Diogenes of Sinope: The Man in the Tub

How does someone create a portrait of a man who lived a few thousand years ago with snippets of mentions from texts written hundreds of years after his death? Luis Navia delicately reaches back through the mists of time and examines each piece, carefully considered. He quotes other students and critics, like the guy who considers Diogenes “a dog-man, a philosopher, a good-for-nothing, a primitive hippie, and the original bohemian,” and the modern scholar who said because he flouts the rules everyone else has to observe, the Cynic is a “freak, a monster, like every violator of taboos.” This is a man who shat on a stage to make a point about Hercules cleaning the stables, the original performance artist.

First off, the “tub” was more like a large barrel or cistern. Diogenes was a Cynic who refused the comforts and commonalities of the civilization around him, embracing his poverty, begging for food, scorning most/all humans. Navia stresses that Diogenes’ philosophy is relevant and valuable to us because we remain as “intellectually dense and morally corrupt” as the people Diogenes lived among despite our advances in technology and cultural evolution.

Neither in the realm of ideas, nor in the moral fabric of society, nor in national or international affairs, nor, in fact, in any area of human concern and activity, have we advanced one inch beyond the Greeks of classical times. We might even say that cultural stagnation is the appropriate way to characterize the course of human history since the time when Diogenes, carrying a lighted lamp in broad daylight, walked backwards through the streets of Athens, searching unsuccessfully for a true human being. Genuine specimens of humanity are today as rare as they were in classical times.

Navia quotes Oscar Wilde: Cynicism is the art of seeing things as they are instead of as they should be. Characteristics associated with Diogenes: “abandonment of all superfluities, a conscious and unwavering commitment to break asunder the fetters that in the form of conventions and rules tie and incapacitate human beings, an unquenchable thirst for personal freedom, the courage to despise openly rulers and governments and their laws, an indifference toward political affairs, an unwillingness to serve as a pawn in the wars manufactured and managed by the oligarchies, a life unattached to a wife and children, and a disdain for the market and financial preoccupations that entrap practically everybody.” He was associated with having the utmost contempt for his contemporaries.

If nothing else is worth remembering about Diogenes, we could conjure his ghost from the remote past to remind ourselves that reality is not what the governing oligarchies want ordinary people to accept, or what flows so abundantly from the media, or what those whom we call ‘celebrities’ peddle in the public light, or what the endemic inertia of the human mind sanctifies, but the truth that things and situations speak out for themselves. Diogenes can teach us to see the human world precisely as it is, without distortions, euphemisms, or deceptions.

The biographical sketch is sketchy, impossible to pinpoint details and verify facts. Diogenes is a conundrum, both a pinnacle of philosophical achievement and nothing but a ragpicker and vagabond.

More than in any other philosopher of the Western world, some have discovered in Diogenes the epitome of a long list of praiseworthy personal and intellectual traits and endowments: an absolute commitment to honesty, a remarkable independence of judgment, an unwavering decision to live a simple and unencumbered life, a paradigmatic devotion to self-sufficiency, an unparalleled attachment to freedom of speech, a healthy contempt for human stupidity and obfuscation, an unusual degree of intellectual lucidity, and, above all, a tremendous courage to live in accord with his convictions.

I don’t mean to quote the whole book but some of it is just too good to pass up. Like this bit on why people who love being part of groups can’t understand Diogenes’ philosophy:

How can someone whose psychological predispositions and whose upbringing incline him to accept blindly all social norms and to deify the Establishment and the status quo, and who, as in the case of patriotic enthusiasts and religious zealots, cannot find any fulfillment in life except as part of a group, discover any value and significance in the antics and sayings of a man like Diogenes, who, partly on account of his inborn character and the circumstances of his life, and partly because of certain philosophical influences on him, felt compelled to wage a relentless war against the human world that surrounded him, and found his fulfillment only in the shelter of his self-proclaimed independence?

