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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