Diogenes and a Puzzle of Social Critique

by Scott F. Aikin and Robert B. Talisse

Philosophical Cynicism is widely hailed as a critical voice from the margins. There are good grounds for this assessment. The Cynic confronts dominant culture and exposes its illusions. Diogenes famously walked the streets with a lit lantern, looking for an anthropos (a true human), thereby implying that those around him are not proper humans. He and his father were exiled from Sinope for adulterating the coinage, but his take on the story was that his job was, under direction from the Delphic Oracle, to alter the political norms. And so, as an exile, Diogenes harshly criticized whatever community he found himself in. Whatever their dominant norms were, he was against them.

But Diogenes nevertheless recapitulates many of the norms of his culture, especially in his attitudes regarding people the margin. Women, the gender non-conforming, people with darker skin, and sex workers and their children are treated with casual scorn and are used as foils for displaying Cynic virtue. Certainly, Diogenes’s resistance to the dominant culture is central to the Cynic perspective, but the question is whether his mistreatment of others who are marginalized is also essential. Must Cynicism be misogynist, racist, homophobic, or otherwise exclusionary?

This occasions a general puzzle for social critics. In order to have an edge, social critique must be identifiable as criticism by those to whom it is addressed. This means that criticism must be legible to those criticized. Otherwise, it is simply noise. This condition constrains the radicality of social critique. The more sweeping the criticism of one element of the dominant culture, the more the critic one must hew to its other elements.

To formulate this puzzle, recall the basic stance of the Cynic.  The point of cynicism is to invert the critical eye, to make it that it is the outsider who gets to judge the insider. Consider Diogenes’s famous exchange with Alexander the Great. Upon his arrival in Corinth, Alexander comes upon Diogenes relaxing in a sunlit grove. Alexander asks Diogenes if he had need of anything, and Diogenes replied, “Yes, you can stand out of my light.” Diogenes not only spurns the goods that Alexander could give him, but he does not scrape and flatter when in the presence of the great conqueror.

As Peter Sloterdijk notes in his Critique of Cynical Reason, Diogenes is a “negative profile” of the city. The Cynic confronts a society run on shame, one that, with this binding emotion, robs its denizens of their sexual autonomy, forces them to trade their health and time for pointless luxury, and demands conformity to rules that are simply arbitrary. Michel Foucault also argued that Cynicism is radicalized critique. It is “the art of not being governed quite so much.” And Luis Navia holds that Diogenes’s aim is to confront a society posited on keeping aliens and the poor at the margins.

The target of much of Diogenes’s humor is the over-groomed and all-too-civilized persons city life has made. The phony sophistication of the well-heeled is a favorite. Diogenes spits in the face of a rich man when touring his opulent home, saying that this was the only appropriate place to do so. He calls those who dress well but do not care for their character “leaden blades in ivory scabbards.”

Yet Diogenes’s scorn is directed also at those on society’s margins. Women are a regular target. Seeing two women talking, he quips, “See the adder acquiring poison from the viper.” And when seeing a girl learning her letters, he remarks, “a dagger being sharpened.” Diogenes, further, used femininity as a term of abuse, as when returning to Athens from Sparta, he said he had come “from the men’s quarters to the women’s.” He saved special contempt for sex workers, calling the pretty ones “honeyed poison.” Watching the son of a courtesan throwing stones near a crowd, joked, “take care not to hit your father.”

Effeminacy in men was accordingly an object of scorn. When meeting an effeminately dressed man, Diogenes demanded confirmation that he was a man – he insisted on seeing his genitals. To another effeminate man, he said, “Nature made you a man, but now you force yourself to play the woman.” And when seeing a eunuch enter a house with the inscription “Let no bad thing enter” over the door, he asked, “How did he get in?”

Further examples are easily catalogued. He made jokes at the expense of a man with a spinal deformity. He singled out ‘Ethiopians’ as representatives of night. He also regarded homosexuality as an “unnatural lust.”

Still, Cynicism need not be misogynistic. The generation of Cynics following Diogenes – Krates, Metrocles, and Hipparchia – all argued that women could be philosophers, and even proper Cynics. Hipparchia herself took a leading role in contentious debates. And the later Cynic-influenced Stoics continued the proto-feminist program of arguing for women’s equality. Moreover, the negative attitudes toward the gender non-conforming needn’t be essential to the view, either. The Cynic program was posited on a general critique of conservative sexual attitudes. And nor would the xenophobic or ableist views be essential, given Cynicism’s aspirations of cosmopolitanism. Still, Diogenes himself took these attitudes to be part of his program, and those recording his interactions took care to preserve them. In this respect, Diogenes’s Cynicism was affirming, rather than condemning, culturally dominant attitudes towards those on the margins of society.

The lesson, we think, has to do with the audience to whom social critique is addressed. When philosophers formulate criticisms of cultural norms, they must attempt to render their critique legible as criticism to those in control of the culture. Otherwise, their criticism will be dismissed as mere eccentricity, inscrutability, or madness.

This reveals a difficulty for social critics, especially those at the margins. If criticism is to be accessible to its targets, it must embed and appeal to evaluative categories that are in part constitutive of the arrangements being critiqued. The more radical the critique, the less accessible it will be by those who must hear it the most. We have previously noted a parallel version of this puzzle. Why doesn’t Diogenes simply leave the city? The answer is that he sees himself as a messenger. And so, Diogenes, because he is a messenger to those in his community, must work within the moral perspective he critiques. One might call it the double-bind of critique – the more accessible, the less radical; the more radical, the less accessible.  And the irony is that for as radical as Cynicism portrays itself, it nevertheless recapitulates much of the society’s vices it was purportedly overturning.