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AS/POLS 2900.6A
  Perspectives on Politics

Diogenes and the End of the Polis: Philosophy in the Shadow of Empires

After Aristotle a radically new spirit comes to dominate ancient philosophy, and with hindsight it is remarkable how swiftly the change takes place. Although the schools founded by Plato and Aristotle continue for a couple of centuries after the deaths of their founders, they either change their doctrines radically or come to be seen as largely irrelevant to people’s lives. This whole new era, from roughly 323 BCE and the conquest of Greece and the Near East by Alexander the Great down through roughly 300 CE when the Roman Empire becomes officially Christian, has a distinctly different character and culture and a distinctly different set of political problems than the period of the classical polis. The next 600 years are dominated by the rise of large scale empires.

In philosophy, this era is dominated by three or four schools noteworthy for quite a few things that turned out to have been of crucial importance for the development of the culture of the West. The three major schools are Stoicism, Epicurianism and Cynicism. All of them were united in rejecting the dualism (even in its modified Aristotelian form) between a real, transcendent world of intelligible, permanent, unchanging forms superior to the shifting, unreliable world of sense experience. We will look at only one of these schools. But before we look at Cynicism in the form of its most typical representative – Diogenes of Sinope – it would be worthwhile to make some comments about the period as a whole.

First, Alexander’s conquest of the Orient and of Greece led to a radical shift in Greek culture. The polis was destroyed in the  project of creating a universal monarchy by divine right. The new empires (of Alexander and his successors) did not accept limitations on their power, thus virtually identifying themselves with the state. So the set of problems connected with the existence of the polis that had generated the philosophies of Plato and Aristotle simply disappeared. The classical Greeks had been unable to envision a meaningful social life outside the polis. But the affairs of the new empires went on independent of the wills of any but a truly tiny number of individuals. Instead of being citizens, men became subjects. They ceased to appreciate the old ideas and ideals of civic political participation along with the virtues they demanded. There was simply no space to put them into practice. They were no longer the activities that counted. The new philosophies respond to this situation (or give in to it) by devaluing politics. They tended to make politics something morally indifferent or neutral, not of importance in living a good life), or they made politics into something morally negative, something to be avoided because it was the source of ambitions and passions that lead the soul astray and disturb it. This was particularly the approach of the Epicureans.

The other side of this devaluation of one’s own particular polis was the development of an ideal of cosmopolitanism, that is the belief that beyond membership in one city or culture all human beings were at some level united as citizens and members of the human world. Corresponding to the rise of cosmopolitanism was the rise of a new sense of individuality. If man and citizen are no longer identified, it becomes possible to look for meaning in life that is not confined to expressing the ethos of a polis, but simply as an individual , a unique individual answering only to his or her own (possibly reasoned and reflected upon) sense of what is good and right.

In philosophy this led to immediate and sharp results: Plato and Aristotle had not been able to think of an ethics that was truly distinct from politics. Plato’s wise man has as his calling (feels an inner requirement) the rulership of a polis, no matter how much of a distraction this might be from the contemplative life. Aristotle never wanted to abandon the connection between the good man and the good citizen . But for the Cynic or Stoic sage wisdom and the good life are something pursued simply on the basis of human nature as it appears in the individual. There comes to be a clear and obvious separation between ethics and politics.

The appearance of the individual as a problem that could be or had to be addressed separately from the concrete community also led to a new questioning of what we might call today the ethnocentrism and sexism that was common not only among the non-philosophic Greeks but also to the philosophies of Plato and Aristotle. Alexander the Great had tried, with some success, to assimilate conquered people to Greek culture, ideas and manners, and in so doing, demonstrated that the “barbarians” were not “inferior” by nature. This was a first step in moving beyond the older ethnocentrism of the Greeks.

Epicurus allowed women into his school. The Stoics, at least on occasion, attacked slavery as an institution. The two last great Stoic philosophers were the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius (who makes a brief appearance in the beginning of the film “Gladiator”) and the slave Epictetus. As a result of this new sense of cosmopolitan individualism, philosophy set out to communicate its message to as broad an audience as it could reach. The main philosophic movements of this era conceived themselves as responses to how the individual, any and all individuals, could live well, given the limitations of a universal human nature. Consequently, they were considerably less interested, if at all, in the transcendent dimension in which Plato and Aristotle tried to anchor their moral and political ideals. They did develop theories of knowledge and of reality, but mainly – at least at the beginning – in order to counter the metaphysics and dualism of Plato and Aristotle. Their real interest was in an “art of living” that was intuitively grasped, but that needed some theoretical elaboration (they therefore often returned behind Plato to the physical speculations of the Pre-Socratics: Epicurus to the mechanistic atomism of Democritus; the Stoics to the difficult inspiration of Heraclitus; and the Cynics wanted to do without metaphysical speculation and theoretical grounding altogether – in this way the Cynics were quite modern/postmodern).

