What would you think of a person who scorns every moral principle all others respect? Who is not ashamed to do in public what most people are ashamed to do even in private? Would you be interested in listening to his opinion or would you avoid him?
Such people were the Cynic philosophers. Their school was founded at the gymnasium of Kynosarges by Antisthenes, Socrates’ student, a few years after the great master died. Fascinated by Socrates’ temperate character, Antisthenes suggested to his students a way of life based on the ascetic ideal. The wise man, he said, turns to himself and forbids any addiction, in order to be truly free to “fire” against anyone who leads an unethical way of life. And so, the Cynics used to live with minimum means, questioned any established moral principle and avoided any kind of commitment.
Nowadays we call “cynic” someone who is blunt, rude and callous, and that’s more or less what the Cynics were. Everything is what it is and no idealization is allowed. As one would expect, this philosophical approach never gained much appeal, neither when it first appeared nor later on at the time of the most famous cynic, Diogenes of Sinope.
Diogenes, as all other Cynics of his time (4th c. BCE), was the exponent of the most extreme form of Cynicism and we know more about him than any other Cynic. Lucian of Samosata (2nd c. CE), a writer from Syria, mostly composed satirical dialogues about the philosophers of the roman era who said one thing but did another. But his satire didn’t go easy on previous philosophers, either, philosophers whose ideas were serious whilst having a funny aspect, too.
In the following dialogue, Lucian presents Zeus and Hermes at a slave market selling the philosophers (namely the lifestyle every philosopher recommended). The potential buyers are interested to know what each “slave” is good at, since philosophy had turned mostly to practical issues at Lucian’s time. Socrates was sold at the highest price and Diogenes, at the lowest. In this excerpt, Diogenes presents his skills to his potential buyer.
HERMES: Should we sell that dirt bag from Pontus?
HERMES: Hey, you, with your undressed shoulders carrying your swag, come closer and take a spin. I’m selling the ultimate exemplar of male life, perfect and free. Who wants to buy?
BUYER: Hey, auctioneer! What did you say? You’re selling a Free man?
BUYER: Aren’t you afraid he’s going to drag you to the High Court for enslaving him?
HERMES: He doesn’t mind getting sold, at all. He thinks he is truly free.
BUYER: And what use can this dirty and miserable guy be of? He is only good for digging and carrying water.
HERMES: Not only! He could be your doorman. He’ll be better than the dogs. Besides, people use to call him dog.
BUYER: Where is he from and what is his expertise?
HERMES: You’d better ask him yourself.
BUYER: I’m scared this gloomy and sullen guy might bark at me or even bite me, I swear to Zeus! Don’t you see that he is holding a stick and his look is enraged and threatening?
HERMES: Scare not, he is tame.
BUYER: First of all, where are you from fella?
DIOGENES: I’m from everywhere.
B: What do you mean?
D: You’re looking at a citizen of the world.
B: And who is your role model?
B: So why aren’t you wearing the lion’s skin? Although, you do look a bit like him holding this stick.
D: My lion’s skin is my worn-out overcoat. Just like him, I fight all pleasures, not because I’ve been instructed to, but because I want to purify life.
B: That’s a noble purpose. But, what should we say that you are skilled for? What is your profession?
D: I am the liberator of people and doctor of sufferings. And generally I want to be the prophet of truth and frankness.
B: Way to go, prophet! But if I buy you, how will you train me?
D: First, I’m going to take away your luxuriation, and then after I’ve made you poor, I’ll make you wear a worn-out overcoat. Then I will give you a course of hard labour. You’ll be sleeping on the ground, drinking water, and filling your belly the best you can. No matter how much money you have, I’ll convince you to throw it all into the sea. And you will not concern yourself with wife or children or country, these will be nonsense to you. You will exchange your present house for a tomb, or ruin, or tub. Your knack sack will be filled with lupines and close-written books. And in this state, you will vote yourself happier than any king. And if someone beats or whips you, you won’t bother at all.
B: How can you say that I won’t be hurting when getting flogged? I don’t carry a shell like tortoises and crabs.
D: You will adopt something similar to what Euripides said.
B: Which is?
D: Your brain will hurt, but your tongue will be callous. This is what you should do: be bold and impudent and revile kings and commoners impartially. They will admire you for your spirit and braveness. Your voice should be harsh and your talking rough and dissonant like a dog’s. Your face expressions and walking should display brutality and look beastly in your every move. Forget about prudency, clemency and modesty and don’t let your face blush. Go to crowded places and there live all alone holding communion with none, having neither friends nor guests; for these would undermine your power. Bravely do in public what others don’t even dare to do in private. And when it comes to carnal pleasures, pick the most ridiculous ones. In the end, if you want, swallow a raw cuttlefish and die. Such are the delights we suggest.
B: Get out of here! Your words are not human; it’s all dirt!
D: But look you, it’s all so easy; everyone can do it. You don’t need any education or wise words and argumentation; this is the shortcut to glory. You can be a common citizen, a tanner let’s say, or you could be a fishmonger or a carpenter or a moneychanger, none of those will hold you back from becoming famous. Given brass and boldness, you have only to learn to swear out loud.
B: I don’t need you for any of those. Maybe in the future you could be a sailor or gardener or something else, if this one is willing to sell you for a couple of bucks, tops.
HERMES: Take him and keep him. We’ll gladly get rid of this brawling full-mouthed bully.
(Lucian of Samosata, Sale of the Philosophers)
Jean-Léon Gérôme – Diogenes