A Puzzle about Ancient Cynicism

by Scott F. Aikin and Robert B. Talisse

Diogenes of Sinope famously walked the streets of Athens searching for an anthropos. The tale is regularly rendered as him looking for an honest man, but this is too restrictive a translation. Rather, he was looking for a human, in the thick sense of the word. It is like a coach of a soccer team, challenging the squad of players, asking them if they are soccer players. In this regard, the thick sense of the term bears a normative weight, as a success term. And so, when one points to Lionel Messi and says, “Now, that’s a soccer player,” one is not merely saying that Messi plays the game. Rather, one is saying that he plays excellently, that he is exemplary. And so, when Diogenes, with his lit lamp in the daylight, asks people he meets if they are human beings, he is using the term in the thick sense. And given that his search seems to be ongoing, he implicates that everyone is failing to live up to the standard.

The standard that Diogenes — and with him, the ancient Cynic tradition — had in mind is not clear. However, one value at the center of this thick notion of humanity is not in question: that of autarkeia, roughly, independence, self-sufficiency, freedom. The genuine human is free; but, again, Diogenes finds no one fulfilling that standard. Instead, he finds people who are who have lost or given away their independence. Hence a famous Cynic paradox: only the practicing Cynic is free, only the Cynic is rich. How to make sense of these claims?

One way is found in the story of Diogenes meeting a man who complained how expensive Athens is. The perfume, the cuts of meat, and the fine wools are exorbitantly priced, he says. Diogenes takes the man to see that beans and dried figs cost a few coppers, and that one does not need fine wools but rather the doubled cloak. Diogenes shows him that cities are expensive only if one lives lavishly. The lesson, then, is that expensive tastes create a system of dependency that distorts our conceptions of what we need and who we are. When we live in that skewed reality, we forfeit our autarkeia. And the only way to break those bonds is to break the habits and desires that lead us to such dependency.

In the service of overcoming these perceived needs, the Cynics performed exercises of foregoing luxuries and comforts, embracing hardships. So Diogenes rolled in hot sand to accustom himself to the discomfort of hot summers, he embraced frozen bronze statues to inure himself to the cold, he elicited insults from prostitutes so disparagements from others would not hurt him. Once, he stopped for a drink at a well, and he used the simple carved cup he carried with him to dip the water.  But upon seeing a boy drinking from his own hands, Diogenes smashed his cup, thereby destroying a dependency he had overlooked in himself.

The irony of Diogenes is that, despite his pursuit of autarkeia, he nevertheless lived in a city; he begged for food form others, and he was keen of performing his exercises of self-denial for audiences. The Cynic, at least in Diogenes’ form, does not sow, does not reap, and does not bake. Yet the Cynic will eat the bread for which he begs. The Cynic will raise no sheep, collect no wool, and the Cynic will not weave at the loom. Yet the Cynic wears a doubled cloak. There’s a conflict lurking within these ironies. The practice of Cynicism seems to be parasitic on a community of non-Cynics.  Call this tension the autarkeia problem.

Diogenes had a reply to this kind of challenge. He would claim that these things were, really, already his. He, in the act of begging, was actually reminding others of his rights to these items. He proposed the following syllogism:

All things belong to the gods, and the wise are friends with the gods. Friends share what is theirs in common, so all things belong to the wise.

Of course, for it to be relevant to him, Diogenes would have to assume he’s wise. But beyond that, the syllogism is really only a distraction. It’s not really an answer to the autarkeia problem. This is because claiming ownership of those goods does nothing to produce them. Being owed a bowl of beans, for example, is one thing, but producing the bowl and the beans is another. Thus the Cynic remains dependent on local non-Cynics.

What’s more, Diogenes needed an audience for his exercises. A Spartan, witnessing him clinging to a frozen statue, asked him if he was cold. Diogenes replied that he was not. The Spartan asked then, what great deed is it for him to do this?  Plato chided Diogenes for his vanity in making displays of how he spurns vanity. And Plato is clearly correct. Diogenes’ exercises of self-sufficiency, ironically, would be deficient were his audience not to notice, care, or be offended.

One way to respond to the autarkeia problem is to think of Diogenes and the other Cynics as evangelists, messengers of a different form of life. Diogenes, when asked why he stays in Athens when he so clearly despises the city, answered that, like a doctor, he must be among the ill. So the exercises of the Cynic have communicative or rhetorical aspects to them. The great deed Diogenes performs in clasping a frozen statue is to show that one can endure cold. Throwing away his cup wasn’t just about him and his progressing self-sufficiency, but to set an example. Diogenes’ actions, then, are not only for his own benefit, but also for the benefit of the onlookers, those confronted and challenged.

Thus the Cynics can concede that they do not exemplify complete autarkeia, but this is because they are merely messengers for the lifestyle. They must live among us, and so, they will be dependent upon us in the sense that they need our attention and charity. It is a tradeoff that allows them to perform their function and benefits us.

This seems an appropriate answer to the autarkeia problem, but it does open the Cynics to further questions. One wonders precisely what the ultimate aim of Cynicism is. Is it the complete demolition of culture and a return to a pre-Promethean lifestyle (without tools, fire, shelter)? What stands on the other side of the Cynic’s call to revolution? How could the elimination of recognizable human civilization liberate us?

Perhaps in the end the Cynic is a kind of parasite, a reminder of how alien we are to our animal bodies and our prehistoric ancestors. The parasite may bite, but it does not kill the body upon which it depends. Think of all the occasions in which Diogenes could have been a violent actor, but he does not destroy those around him. Some boys taunted him, but then when he stood near, they suddenly were afraid. He calmed them down telling them that dogs don’t eat beets. When a group of drunk men beat him up and shaved part of his head, he only carried a sign with their names on it to redress the harm. He did not burn with vengeance. So, yes, Diogenes was a radical, and his program was confrontational, but it nonetheless respected constraints. He carried no sword, and he landed no blows.

The ancient Cynics were curious figures. The later historian of philosophy Diogenes Laertius hypothesizes that the Cynic movement was less a theoretical-philosophical movement (like Platonism or Pythagoreanism), but more a lifestyle. Perhaps this is yet another way to answer the tension – the Cynics had no interest in theoretical consistency, only in freeing themselves and others from the excessive dependencies they saw.