Diogenes and the Cynics

Selected and translated by M.D.Usher

Princeton  ISBN 978-0-691-22985-0  £14.99 hardback

reviewed by Alan Dent


Nay-sayers tend to be outsiders. The Cynics, Diogenes, who lived in the 4th century BC, chief among them, were ever willing to face down received wisdom, which doesn’t mean their behaviour was always impeccable. Diogenes was famous for masturbating in public, a demonstration of his recognition of the naturalness of our basic needs. Also, unfortunately, a failure to recognise the right of others not to be offended. Quite how he thought women and children should respond to his habit seems not to be known. However, as authoritarianism advances across the globe, it’s heartening to read the work of ancients who believed in the right to say no, to question conformism, to make authority account for itself, as it always must. 

When Diogenes stood before Alexander who declared, “I am Alexander the Great,” Diogenes replied, “And I am Diogenes the dog.” What better response to the pomposity of power? He declared he called himself a dog because “I fawn on those who give, I bark at those who don’t and I bite scoundrels.” He liked to wander around in the daylight with a lamp saying, “I’m looking for a human being.” Part comedian, part philosopher, he dealt in brief witticisms. Everyone knows he lived in a barrel. Frugality was a Cynic principle. They associated it with virtue as extravagance with vice. That might be too simplistic, in that enforced frugality may be no indication of virtue. Yet they are probably on the right track in seeing that chosen frugality is indicative of an unassuming way of life compatible with justice. The Cynics’ essential belief is that we should live according to the demands of virtue, in keeping with the will of the gods. Another way of putting this is that we should live according to our given nature; the problem, of course, is defining it. Yet it seems clear we have lost touch with ourselves as we drive towards making the planet uninhabitable. Frugality and modesty seem positive suggestions given extravagance and arrogance have brought us to a pretty pass. 

Seneca writing of Demetrius points out his principle that it is better to hold a few philosophical principles put to good use rather to have absorbed many arguments which you don’t have to hand. Frugality for the Cynics included the intellect. Demetrius’s insight chimes with science’s view that a few essential principles can explain complex phenomena. Galileo pointed out that nature never does anything in a complex way which it can do simply, which makes the search for underlying principles a core intellectual activity. Demetrius also believed what will make us happy and better people is in plain view and close by. Our essential needs are simple and relatively easily satisfied. In societies organised around the pursuit of material wealth, this can be expressed in sickly sentimentality, but its correct: we all need shelter from the elements but no one needs a palace; we all need to feed ourselves adequately but no one needs to stuff themselves like Atilla or Henry VIII.  

The base, in Demetrius’s view “however resplendent in riches they might be” are, because lacking in honesty, “the most wretched of human beings.” Honesty is the only goodness and baseness the only bad. Tell that to Donald Trump, Netanyahu or Vladimir Putin, or for that matter the super-rich who measure virtue in dollars. Of course, there was corruption in Demetrius’s time, but at least philosophers were willing to set their faces against it. Never mind the census, says Demetrius, never mind whether it puts you among the richest, it’s the greatness of your mind that matters. What he measn by this Is not that everyone should try to be an intellectual. By greatness of mind he doesn’t intend intellectual accomplishment. Rather, it’s a condition available to all. Everyone can be an honest and noble person. To be a person of character is what matters, not to be a person of wealth or status.  

What are profit, interest, ledgers, invoices, account books, all the paraphernalia of money-making? They are “evils sprung from our choice and our dispositions.” Somewhat different from the proposition that “the free market” or “the market mechanism” determines these things. That’s what Shakespeare called “a worthy evasion of whoremaster man”. “The way that I own everything,” says Demetrius, “results in everything belonging to all.” He isn’t thinking of material wealth but of virtue and wisdom. Caligula offered Demetrius two hundred thousand sesterces, at which the latter laughed and refused them. Not even the whole Empire would have tempted him. 

Lucian, writing of Demonax, says that he “was prompted even in childhood by a natural inclination toward goodness.” He didn’t require the teaching of great philosophers to guide him, his guide was, if you like, innate. The question of whether we have an innate moral sense is vexed, yet there’s convincing evidence in the runaway train problems and ingenious, simple tests of that ilk, that we do have a pre-cultural, biologically endowed moral sense. If we didn’t, how would we have any moral sense at all? It would be like expecting us to have vision without a biologically endowed visual system. The notion that culture alone could provide us with vision is absurd. Equally, the notion that culture alone can provide us with a moral sense. Presumably, some have a more acute moral sense than others, but that we share a common basic moral faculty looks as uncontroversial as our sharing a language faculty. In this view, Demonax is merely a particularly fine example of what is true of us all.  

It was Demonax’s habit to condemn sins but to forgive the sinner. The distinction permits us to see faults as amenable to rectification rather than as fixed defects. There are many languishing in prison at great cost to both us and them who might be leading useful lives if Demonax’s perspective were taken seriously. 

Onesicritus, one of Alexander’s helmsmen, in conversation with a gymnosophist (a naked Indian philosopher) is told the best house is that which needs the least maintenance, something we would all agree with when the roof leaks. Mandanis, the gymnosophist, argued that Cynics paid too much attention to custom and not enough to nature. Time and again the Cynics return to the idea that living in consonance with nature is the route to virtue and happiness. Kynikos argued that people prefer a life of “trouble and woe” as they search for the things they believe will make them happy: wealth and power. The Cynics aren’t naïve. They understand we are easily tempted away from what genuinely serves and can easily worship false gods; but their insistence on finding the good life in frugality, wisdom, in resisting the blandishments of corrupt systems, is a tonic given what’s in the news every day.  

Usher has made an excellent selection and his introductions to each chapter are enlightening for the reader unfamiliar with the territory. This is a fascinating addition to the splendid series of which it’s a part. Someone should send Trump a copy.