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Laughing at the Face of Seriousness With Diogenes

Every age, and ours above all, would need a Diogenes; but the difficulty is in finding men courageous enough to be one, and men courageous enough to suffer one.” - Jean le Rond d'Alembert.1

We live in serious times. Everywhere, flags are planted, trenches dug, and positions taken. Ideas are no longer just thoughts—if they ever were—but weapons. They’re soldered to identities and fired across the web like whining missiles. Choose your words carefully because dissent is met by a madness that tears apart anyone who dare speak out of line. What you share decides whether or not you’re “on the right side of history.”

Two options appear: blindly pick a side or abandon the conversation. Neither is appealing when we all like the sound of our own voice. How then can we navigate between a vacuous whirlpool and a hungry outcrop? Who can help us?

Diogenes prowled Athens in the 4th Century B.C., armed with only a cloak, a staff, and a biting tongue. He snapped at the Greeks. Criticizing the way they lived and holding out his hand for the coin he was owed. It quickly earned him the nickname “kyon,” or “dog,” which as an adjective translates to “Cynic.” A smear Diogenes blithely rolled around in.

“And it was plain that he acted accordingly, adulterating currency in very truth, allowing convention no such authority as he allowed to natural right, and asserting that the manner of life he lived was the same as that of Heracles and that he preferred liberty to everything.”2

Any talk of the Cynics, Diogenes or otherwise, demands a brief detour. It’s important to note that the Cynicism of Diogenes is not the same “cynicism” as we use it today. The snickering attitude that undermines all values in the name of disillusioned self-interest—what Peter Sloterdijk calls “enlightened false consciousness,”3—is typically denoted with a lowercase “c.” While the philosophy as represented by Diogenes and his followers keeps the kingly capital “C.” The two are part of the same river. But for this essay’s purpose, it’s useful to dig and ditch and separate them.

Like Socrates, Diogenes found his calling from an oracle of Apollo. Olympus commanded, “paracharattein to nomisma:” deface the currency.4 There’s some numismatic evidence that Diogenes whittled away at the coins of Sinope when he was a banker—leading to his exile. But no oracle should be interpreted literally. The word nomisma *is a play on *nomos: “laws.”5 The proper interpretation of the prophecy means, “overthrow all human laws.” And so he did.

Diogenes unshackled all societal comforts to discover the bare minimum needed for happiness. “He would often loudly proclaim that the gods have granted human beings the means to an easy life, but this has been hidden from sight because they seek for honey-cakes and perfumes and the like.”6 What Diogenes sought was a way of living that inspires courage to face capricious Fortune. That meant a life of poverty as the shortcut to virtue. The dirt of the street became his dress; a ceramic jar became his home, and he adopted a new profession, to invest in the soul.

Our picture shouldn’t be confused with an ascetic meditating behind a wall. Diogenes was no monk seeking just his own salvation. He proclaimed, “I am a citizen of the world.”7 As the first cosmopolitan Diogenes recognized all people as his siblings—and nation’s borders as crude lines. Hence, he rejected all values which were not universal. For him, the only state that matters is a “moral” state, “a positive allegiance to the whole earth.”8 Diogenes fled towards reality and labored to take others with him.

An iconic image paints Diogenes holding a lamp on a sun-drenched afternoon, searching for a “man.”9 The scene is irony in action. There are no men for Diogenes to discover. The Athenians have become strangers to themselves, suffocating their being in fancy illusions rather than living in accordance with what it means to be human. To reflect their absurdities Diogenes lived a ridiculous life of action. He became the reflection that stares back from the sewage water and sprays it on anyone close enough to get wet.

His weapons of critique were clever puns, satire, and parody. “Humor is the chisel stamp of Cynic discourse.”10 It meant saying whatever needed to be said to shock people out of their servility. What they ordinarily think of as the “good” or the “right” is misguided. It’s tempting to draw parallels to a Zen master who prescribes medicine in the form of riddles. Except Diogenes tries to heal those who don’t want to listen.

Diogenes’ bombshells weren’t made of mere words. He weaponized his body. “He masturbated in the market-place one day and said, ‘If only one could do away with hunger by rubbing one’s stomach!’11 Through this outrageous act the wall between public and private shattered. Custom is brought into question by embodying the breach. Afterall, Dogs fornicate wherever they please.

But Diogenes wasn’t content to paint a bullseye on the foreheads of ordinary citizens. He attacked the metaphysical temples erected by the academies. An aghast Plato called him, “A Socrates gone mad.” The compliment was warranted. “Plato had defined Man as an animal, biped and featherless, and was applauded. Diogenes plucked a fowl and brought it into the lecture-room with the words, "Behold Plato's man!"12 Diogenes was the jester who wished to drag philosophy back to the earth. When Zeno of Elea said there is no such thing as motion Diogenes stood up and walked around.

Is this a portrait of a philosopher? Maybe, but it’s far from a familiar one. While Diogenes may have written treatises they’ve been eaten by time, and he erected no methodological system—earning him Hegel’s scorn. All we have are anecdotes and aphorisms: quick witty sayings imparting an ethical lesson. Yet, that was all he needed to leave a crater in his wake; scientists are still puzzled by samples from the crash site.

Through the Roman age, the Enlightenment, and the aftermath of two World Wars, thinkers have sought to salvage whatever they can from the irreverent Diogenes; or, sentenced him to a crucifixion next to a singing Eric Idle.13 Oddly enough, it was in the attempt to remold Diogenes that Ancient Cynicism twisted into our familiar modern cynicism. Diogenes can be interpreted as unhinged skepticism: a sententious questioning many feared would lead to moral nihilism and the pursuit of self-interest at the expense of any other. Though nihilism may not even be the greatest fear posed by Diogenes’ example. We can’t have intellectuals exposing their genitals at a Paris salon. Can we?

