Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Dog in a Barrel
Diogenes the Bum

Diogenes in his Barrel
With Dogs

Most people if they have heard about Diogenes at all will have heard the story of him lighting a lamp in the day and looking for a good man by its light.

Well the story is wrong. It appears that Renaissance thinkers a little put off by the starkness of the original tale added the gloss of “good”. In the original tale Diogenes was looking quite simply for a man. And obviously was advertising that he couldn’t find one.1

Diogenes lived during the 4th century B.C.E., was born c. 390 B.C.E., and died either shortly before or shortly after the death of Alexander the Great in 323 B.C.E.2 He was from the city of Sinope, a Greek city on the southern shore of the Black Sea in modern day Turkey.2

He was apparently the son of a prominent local politician who journeyed to Athens and there was influenced by several disciples of Socrates, most importantly the philosopher Antisthenes, who practiced a very ascetic way of life and preached the virtues of same.2

Diogenes lived most of his life in Athens although he appears to have traveled to Corinth and Sparta.

Now it is important to note that we have no works of Diogenes, although it appears that he did write, what we have is a large number of stories about Diogenes and sayings attributed to him. We do have some letters attributed to him but they seem to be apocryphal, i.e., made up.3

Diogenes practiced a particularly severe form of asceticism that in some respects reminds me of the life of Buddhist monks. There were however very large differences.

What Diogenes did was to turn his life into a piece of public performance art illustrating his philosophical concerns and attitudes. And frankly his “performance” was shocking to Greeks of his day but eventually attracted a school of disciples and followers.

So what did Diogenes do? Well he lived his life as a Bum. He gave up living in a house and gave up earning a living in a conventional way. He lived in the streets, courthouses and colonnades of Athens, wearing a simple tunic, with a cane and a knapsack with a few things in it. He got by day to day by begging and in exchange for food and few coins he would harangue people with his opinions about the good life. Sounds more than a bit like the sort of mad, half mad beggars and panhandlers one comes across today in most North American cities. Although in this case Diogenes didn’t fall into this situation he deliberately choose it.4

Diogenes basic philosophical position was that man should live as simply as possible with as little thought for tomorrow has possible. That things like jobs, and riches, power, fame etc., were added excess that were detrimental to happiness and self-sufficiency. Further that hardship trained on mentally and physically to bear up to difficulties and thus promoted self-sufficiency and hence true happiness.

Things like social convention, the state, and laws were barriers to truly understanding ourselves and to satisfy our true basic needs, which were minimal. Thus Diogenes was against the polite courtesies that govern everyday life, regarded superstition with disgust and contempt, property has a encumbrance, the class system, aristocracy. Into that mix of the rejected were most intellectual pursuits like music, mathematics, etc., dismissed as irrelevant, useless. So into the dung heap Diogenes consigned fame, fortune and birth.

Diogenes flouted the social conventions of his time. He rejected the idea of man being a political animal and thus rejected the Greek Polis or city state. Man’s main obligation was to himself and then his friends not to an abstract political concept like the state.5

Further Diogenes subjected social convention to analysis he rejected that which to him he considered added excess to man’s “natural” needs. Thus he didn’t have a problem with shitting or masturbating in public. After all if they are natural why should they not be done in public?!6

Diogenes argued that incest was all right, after all animals do it, and so is robbing temples and holding property in common.

Diogenes style of argument was accusatory; he would tear into people, social attitudes and conventions, with a style that was sarcastic and vicious. He regarded most philosophical argument as useless in that it did not promote the goal of making people better, or in his case live more simply. Things like astronomy, mathematics, Natural Sciences, he regarded as simply useless.

As Diogenes gathered a school about him he also began to attract attention of a less than positive kind. Since he rejected the Polis / Greek City state. Famously saying that he was a Citizen of the World, and since he did things in public that were considered immodest like a dog he and his followers acquired the name Cynic or dog like. Diogenes was not offended he took up the derisive nickname and adopted it as his and his followers own.7

At the same time Diogenes continued his life style of living in the open and on the street taking shelter sometimes in a large stone rain barrel from the elements.

Of course for a man who rejected conventional Greek society, in fact all society, he was curiously dependent on it. After all he was a bum dependent on others for his daily sustenance.

As one modern writer has said:

Worst off all, the so-called self-sufficiency is a patent sham. The Cynic, in the last resort, exists as a tolerated parasite on the society he condemns.8

Still all sorts of rather amusing and interesting stories about and sayings are attributed to Diogenes. Here are some.

