ECOCLUB, Issue 94
Cynicism and its relation to Ecology and Internationalism
"I am Diogenes the Dog. I nuzzle the kind, bark at the greedy and bite scoundrels."
Have you ever been called a cynic? Cynic actually means dog-like,
being the ancient greek for dog. Worry not, because you are in good
company, in fact you could feel proud in a way
Let us go way back
to 5th century BCE to ancient Athens and Corinth, two of the places that had
the dubious honour of hosting the legendary philosopher Diogenes of
Sinope, the Cynic (423 323 BCE) .
None of Diogenes
14 treatises survive, however his students spread his
ideas and greatly influenced the Stoic philosophy. Our knowledge of him, as
of many other philosophers, mainly comes from Diog. Laertius (3rd century
CE) Lives and Opinions of Eminent Philosophers, in the form of a series
of anecdotes about annoying but humorous things Diogenes said to other
people, a legend somewhat reminiscent (accidentally?) of the Nasreddin
Hotza also born near Sinop some 1,500 years later.
Diogenes was born in the early 4th century BCE, the son of Ikesios, a banker
in Sinope, a Greek port-city / colony in the Black Sea, important in the
India trade (present-day
Sinop, Turkey). He may have
had to leave his hometown because he had created fake coins, possibly one
of his first acts of disobedience. He found refuge in Athens where penniless,
he became a student of and was influenced by the austere & ascetic
philosopher Antisthenes (himself a pupil of Socrates) who made him endure
various hardships before accepting Diogenes as a full student. Plato, also a
student of Socrates, was to call Diogenes a Socrates gone mad while Diogenes would in turn call Socrates a madman and
would never stop making fun of Plato. Soon Diogenes surpassed his teacher in terms of contempt for civilisation, deciding to
own nothing, living in a clay tub, being independent, scorning wedding and family (favouring promiscuity) and puritan ethics,
political organisation, property rights and fame, the total antithesis to Plato.
Among his few possessions was a lantern, with
which he used to make rounds in the Agora (forum) in plain daylight, looking for an honest man.
Somehow, he found himself in rich and rather decadent Corinth (a rather incredible story is that he was captured by pirates and
sold as a slave to a rich Corinthian who asked him to teach his children) where he continued to make cynical remarks about the
rich, the wasteful and the powerful, but he also lectured to great audiences at the Isthmia games (one of the 4 important athletic
events of ancient Greece). In Corinth, the legend goes, he allegedly met with his contemporary Alexander the Great (a pupil of
Aristotle, who was a pupil of Plato), who after subjugating the city, was curious to meet the great cynic. Alexander asked him if
there was any favour he could do for him: Diogenes simply replied, "Yes, I would have you stand from between me and the
sun." (a double pun as the sun was also the emblem of the Macedonians). A dumbfound Alexander could only mutter "If I were
not Alexander, then I would wish to be Diogenes." (To lend credibility, the scene has also been found in roman mosaics.)
Diogenes is also attributed as the first person to have used the word cosmopolitan (kosmopolitis citizen of the world) as a
reply to the question what type of citizen he was. The word cosmopolitan was later used by Stoic philosophers, in the syncretic
Hellenistic era during which east and west fused, to describe a universal appreciation of humankind as one, beyond nations.
There is also a possible direct connection between Cynics and Indian Jains and early Buddhists (Epicureanism also having
similarities with early Buddhism) of that era, through the mutual cultural exchanges of the Hellenistic era, but also older
commercial and cultural ties.
Some interesting Diogenes quotes still provoking laughter surviving 2,000 years, and translation include the following:
When asked why people give to beggars and not to philosophers, Diogenes said, "Because they think it possible that they
themselves may become lame and blind, but they do not expect ever to turn out philosophers." Some men were sacrificing to the
Gods to prevail on them to send them sons, and he said, "And do you not sacrifice to procure sons of a particular character?" On
another occasion, someone said to him, "The people of Sinope condemned you to exile," he replied, "And I condemned them to
remain where they were." When he went to the city of Myndus, he saw some incredibly large gates for such a small city and so
he said "Oh men of Myndus, shut your gates, lest your city should steal out." Plato once said to Diogenes "If you had paid your
respects to Dionysus (a tyrant), you would not be washing lettuces now," to which, with calmness Diogenes replied, "If you had
washed lettuces, Plato, you would not have had to pay your respects to Dionysus."
Diogenes was particularly upset by
extravagant, luxurious interior decorations (non-eco), and at one rich man's house, on finding himself surrounded by expensive
carpets and fluffy cushions, Diogenes spat in the owner's face, and then wiped it with his rough cloak and then apologised,
saying it was the only dirty place in the room he could find to spit