Posts Tagged ‘Diogenes the Cynic’

Wag more

May 24, 2013

When you talk dogs and philosophy you really have to begin with Diogenes of Sinope, don’t you?

DiogenesSolvitur ambulando* (“it is solved by walking”) is often attributed to him. Don’t know why canes is typically omitted from the phrase, since the philosopher whose full nominal designation (“D. the Cynic”) practically means dog, knew the  ultimate solution almost always involves a second or third set of appendages. Preferably a quadra-set, and canine.

(Actually my Latin teacher, Ms. Google-Translate, prefers *solvendum est per ambulationem canes. Write that on the board a hundred times! Tense is tricky. But cynics do not cavil over convention.)

Unless they’ve been “trained”, dogs and Cynic philosophers do what it occurs to them to do when it occurs to them to do it, without regard for local custom or popular propriety or (especially) the presence of commanding authority. Diogenes told Alexander to step out of his sunlight. We’re told Alex was impressed. The dog was not. But why does that make either Diogenes or his dog a “cynic”?

There are four reasons why the Cynics are so named. First because of the indifference of their way of life, for they make a cult of indifference and, like dogs, eat and make love in public, go barefoot, and sleep in tubs and at crossroads. The second reason is that the dog is a shameless animal, and they make a cult of shamelessness, not as being beneath modesty, but as superior to it. The third reason is that the dog is a good guard, and they guard the tenets of their philosophy. The fourth reason is that the dog is a discriminating animal which can distinguish between its friends and enemies. So do they recognize as friends those who are suited to philosophy, and receive them kindly, while those unfitted they drive away, like dogs, by barking at them.

AngelPupMy dogs are actually much sweeter and more compliant than that. They’re waggers, not barkers. They don’t even hassle fundamentalists or Platonists. (Squirrels & chipmunks are another story.) One’s an “Angel,” not a “Cynic,” thanks to Younger Daughter’s inspiration at the puppy pound. But wouldn’t Cynic and Diogenes be perfect names for a pair of pups? Their eventual successors perhaps, should I live so long.

But not so fast, they’d say if they could. These two are still fabulous walking companions and they’re infinitely patient. I won’t keep them waiting another moment.


The real cosmopolitans

September 18, 2012

What does “cosmopolitan” really mean? Don’t trust Google on this, it takes you straight to that silly magazine with its sex tips and “lifestyle” advice. Funny, or sad, how current linguistic use has corrupted these grand old terms. (Think also of “epicurean,” “cynic,” maybe even “platonic”…)

We started to talk about this yesterday, in connection with Anthony Appiah’s book and interview. We’ll discuss it some more today. Kosmopolites is the Greek root meaning citizen of the world, the cosmos. What a large identity to claim, and yet what a miniscule corner of existence we actually occupy.

The cosmos used to coincide strictly with the known terrestrial world, before anybody’d ever even circumnavigated it. Now we’ve seen our tiny world from space, in perspective.

So now we know: it’s a really big cosmos, and we are here.

So far as we can tell we’re the only part, around these parts anyway, that knows it’s part of a cosmos. We’re the cosmopolitans.

Alexandria was the greatest city the Western world had ever seen. People of all nations came here to live, to trade, to learn. On any given day, its harbors were thronged with merchants, scholars, and tourists. This was a city where Greeks, Egyptians, Arabs, Syrians, Hebrews, Persians, Nubians, Phoenicians, Italians, Gauls, and Iberians exchanged merchandise and ideas. It is probably here that the word ‘cosmopolitan’ realized its true meaning: citizen, not just of a nation, but of the Cosmos. To be a citizen of the Cosmos

More Saganportalmotecalendargolden record… apple pie

So who was the first cosmopolitan in philosophy? Socrates, possibly, he’s said to have declared himself a citizen of the world – but still so loyal an  Athenian that he insisted on having his hemlock. Scholars wonder if that was really him or Plato talking.

Whether Socrates was self-consciously cosmopolitan in this way or not, there is no doubt that his ideas accelerated the development of cosmopolitanism and that he was in later antiquity embraced as a citizen of the world. In fact, the first philosopher in the West to give perfectly explicit expression to cosmopolitanism was the Socratically inspired Cynic Diogenes in the fourth century bce. It is said that “when he was asked where he came from, he replied, “I am a citizen of the world.” SEP

That doesn’t sound “cynical” in the perverted modern sense at all, does it? Diogenes spent a lot of time under the stars. He knew where he was.

dead stoics society

February 10, 2010

Simon Critchley has as eye for the bizarre and unseemly side of philosophy.  In today’s reading we learn that Diogenes abused himself in the marketplace, saying he wished it were as easy to relieve hunger by rubbing his stomach. It’s not too surprising to learn that he never married, but it is dispiriting to think of him as the original poster boy for cosmopolitanism.* Maybe he just meant to abuse public decency laws everywhere in the world… like fellow Cynics Hipparchia (herself a disappointing “first female philosopher” who was bettered by Hypatia**) and Crates. I do like his comment on Plato’s metaphysics: The table and cup I see, but I do not see tableness and cupness.

