Diogenes the Cynic

19 September 2013


Sunday's program is about Diogenes the Cynic.  Diogenes was born about 413 BCE and died in 323 BCE, the same year, and, at least according to legend, the same day as Alexander the Great, who had an unrequited admiration for Diogenes. Cynicism was a School of Philosophy that was founded in Athens by Antisthenes (455—366 BCE), a student of Socrates. The School lasted about 800 years after Diogenes, and was a major influence on Stoicism. Our modern words "cynic" and "cynicism" are historically connected to this School, but their meanings are only tangentially related to Diogenes views. These are known only by the testimony of later writers. If Diogenes did write anything, it hasn't survived.

After Diogenes, the school split into two streams, one emphasizing Diogenes-like behavior, the other, which led to Stoicism, developing his ideas. Bizarre behavior is what most people have heard about Diogenes. He walked backwards through Athens, holding a lantern in daylight, looking for a real human being. He lived in a "tub" (a large earthenware barrel).  Hemasturbated, urinated, defecated, and had intercourse in public, basically having no use whatsoever for social conventions and rules. He said the cure to Oedipus’ problems would be to legalize incest.  He begged for food.  He rejected offers of friendship. Once he asked Plato for some wine and figs. Plato sent a whole jug of wine. Diogenes complained scathingly, accusing Plato of having no sense whatsoever, to send more than he needed or asked for. Asked by Alexander what he could do for him, Diogenes said, “Move so you don’t block the sun."

However, according to our guest, Luis E. Navia, this bizarre behavior was based on philosophical principles. (Navia is author of Diogenes the Cynic (Humanities, 2005) and a number of other works on Diogenes and other topics in classical philosophy.)  Navia provides us with the twelve main tenets of Diogenes philosophy:

1.               The one and only object of philosophy is human existence, and any other object can only be a source of distraction and an inconsequential way to satisfy the unhealthy sense of curiosity that afflicts human beings.

2.               In our endeavor to make sense of human existence, we must direct our attention primarily to the physical world because we are primarily physical beings.

3.               Live each moment as if it were the only moment of life; life is short and ephemeral.

4.               Happiness cannot be attained as long as we fail to understand its nature; so the aim of philosophy must be the correct understanding happiness.

5.               Happiness (eudaemonia) cannot be defined in terms of possessions, pleasures, comfort, power, fame, erudition, long life and such, as people tend to think.

6.               Happiness is living in accordance with nature.

7.               Reason, or clarity of mind, is what must determine what is and what is not in accordance with human nature.  That is, not desire, nor emotion, or the other ingrained foolishness humans.

8.               The possibility of a return to nature, understood as a return to true humanity, exists for every human being, no matter how distant he or she may be from living in accordance with nature.

9.               Through discipline (askesis) we cleanse the mind of confusion and obfuscation, detrimental substances, and unnatural habits, and succeed in strengthening the will.

10.            If a happy, natural and virtuous life is what we must pursue, given the social context in which we are condemned to live, it is imperative that we aim at developing in us an imperturbable and total state of self-sufficiency (autarcheia).  This entails a complete renunciation of the need to need the world, and the ability to bracket away the senseless imposition society places on us.

11.           (Cosmopolitanism) The world belongs equally to all its inhabitants, human and otherwise, and we, as human beings, belong to the entire world.

12.          Deface the currency (what the oracle at Delphi told Diogenes), in the sense of undermining and ridiculing social conventions and unnatural desires and values. 


Diogenes is one of the great characters in the history of philosophy.  It should be a lively and interesting program.

Comments (8)

Guest's picture


Friday, September 20, 2013 -- 5:00 PM

It sounds like Diogenes and

It sounds like Diogenes and Christopher Hitchens would have gotten on famously. Diagnostically, he may have been bi-polar, schitzo-effective, or merely bonkers. We get a lot of that these days---no reason to think it was any different all those years ago. History is fairly consistent, and, uh, predictable---in case you haven't noticed.

Guest's picture


Saturday, September 21, 2013 -- 5:00 PM

Well I'm sure that he went to

Well I'm sure that he went to extreme lengths to achieve happiness and to help others this way, but others for the most part did not need it, or were basically enjoying life in other ways. (Or already knew the essentials)
But there is something to be said for liberation, discipline, and the other qualities he practiced...and is a good starting point or anchor point for participating in society with, knowing a near total free mind but also choosing to do the other things as if only sipping the wine and not drinking it. I don't think he would have been looked at as so crazy, then.

Guest's picture


Saturday, September 21, 2013 -- 5:00 PM

There is much to be said for

There is much to be said for cynicism, particularly in modern time. 1) If one is cynical, he or she is not easily incapacitated by disappointment. If you are not routinely affected by unrealistic expectations, life becomes vastly more satisfying and logarithmically less stressful. Item: Mark Twain was a life-long cynic, and, by most accounts, had a lot of fun. 2) Cynicism is a healthy outlook on the improbability of positioning. There are always at least three sides to every story: right side, left side, and truth. Truth almost invariably loses because the right and left are louder and care little for their less-vociferous cousin. (see also: modern political systems worldwide---I don't blame any one more than any other.) 3) My most trusted friends and confidants are cynics. They understand just how dysfunctional the world community has become; they know why this is so and accept their powerlessness to change it. They love intelligent discussion and debate but do not engage in the defense of useless ideology or resultant barroom brawls. They are the best people they can be. Not so bad, really.

Guest's picture


Sunday, September 22, 2013 -- 5:00 PM

Looks like you cancelled out

Looks like you cancelled out my comment on this post. If no, my misunderstanding; if yes, why?
I have always appreciated the relative objectivity of this blog and felt free to express my ideas, even when (often) they challenge conventional wisdom. Oh well. My views are not commonly accepted. Sobeit.

Devon's picture


Monday, September 23, 2013 -- 5:00 PM

Dave: it may have been

Dave: it may have been deleted accidentally in one of the periodic spam-clearings. If so, we apologize. This blog gets a LOT of spam.

MJA's picture


Thursday, September 26, 2013 -- 5:00 PM

You can learn a lot from the

You can learn a lot from the old Greeks, but not everything.
Everything is found everywhere. =

Guest's picture


Monday, September 30, 2013 -- 5:00 PM

Everything is found

Everything is found everywhere. Hmmmm. Is that supposed to be profound? Let's see now. What if we say: all that is written, is written. Is that a profound declaration, or merely a re-statement of established fact? I'll not trouble you with further comparisons. Sounds like tautology to me. I do wonder, though, if the new Greeks have something to offer?

MJA's picture


Tuesday, October 1, 2013 -- 5:00 PM

Truth Doctor, is profound.

Truth Doctor, is profound.
And once found, it must be practiced and shared.
That is what brings me here.
Beyond the old is the new,
From what is true?
To just true.
Be true too,
A true searcher tip:
If you are still searching for truth, and are looking for directions, find the answer to this question: is Nature measurable, am I, are you? What is you? =