“Other dogs bite their enemies, but I my friends, so as to save them.’14

In the late 20th Century two prominent philosophers independently returned to Diogenes: Peter Sloterdijk in his bestselling Critique of Cynical Reason and Michel Foucault in his last lecture series at the Collège de France.15 In the Cynic, they sought a model for contemporary social critique. They found it. For them, Diogenes is not the paragon of progress, nor is he the abyss dug by self-interested scoffing. Instead, Diogenes epitomizes an attitude that will help us survive these times of seriousness.

The foundation of Diogenes’ attitude is reason infected with rabies. A courageous daring that leaves no facet of the historical moment unturned. Diogenes sets the stage for Kant’s sapere aude, “dare to know.”16 A philosophy that is not so much concerned with the right answers, but the nerve to discover them with the resources of reason. Ask not, “Who am I?” but “What am I?” What are we?

But before one can ask they must master themselves. Self-mastery is the vaccine to prevent choking on perceptions that confuse empty verbiage for the reality beyond a screen. It’s a liberated happiness. Diogenes’ example teaches us to overthrow language games, to pave a road to freedom by pissing against the blind idealist wind. Particularly useful today. A modern Diogenes might throw an online revolutionary a spear and say, “There, go kill your leviathan puppeteer.”

For Foucault, the most important application of Diogenes’ example is parrhesia, “free speech.” Drawing on Diogenes, he concludes that individuals have a duty to speak the truth in all circumstances whether or not they’re invited to flap their lips. We have a duty to shamelessly say what needs to be said to rip apart all mirages that lead people to a Djin’s oasis.

But there is a danger here, isn’t there? The guillotine is always craving fresh heads. But to abstain from saying the truth is to spit on the truth. And abstinence only empowers illusion which “like a shepherd, leads most men where it wills.”17 One must have the courage to speak without fear. Of course, with Diogenes, this doesn’t mean always upholding conventional manners of dialogue. Next time someone calls you a “victim,” reflect the assertion by blowing a raspberry.

The most urgent takeaway lesson from Diogenes’ class is a sense of humor. Comedy lifts the veil on our mindless habits and forces us to confront them for what they are. Because laughing at ourselves, at our own fallacies, is already a life leaning towards emancipation. Humor raises our anchored beliefs and let us shamelessly, and fearlessly, sail towards truth. Which is we why we find the legacy of Cynicism not in philosophy, but predominantly in satirical fiction—fitting for a character more literary than historical.

“What good is a man who has spent all his time philosophizing without having once disturbed or worried anyone?” - Diogenes the Cynic18

Philosophy appears in the imagination as a nose in a book, but Diogenes stuck his nose in the business of everyday life. He lived an embodied philosophy. Because life is the litmus test for any belief. You are what you do. Seek harmony between your pronouncements and action, and constantly reassess—here is a definition of “authenticity” for a serious world. How funny that we travel through the history of knowledge only to arrive back at a mother’s wisdom: “Actions speak louder than words.”

Seeking truth—new values—is a mission that is lived day-to-day. The key to our chains is in our pocket. We only have to struggle to reach for them and laugh if we drop them on the ground. In a sequel to Raphael’s School of Athens, onlookers would raise their eyebrows, as Diogenes turns to Plato and Aristotle to whack their toes for encroaching upon the sun.

[1] Luisa Shea, The Cynic Enlightenment: Diogenes in the Salon. Johns Hopkins University Press (December 10, 2009), p. 23.

[2] Diogenes Laertius, Lives of the Eminent Philosophers (R.D. Hicks, Trans.). Harvard University Press (January 1, 1925), 6.71

[3] Peter Sloterdijk, Critique of Cynical Reasoning (Michael Eldred, Trans.). University of Minnesota Press. (1987). p. 5.

[4] Luisa Shea, p. 94

[5] Luisa Shea, p. 9

[6] Robin Hard, Diogenes the Cynic Sayings and Anecdotes. Oxford University Press (2012) p. 56, (Diogenes Laertius 6.44; G322).

[7] Diogenes Laertius, 6.61

[8] John L. Moles, “Cynic Cosmopolitanism,” in The Cynics, The Cynic Movement in Antiquity and Its Legacy. Eds. R. Bracht Branham and Marie-Odile Goulet-Cazé: University of California Press, 1996. p. 111

[9] Diogenes Laertius, 6.41

[10] R. Bracht Branham, “Defacing the Currency: Diogenes’ Rhetoric and the Invention of Cynicism,” in The Cynics, The Cynic Movement in Antiquity and Its Legacy. Eds. R. Bracht Branham and Marie-Odile Goulet-Cazé: University of California Press, 1996. p. 93

[11] Diogenes Laertius, 6.46

[12] Diogenes Laërtius, 6.40

[13] Terry Jones, Life of Brian. HandMade Films, Python (Monty) Pictures, 1979

[14] Robin Hard, Diogenes the Cynic Sayings and Anecdotes. Oxford University Press (2012) p. 68, (Stobaeus 3.13.44; G149).

[15] Michel Foucault, The Government of Self and Others. Eds. Frédéric Gros: Palgrave Macmillian. (2010)

[16] Immanuel Kant, “Answering the Question: What is Enlightenment?,” p. 1, see

[17] Robin Hard, p. 81 (Stobaeus 3.22.41; G289)

[18] Luisa Shea, p. 10

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