Socrates, the cynics, idiots and me



Socrates’ most famous disciple was of course Plato. But his oldest disciple was a man named Antisthenes (above), who became the first of the cynics and the teacher of that Diogenes whom I so admire and envy, because I would love the simplicity of living in a barrel.

I quite sympathize with Antisthenes, in several ways. Socrates was forever going around interrogating everybody in this intense–we would say anal-retentive–quest to come up with perfect definitions. What is virtue? What is justice? What is the good? Whatever answers others gave, Socrates dismantled them, but rarely came up with anything positive. Antisthenes eventually got rather bored and frustrated by all this.

So he concluded that these things that Socrates was obsessed with were really just names, or words. They mean what you want them to mean. 2,360 years later, French intellectuals like Derrida would say the same thing and get famous for it.

So to hell with words, said Antisthenes, and let’s get out of here. Screw society and its norms and conventions. Jury duty? Puhleeze. Vote? No way. That stuff was for those do-goody Athenians who were under the illusion that they were “free“. Antisthenes, who had a good sense of humor, regularly recommended that the Athenians should vote that asses are horses, as a way of celebrating democracy.

He, and all the Cynics, were thus what we would call apolitical: without politics, without a polis, without a city. Aristotle thought there was something pathetic about being apolitical, cityless–like being “a solitary piece in checkers”. But Socrates, Antisthenes, Diogenes and those types saw freedom in this withdrawal.

As Jag Bhalla, an expert on such matters, has already pointed out on the Hannibal Blog, the Greeks had a word for these people: keeping out of public affairs, they were private, or idiotes. In time we came to call people who cut loose from conventions idiosyncratic, but also tried to discourage that sort of thing and gave idiots a bad name.

I, for one, stick by my Diogenes dream: Being an idiot sounds great to me.

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20 thoughts on “Socrates, the cynics, idiots and me

  1. Take this little post, fold it up, and stick it in your pocket.
    Take it to jury duty and when you are on the stand and one of the attorneys asks you if you are fit for jury duty, just read this post.

    Then tell the group you are an idiot.

    You will be selected immediately.

  2. Nice post. As for jury duty avoidance, I still like Tina Fey’s approach from 30 Rock. Dress up as Princess Leia and tell the judge you will be a great juror because you can “read minds”.

    • No idea what kind of shape you are in Andreas…
      But my gold bikini days are long gone.

      On a slightly less idiotic note – Andreas you continue to show a great interest in public affairs – so you are far from an ancient idiotes. A possibly useful nuance here might to distinguish between wanting to be left more alone by authorities and not being remotely interested in whats going on beyond your own doorstep.

  3. A crucial nuance, Jag. Yes, I am maniacally interested in what’s going on beyond my doorstep (barrell rim) and simultaneously yearn to be left alone by authorities.

    That said, I’m pretty sure Socrates and Antisthenes and Diogenes were the same way. They were so curious and informed, and therefore ready to check out and leave it all behind.

    Curious in private: Isn’t that an idiotes?

    • Hmmm – but you are curious, from your private vantage point, about matters that are very public, very polis – e.g. isn’t your beat now about the mechanics of how your state works?

      Paradoxical… you might say we are arguing to an impasse.
      Perhaps the language/categories/metaphors we are using have us over a barrel?

    • I’m having a hard time avoiding scraping the bottom of the barrel of my argument and not making the shooting fish in a barrel response that your point is are a barrel of laughs. You have me “banging my butt on the ground”- French for falling over laughing. I bow to your accomplished wit and pun-ditry.

  4. Nice post. If avoiding jury duty is your objective, you might want to try confessing a slightly more modern take on nominalism such as that of Max Stirner, which holds among other tings that the state is an illegitimate institution and that property belongs to the one who takes it into possession
    It may get you excempted as unsuitable for jury duty or similar;-)

    • An intriguing thinker, Kristine. thanks. I especially like that he apparently was named for his high forehead (“Stirn”)

      Do you think he should be included in my “great thinker” series?

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