Broad strokes of his life:

  • Born ~410 BC in Sinope (modern-day Turkey)
  • Some sort of scandal around defiling Sinope currency with his father, he left and went to Athens ~370 BC; received Delphic Oracle prediction about adulterating the currency after the fact (much disputed)
  • Athens 370-350 BC (met Antisthenes, Plato [who called Diogenes a “Socrates-gone-mad”]); lived in a “tub” near Athenian marketplace; walked streets with lamp during the day looking for a true human being.
  • Possibly sold as slave at Crete when pirates capture a boat he’s on, he’s sold to Xeniades who lives in Corinth, and Diogenes teaches his sons. Supposedly visited by Alexander the Great who introduced himself, “I am Alexander the great king” and Diogenes replied, “And I am Diogenes the Dog.” Many Alexander stories abound, like the one where the king asks Diogenes what he can do for him and Diogenes says he can get out of his sunlight.
  • Death in Corinth ~323 BC

Avoided marriage because he hadn’t been able to figure out a way to cope with the demands of dependents. When is the right time to marry? “For a young man, not yet; for an old man, never at all.” Some have accused him of misogyny, but Navia makes the case that he hated women and men equally.

The modern word cynic is a derivation from Greek κυνικός (kynikos), meaning dog-like.

The less we talk and write, the more we act to achieve right living. Navia wonders how Diogenes would have reacted to modern day life, observing people consumed “by the senseless need to acquire unimaginable amounts of information” from the internet. He’d be against the “cobwebs and labyrinths of words constructed by philosophers and poets” and the “senseless training that goes nowadays by the name of career education that prepares the youth to enter blindly and obediently the slave marketplace,” preferring people instead to live a simple and natural life.

Influenced heavily by Antisthenes who was influenced heavily by Socrates. Diogenes a direct link to the Stoics by way of Crates and Zeno. Jesus of Nazareth a typical Cynic philosopher of 1st century AD. Epictetus notes that Antisthenes taught Diogenes that nothing belongs to him (property, people, friends, reputation, places) except the power to deal with external impressions and circumstances. This is jibbing so much with what I’ve been reading about Zen lately that my mind almost blew open (we can only control how we react to things).

Against today’s culture of lies, Socrates states “inaccurate language is not only in itself a mistake but is something that implants evil in the human soul.”

The lack of any extant text allows Navia a bit of leeway to create this imaginary diatribe from Diogenes:

Navia expands on A. A. Long’s 7 tenants of classical Cynicism (1- happiness is living in agreement with nature; 2-happiness is available to anyone willing to engage in sufficient physical & mental training; 3- self-mastery is the essence of happiness, being able to live happily even under adverse circumstances; 4- self mastery is or entails a virtuous character; 5- happy person is the only person who is wise & free; 6- things conventionally deemed necessary for happiness like wealth, fame, power, have no value in nature; 7-false judgements of value are the prime impediments to happiness) with 12 building blocks of Cynicism:

  1. Human existence is only object of philosophy;
  2. Only focus on physical world to make sense of human existence;
  3. Live each moment as if it were the only moment of life; only the here-and-now matters;
  4. You can’t achieve happiness unless you understand its nature;
  5. Happiness can’t be understood in terms of possessions, pleasures, comfort, a long life;
  6. Happiness is living in accordance with nature;
  7. Clarity of mind/reason determines what is in accordance with human nature;
  8. The possibility of a return to nature exists for everyone; you must have clarity of mind to see things as they are and recognize the inherent value of things and activities;
  9. Through discipline we cleanse the mind of confusion and obfuscation and the body of detrimental substances and unnatural habits, to succeed in strengthening the will;
  10. Self-sufficiency is essential to a happy, natural, virtuous life;
  11. The world belongs to all inhabitants, there are no individual countries, we should be citizens of the world;
  12. Inspect, spy on the world and deface its values and habits. The grand building erected by civilization is beyond repair and must be demolished.

Really appreciate how much Navia tears into the other English-language scholar on Diogenes, F. Sayre, whom Navia calls out for some musty opinions and disses by saying Sayre only started studying philosophy when he was 77 years old after a career in the military.

To investigate: Aspasia (native of Miletus, one of the most remarkable women of classical times, established a school for young women, instructed Socrates in art of rhetoric); Hipparchia (married Crates, both were committed Cynics)