behaviors. This attitude was grounded in a disdain for what he regarded as the folly, pretense, vanity, self-deception, and artificiality of human conduct.
He was a citizen of Sinope who either fled or was exiled because of a problem involving the defacing of currency. Once in Athens, Diogenes famously took a tub, or a pithos, for an abode. Apparently Diogenes discovered that he had no need for conventional shelter or any other “dainties” from having watched a mouse. The lesson the mouse teaches is that he is capable of adapting himself to any circumstance. This adaptability is the origin of Diogenes’ legendary askēsis, or training.
Diogenes’ sense of shamelessness is best seen in the context of Cynicism in general. Specifically, though, it stems from a repositioning of convention below nature and reason. One guiding principle is that if an act is not shameful in private, that same act is not made shameful by being performed in public. For example, it was contrary to Athenian convention to eat in the marketplace, and yet there he would eat for, as he explained when reproached, it was in the marketplace that he felt hungry. The most scandalous of these sorts of activities involves his indecent behavior in the marketplace, to which he responded “he wished it were as easy to relieve hunger by rubbing an empty stomach.”
There is a report that Diogenes “would continually say that for the conduct of life we need right reason or a halter.” For Diogenes, each individual should either allow reason to guide her conduct, or, like an animal, she will need to be lead by a leash; reason guides one away from mistakes and toward the best way in which to live life. Diogenes, then, does not despise knowledge as such, but despises pretensions to knowledge that serve no purpose.
He is especially scornful of sophisms. He disproves an argument that a person has horns by touching his forehead, and in a similar manner, counters the claim that there is no such thing as motion by walking around. He elsewhere disputes Platonic definitions and from this comes one of his more memorable actions: “Plato had defined the human being as an animal, biped and featherless, and was applauded. Diogenes plucked a fowl and brought it into the lecture-room with the words, ‘Here is Plato’s man.’ In consequence of which there was added to the definition, ‘having broad nails’”. Diogenes is a harsh critic of Plato, regularly disparaging Plato’s metaphysical pursuits and thereby signaling a clear break from primarily theoretical ethics.
Diogenes’ talent for undercutting social and religious conventions and subverting political power can tempt readers into viewing his position as merely negative. This would, however, be a mistake. Diogenes is clearly contentious, but he is so for the sake of promoting reason and virtue. In the end, for a human to be in accord with nature is to be rational, for it is in the nature of a human being to act in accord with reason. Diogenes has trouble finding such humans, and expresses his sentiments regarding his difficulty theatrically. Diogenes is reported to have “lit a lamp in broad daylight and said, as he went about, ‘I am searching for a human being’”.
For the Cynics, life in accord with reason is lived in accord with nature, and therefore life in accord with reason is greater than the bounds of convention and the polis. Furthermore, the Cynics claim that such a life is the life worth living. As a homeless and penniless exile, Diogenes experienced the greatest misfortunes of which the tragedians write, and yet he insisted that he lived the good life: “He claimed that to fortune he could oppose courage, to convention nature, to passion reason”.
There are conflicting accounts of Diogenes' death. He is alleged variously to have held his breath; to have become ill from eating raw octopus; or to have suffered an infected dog bite. When asked how he wished to be buried, he left instructions to be thrown outside the city wall so wild animals could feast on his body. When asked if he minded this, he said, "Not at all, as long as you provide me with a stick to chase the creatures away!" When asked how he could use the stick since he would lack awareness, he replied "If I lack awareness, then why should I care what happens to me when I am dead?"
- Other dogs bite only their enemies, whereas I bite also my friends in order to save them.
- Of what use is a philosopher who doesn't hurt anybody's feelings?
- Self-taught poverty is a help toward philosophy, for the things which philosophy attempts to teach by reasoning, poverty forces us to practice.
- Aristotle dines when it seems good to King Philip, but Diogenes when he himself pleases.
- If you are to be kept right, you must possess either good friends or red-hot enemies. The one will warn you, the other will expose you.
- The art of being a slave is to rule one's master.
- Discourse on virtue and they pass by in droves, whistle and dance the shimmy, and you've got an audience.
- It is not that I am mad, it is only that my head is different from yours.
- Why not whip the teacher when the pupil misbehaves?
- The noblest people are those despising wealth, learning, pleasure and life; esteeming above them poverty, ignorance, hardship and death.
- I do not know whether there are gods, but there ought to be.
- Labeled mad for acting against convention, Diogenes points out that it is the conventions which lack reason: “Most people, he would say, are so nearly mad that a finger makes all the difference. For if you go along with your middle finger stretched out, some one will think you mad, but, if it’s the little finger, he will not think so.”
- One day, observing a child drinking out of his hands, he cast away the cup from his wallet with the words, "A child has beaten me in plainness of living."
- He was seized and dragged off to King Philip, and being asked who he was, replied, "A spy upon your insatiable greed."
- Once he saw the officials of a temple leading away some one who had stolen a bowl belonging to the treasurers, and said, "The great thieves are leading away the little thief."
- When some one reminded him that the people of Sinope had sentenced him to exile, he said, "And I sentenced them to stay at home."
- He once begged alms of a statue, and, when asked why he did so, replied, "To get practice in being refused."
- Someone took him into a magnificent house and warned him not to spit, whereupon, having cleared his throat, he spat into the wealthy host's face, being unable, he said, to find a meaner receptacle.
- He was breakfasting in the marketplace against customs, and the bystanders gathered round him with cries of "dog." "It is you who are dogs," cried he, "when you stand round and watch me at my breakfast."
- Asked where he came from, he said, "I am a citizen of the world."
- He was going into a theatre, meeting face to face those who were coming out, and being asked why, "This," he said, "is what I practise doing all my life."
- When people laughed at him because he walked backward beneath the portico, he said to them: "Aren't you ashamed, you who walk backward along the whole path of existence, and blame me for walking backward along the path of the promenade?"
- While Diogenes was relaxing in the moning sunlight, Alexander the Great, thrilled to meet the famous philosopher, asked if there was any favour he might do for him. Diogenes replied, "Yes, stand out of my sunlight".
According to others:
- "If I were not Alexander, I should wish to be Diogenes." - Alexander the Great
- "A Socrates gone mad." - Plato
- "Even bronze is aged by time, but not all the ages, Diogenes, shall destroy thy fame, since you alone did show to mortals the rule of self-sufficiency and the easiest path of life." - Antiphilus of Byzantium
This has been Great Trolls of History.