Diogenes said that poverty aids us to philosophy of its own accord, for what philosophy attempts to persuade us by means of arguments, poverty compels us in very deed.9

When some mice crept on to his table, he said [Diogenes], ‘Look even Diogenes has scroungers to support’.10

When asked what wine he [Diogenes] most liked to drink, he replied ‘Some-body else’s’.11

He [Diogenes] lit a lamp in full daylight and walked around with it, saying ‘I’m searching for a man’.12

He [Diogenes] marveled that the grammarians should enquire into the misfortunes of Odysseus while remaining ignorant of their own, that musicians should tune the strings of their lyre while allowing the disposition of their soul to remain out of harmony; that the mathematicians should gaze up at the sun and moon yet fail to see what lies beneath their feet; that the orators should be so earnest in praising justice yet never practice it.13

On seeing someone being purified in a lustral rite, he [Diogenes] said, ‘Poor wretch, don’t you know that, just as sprinklings of water cannot deliver you from errors of grammar, they will be no more effective in delivering you from the errors of your life?’14

The prosperity and good fortune of the wicked, so Diogenes used to say, provides telling evidence against the power of the gods.15

As he was sunning himself in the Craneion, Alexander [Alexander the Great] stood over him [Diogenes] and said, ‘Ask whatever you wish of me’, and he replied ‘Stand out of my light.’ 16

Diogenes had many saying attributed to him. Such has:

For the man who is suffering many a trouble there is no sure salvation except a good friend.17

He who accepts foul words spoken against a friend strikes me as being just as bad as the calumniator himself.18

When asked what ages most swiftly among men, he replied: ‘Gratitude’.19

Seeing an incompetent archer, he sat down beside the target, saying, ‘Just to make sure I don’t get shot’.20

When asked whether death is an evil, he said, ‘How can it be an evil, if we are not even aware of it when it arrives?’21

Seeing a son of a flute player who had a very high opinion of himself, he said, ‘Young man. You’re even more puffed up than mother was.’22

That some at least of the stories concerning Diogenes and some of the sayings attributed to him have nothing to do with him in real terms, is not relevant in the sense that these sayings and doings were felt to be consistent with Diogenes' attitude and way of life. So that people told such stories about him. The stories about his relationship with Alexander the Great are likely all apocryphal but they fit the character and image of Diogenes as a sarcastic misanthrope.

But in the end as one modern writer as said about the Cynic movement in general:

The real trouble with Cynicism was that it consisted of little more than a stream of insecurely based moral obloquy directed against a faulty but stable social system. The Cynics offered no concrete alternative to that system, for the excellent reason that they depended on its continued existence to support their anarchic attitudinizing. Worst of all, they wholly lacked an economic sense. Cynics did no productive work themselves, nor did they pick out those who did for praise. Thus once again, as so often in this period, the revolutionary element in a movement turns out, on analysis to be intellectual moonshine.23  

So for all of Diogenes real insight and wit he and the movement he founded were essentially negative. He offered no real alternative to the system he opposed and frankly a lot of what he said and did feels like epater le bourgeoisie performance art. Shock for the sake of shock and as such often trite and boring.

Still there is something very appealing about the scene in which Alexander the Great is told to get of the way of the sun by Diogenes. Sometimes it is good for power to be told that in the grand scheme of things you are irrelevant, minuscule and frankly of little importance.

Diogenes telling Alexander to-
get out of the way of the Sun

1. Finley, M.I, Aspects of Antiquity, Second Edition, Penguin Books, London, 1977, p.89.

2 Hard, Robin, Introduction, in Diogenes the Cynic, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2012, pp. vi-xxvi, pp. xiii-xv.

3. IBID, Hard.

4. IBID, Green, Peter, From Alexander to Actium, University of California Press, Berkeley CA, 1990, pp. 613-617, Finley, pp. 88-98.

5. Finley, pp. 93-94.

6. Green, p. 613.

7. IBID, Finley pp. 92-94.

8. Green, p. 614.

9. Hard, p. 13.

10. IBID, p. 15.

11. IBID.

12. IBID, p. 19.

13. IBID, p. 27.

14. IBID, p. 45.

15. IBID, p. 47.

16. IBID, p. 53.

17. IBID, p. 66.

18. IBID, p. 67.

19. IBID, p. 69.

20. IBID, p. 72.

21. IBID, p. 80.

22. IBID, p. 78.  

23. Green, p. 615.

Pierre Cloutier

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