On Diogenes, and the war against the world

Created on: 06 Mar 23 23:10 +0700 by Son Nguyen Hoang in English

On Diogenes, and the war against the world, a study note from a book written by Luis E. Navia

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This article is a summary & study notes for a book named Diogenes The Cynic: The War Against The World, written by Luis E. Navia. The book provides a short, but descriptive and well-analyzed biography of Diogenes. In the following chapter, the author gives his analysis and interpretation of Diogenes’s record, as well as Diogenes’ philosophy and also the Cynics movement on its own.

Diogenes was a son of a banker of Sinope. Not much we know from his childhood day, however, we are quite sure that he and his father may be related to some scandalous “defacing currency”, that somehow force the two into exile. It is suggested that Sinope at the time belonged to the (or at least, a pro-Persian faction) Persian, so this action could be motivated by the two to rebel against Persia. Some sources state that Diogenes’s father was executed, but the fate of the father is not important after all. The bullet point is that after the manipulation of currency, Diogenes leaves his hometown for Athens, where liberals thinkers come and people welcomed newcomers into the city. Here, Diogenes visits Delphi the Oracle and received “messages from Apollo”, that he must “deface the currency”. This time he understood the prophecy as “to destroy the current norm & convention”, so, he went to the conquest of a Cynics. Fortunately, before him, there was Antisthenes, also known as the first Cynics. Although Antisthenes had never wanted Diogenes as a follower/disciple, Diogenes learned from Antisthenes and becomes the next Cynic.

Readers must be warned that this relationship between Diogenes and Antisthenes could be fictional. Some theory suggests that this could be made up to legitimize the relations between Diogenes to Socrates, Antisthenes himself was a follower of Socrates. So, by making Diogenes a disciple of Antisthenes, what we have is a link between Diogenes himself to Socrates the Great. There is plenty of similarity between the meeting of Antisthenes with Socrates and Diogenes Antisthenes, such as both disciples stated that their life changed & reformed after meeting the senior, a change that was too dramatic that they willingly discard every kind of stuff they owned thus became the Cynics. While there are doubts about whether he and Antisthenes truly met, given the popularity of Antisthenes at that time, Diogenes could read about Antisthenes sometime in his youth.

Now, it could make sense to explain the word Cynics – this word can be translated into “Dogs”. So Cynics are a philosopher who calls themselves “Dogs”. Numerous references to Diogenes as he was yelled at by citizens as “Dog”, and he referred to him as a “high-breed dog”. One account retold one occasion when people called him “dog”, then he replied: “Don’t worry, dogs do not eat trash”. Also, there is the record that Diogenes himself describes him as a dog that never forgets his enemy, and always shows gratitude to friends or people who are good.

Regarding the movement of Cynicism, it is said that “One cannot become a Cynic, but rather born as a Cynic”. Multiple philosophers agreed that “Every era there must be one Diogenes”. However, the author of the book somehow suggests that the Cynics are people who were damaged by society, to the point that they more or less hold a pessimistic and cynical toward people. Antisthenes, the predecessor of Diogenes, had a rough life as he was born a child of a slave so he was not respected from he was born. A similar theme could be found in the life of other Cynics. The author of the book concludes that such rough life makes Cynics, in general, hate or held negative views toward the norm and other people.

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Thus, Diogenes himself did not like humans. There is a record of him when being asked “what should we do?”, simply replied “hang yourself”, which is very brutal and savage. Of course, this implies something deeper than a simple troll. Diogenes revolted against the convention. He himself saw the flaw and insanity of people in Athens, thus with a little troll, he want people to take a different look at the world and may see the world as he could. He attempted to mock people and did contradictories and weird things all the time. E.g: He went to the theatre when the show ended, he held a lamb in broad daylight, or he downplay many conventions regarding the property. He lived in a tub, the only property he had owned was a bowl. After one day he met a boy who drink water from his hand, he then discarded his bowl too, thus he owned absolutely nothing.

We can understand Diogenes’s attitude as a medicine to the people’s lives, which getting too complicated and full of contradictions. Diogenes, as stated above, see through people’s flaw. For example, when he saw someone trying to understand his dream, Diogenes asked why that person did not care about himself when he awakes, thus only giving attention to his metal when he was dreamy.

Diogenes also discredit all artificial positions and status. His meeting with Alexander the Great could be the best example. He met Alexander – who did conquer the whole of Persia – the king took a visit to Diogenes to ask if the old philosopher need something. The philosopher simply asked Alexander to get out of the sunlight. There is an even more savage record between the king and the philosopher, from which Diogenes kept searching for something in a pile of skeletons. Alexander, out of curiosity, asked Diogenes what he was doing, to which the philosopher replied “I want to find the corpse of your parent, but I cannot distinguish its from other bones”. Simply, Diogenes’ philosophy discourages the ideas of rankings and social status, but rather prefers the ideas of “returning to nature”.

It is not encouraged to think of “natural” as tribals, wild animals and forest. The word itself has a very different meaning than what we have at the moment. The idea of natural was something more subtle and closer to the ideas of Taoism – the Tao. “Natural” – in Cynics' sense – means to accept the rules of heaven and earth, to accept that everything was governed by a rule of the universe. Any being on Earth has a naturalistic tendency and human being is no exception. So humans should return to their natural state. Also, given this synopsis, Diogenes declared war against the conventions and norms of human society. He denied becoming a part of them, thus being a citizen of the world. This is quite revolutionary, as in his time, Greek was divided into many City-states, and many of them were at war with the others. The idea of a free citizen and state without any border, no artificial nation or “cosmopolitan” was very impressive.

In addition, Diogenes praised Hercules as a symbol of bravery and also found self-sufficiency to be worthy and noble. This is very in contrast to Aristotle (“human is a political animal”) and other thinkers, such as Hegel. Diogenes dislike the study of metaphysics and another abstract study. His view focused on human beings and the power of now, and in some way he kind of agreed with Aristotle: “Human as a measure of all things”. Also, no other Cynics live and push the limitation of the body as extremely as Diogenes. The philosophical movement itself saw a sharp decline during the Roman and early Christian eras. However, Cynics were very close to the famous philosophy of Stoics. It is said that Crates – a follower of Diogenes, in his old age met Zeno, also known as the founder of Stoicism. Zeno for a while practiced as a Cynics. This implies a strong link between Stoicism and Cynicism and suggests that the former was a branch of the latter.

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Back to Diogenes, it was said that he lived to ninety years old. The cause of death is unclear. Three popular reasons of his death are:

  • He forcefully stopped breathing, thus committing suicide due to boredom or tiredness of living in this world.
  • He was poisoned after eating a raw octopus.
  • He was bitten by a dog.

The first hypothesis sounds too fictional and impossible to imagine from biological logic. No matter what happened to him, before death, he left a will that implicitly stated that his body to be dumped and left unburied, outside of the city, so that wild animals can feed on him. According to a source, when he was asked if he minded this, he said, “Not at all, as long as you provide me with a stick to chase the creatures away!” When asked how he could use the stick since he would lack awareness, he replied: “If I lack awareness, then why should I care what happens to me when I am dead?”.

This is the end of this article on Diogenes and the book. Before the end, I would like to give a quote from Diogenes, when someone asked him if was life evil, Diogenes replied “Not life itself, but living an evil life”.

All images in this article were collected from the Internet.

  • The thumbnail/first image was a cover of the book.
  • The second image is a painting named Diogenes Sitting in His Tub by Jean-Léon Gérôme (1860)
  • The third image is a photo of Diogenes’s statue at modern Turkey
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