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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Free as Diogenes: a fantasy


One of my idols–and everybody has many and mutually contradictory idols–is Diogenes, the ancient Greek sage famous for living with no material possessions in a barrel.

I have to be careful about saying that because it might be misunderstood. Diogenes lived, quite deliberately, like a dog. Above, you see him with dogs. The Greek word for doglike, kynikos (as in, via Latin, the English canine) is the root of our word cynical. Diogenes was a cynic in the original and pristine sense.

So, yes, Diogenes defecated in public, masturbated in the marketplace and generally displayed the same unapologetic honesty towards others as, well, dogs do. I don’t intend to do any of those things, you’ll be reassured to know. So….

What’s the point?

My point, and the point of original cynicism, is to live a life that is:

  • simple
  • virtuous
  • honest
  • free

And there you have them, my favorite themes, especially simplicity and freedom.

Put differently, Diogenes and his crowd reacted against the complexity and dross of human society, something that I have been criticizing especially in American life.

The goal, you might say, is no entanglements; no bullshit; no striving for success as defined by the consumer society or power politics, because all of that only causes … suffering.

And with that last word, you see the connection that I make between Diogenes and the Buddha, Patanjali and Laozi (all of whom lived very roughly during the same ‘axial age’). They all believed in radical uncluttering and simplification as a way out of human suffering and into a higher form of freedom.

And so I hereby include Diogenes in my list of the world’s greatest thinkers. He was really a …

Greek Buddha

Calling Diogenes a Greek Buddhist is funny, of course. The three Asians I am comparing him to above (and others have made the same connection) communicated their insight in an Asian way: They retreated to some banyan tree or rode off on some water buffalo, kept themselves very clean, remained resolutely gentle towards others and wore that perennial smile that we Westerners eventually find somewhat annoying. (We do, don’t we?)

The ancient Greeks, by contrast, were confrontational, in-your-face, bring-it-on types. That was as much part of their Hellenism as their great art and culture. And in that way, they are recognizably Western–ie, like us.

But I believe the message of the cynics was the same as that of the Buddhists, Yogis and Taoists. And Diogenes delivered that message without ever preaching it, by simply living the example.

Diogenes looked past the vain and venal veneer of ‘civilized’ people around him and sought honesty instead–he carried a lamp around (in the picture above) to symbolize his search.

To stay simple and free, he volunteered for blissful poverty because he only wanted what he needed and we humans, as it turns out, need almost nothing. He had a wooden bowl to drink but then saw a boy drinking with his cupped hands and realized that he did not even need his bowl; so he threw it away and was happier for it. When Alexander the Great came to him (Diogenes being something of a celebrity by this time) and granted him any favor, Diogenes replied: ‘Yes, please, step out of my sunlight.’ (Alexander, being great indeed, was not offended but impressed. The two great men would die in the same year.)


Sounding like Einstein, Diogenes once said that

Humans have complicated every simple gift of the gods.

When asked where he was from, Diogenes was also the first person ever to say

I am a citizen of the world (cosmopolites)

Cosmopolitan, eccentric, cynical (in the good way) and free: That was Diogenes. Wouldst that I had the same courage to bid all this crap in life adieu to live merrily in a barrel somewhere. Perhaps someday I will.

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