*Carl Sagan’s notion of what it means to be a cosmopolitan, a citizen of the cosmos, is far more inspiring. We speak for Earth:

Also noted by Critchley:

>There is no more relevant ancient philosopher for our time than Epicurus, who said “when it comes to death we human beings all live in an unwalled city… living well and dying well are one and the same.”

>For Seneca, anxiety is caused by fear for the future… The philosopher enjoys a long life because he does not worry over its shortness. He lives in the present… the only immortality that philosophy can promise is to permit us to inhabit the present without concern for the future.

>For Stoics, like Seneca, Epictetus, and Marcus Aurelius, the human being is a compound of soul and body. But soul for the Stoics is “divine breath.” At death it is rejoins the “divine macrocosm”– not unlike the Taoist image of soul as a drop re-absorbed by Mother Sea.

>Epictetus, an early exponent of self-reliance, said we are “disturbed not by things but by the opinions which we have of things”… If we keep death constantly before our eyes and in our mouths, then our terror of it and our attachment to worldly things will fall away.

>Marcus Aurelius said “live each day as though one’s last”… Death is only a thing of terror for those unable to live in the present.

But, crucially: “living in the present” is not the same as not caring about the future. Real cosmopolitans care. We may cultivate an attitude of indifference towards our personal, individual deaths, but the prospective, premature,  self-inflicted death of our species would be something to mourn. It’s also– and this may be un-Stoical– something to deplore and to resist, while we’re still here to do it.

*Sagan also composed the best tribute I’ve seen to Hypatia, who said in a most Saganesque moment: To teach superstitions as truth is a most terrible thing.

Sagan’s Cosmos can be found here.

“the philosopher walks”

January 20, 2010

That’s from my favorite line so far in Simon Critchley’s surprisingly sprightly Book of Dead Philosophers, which I’m using for the first time as a supplemental text in the Intro classes.  Concluding the introductory section on Socrates he writes:

To be a philosopher, then, is to learn how to die; it is to begin to cultivate the appropriate attitude towards death. As Marcus Aurelius writes, it is one of “the noblest functions of reason to know whether it is time to walk out of the world or not.” Unknowing and uncertain, the philosopher walks.

Walks on, that is, not out. This point calls Socrates’ martyrdom into question, it seems to me. We don’t know what, if anything, awaits the dead: permanent deep sleep, or unending intellectual gabfest with all the great dead spirits who’ve gone before, or who knows? Philosophizing is for the living.

Walking– literal walking– is one of my personal metaphors for living, and one of my favorite pastimes. Not only do the dead tell no tales, they pound no pavements or greenway trails either.

Being a walker gives a philosopher a pragmatic bent. For instance: when Diogenes the Cynic heard someone declare [after encountering Zeno of Elea‘s paradoxes of motion] that there was no such thing as motion, he got up and walked about. The best refutation is sometimes simply to walk.

But we need to acknowledge that our motion is not perpetual. Death is real. That’s how this book differs from the Egyptian or Tibetan books of the dead, which aim to gain an “Enlightened” denial of death. Critchley’s approach is to draw us closer to the philosophers by highlighting our common humanity and mortality. In the process he tells some funny stories and brings the whole subject out into the lovely light of day. Tyrants condemned Socrates and Seneca to death, but nature condemns us all. We need to admit that, so we may then stop fearing it and obsessing about it. That’s not morbid, it’s liberating. It frees us up as well to entertain a wider sense of self than that bounded by our skin– an identity as wide as the cosmos, larger than we can fathom. As I was saying yesterday in A&S, Carl Sagan put it smartly: our proper loyalty (and identity) belongs to the stars. Their atoms are ours too.

Which brings us to Democritus, “the laughing philosopher” who (legend has it)  lived an incredibly long and healthy life. He might have lived longer, but– noticing in his 109th year (!)  that his mind was beginning to show its age– he “cheerfully committed suicide.”

On the other hand consider Heraclitus, “the weeping philosopher,” who wept for humanity’s irrationality. But how did he treat his own illness? With cow dung. The treatment was unsuccessful.

The lives and deaths of the philosophers are entertaining and instructive, often in unintended ways. How ironic that Heidegger, whom I mentioned in class last week as an example of a philosopher whose biography had been so neglected that his despicable politics went unremarked by generations of professors (including my own), put the feeble case for the very approach that has shielded him against sharper scrutiny:

The personality of a philosopher is of interest only to this extent: he was born at such and such a time, he worked, and died.

And if he hooked up with the Nazis in the interim? Irrelevant, says Herr Doktor Proffessor H. Since that was also the view of most of my teachers, just about every page in this book is full of biographical detail that is new to me. What emerges most clearly is that their big ideas made them no less fallible or prone to error than any of us. So go ahead, everybody, be as philosophical as you please. It’s only human.