After the massive elaboration of complex, abstruse metaphysical systems by Plato and Aristotle there was a reaction on the part of others, who considered themselves followers of Socrates as well, charging that Plato and Aristotle had lost the Socratic spirit and the art of living inside clouds of theoretical abstractions. The new schools all aimed at recovering the true Socratic position; their common denominator was an insistence on a complete harmony and unity between theory and practice. For them, a philosopher is not chiefly the person who constructs systems of concepts, but someone who lives their doctrine perfectly and whose ideas are a perfect expression of or guide to a blameless or happy life. Therefore, as important as the books a philosopher produces are, once again as with Socrates, the model of his own life and actions are more important.

Another aspect of this new Socraticism which was common to all these schools was the search for a method of life that any individual could adopt using only his/her own resources. This idea led to an ideal of “autarky”, i.e. the complete independence and self-sufficiency of the individual. The good life was seen as a liberation not only from error, but even from Destiny or Fate. Zeno and later Stoic philosophers, for example, held that the physical world was a providential mind in which all events were fated to recur over and over again in a great cycle, exactly as they had occurred before – but, that in spite of the total domination of Fate, individuals could be totally free and self-sufficient by pre-empting Fate, by making the will of Fate their will.

Although different schools adopted different theoretical frameworks and different practical methods for achieving autarky, and therefore happiness, all agreed that it was to be sought in and through detachment (Gk. – ataraxia): a tranquility of the spirit which meant the suppression, elimination or indifference to all disturbances of the soul. Therefore their moral ideals are all, let us say, non-heroic, negative rather than positive, not aimed at the achievement of “great and noble deeds”, as it was for the classical Greeks.  The goal is a serene tranquility of spirit, and they all therefore praised the simple life, talked of a return to nature, the enjoyment of solitude and the inspiration offered by the unspoiled countryside.

One indication of the radical change common to this era in its various schools, yet still seeking to derive itself from the Socratic model, was the insistence that the sage lives a perfect life and has therefore nothing to seek in immortality. His happiness is not different from the gods (immortals) qualitatively. Here is a complete rejection of the culture of achievement and glory that seeks earthly immortality in public deeds. For the Hellenistic philosophers the sage, and potentially all human beings, attains perfect happiness on earth. The only happiness that is is on earth . The Stoics, as materialists of a sort, believed that the individual soul survives the death of the body , if at all, for only a very brief time before it loses all personal identity in merging with the world-soul from which it was originally differentiated, like a spark from a fire.

What seems paradoxical to us in all this is the recommendation that although happiness is attainable and attainable universally, it consists or seems to consist in renunciation. The Hellenistic schools, in developing philosophies of life for individuals who could now live independently of concrete, traditional communities, from our  most modern perspectives, did not go wrong so much by seeking detachment from psychic disturbance. A greater failing lay in not differentiating between universal-human and particular-cultural sources of the psychic disturbance they want to transcend. So, for the most part, because the political theory they reject as parts of the Platonic and Aristotelian systems concentrated on seeing individuals as parts of a larger organic whole, they throw out also, along with that, the ability to see the disturbed psyche, the unhappy, unreasonable psyche as not only individual and human, but also as fundamentally formed by the ethos of a particular culture as well as by the human condition itself. This problem is discovered and reformulated in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries by Rousseau and Marx, in different ways.

But enough of the period in general. Diogenes of Sinope was not the actual founder of Cynicism. The actual founder was Antistheens, whom you may remember having been mentioned in my discussion of the Sophists. But Diogenes is perhaps the best known and most typical representative of that school.  In his way of life, Diogenes completely shattered the classical Greek image of man, yet his proposals for living were immediately recognized as a model for others to develop and follow. Above all, he loved to philosophize “by the deed” and used to be known to every schoolchild in the European world for walking around in broad daylight searching for an honest man. Actually, his phrase was “I am seeking a man”, by which he meant someone living authentically, beyond all exteriority, indifferent to convention and beyond all the codes and opinions imposed by society.

For Diogenes, the happy individual was the one who had discovered his/her true nature and whol lived in conformity with that, as opposed to, as Rousseau would say 2000 years later, living solely in the eyes of others. The happy individual was one able to live therefore at the opposite extreme from convention, from concern about one’s appearance, image, from worry about what others will think of you, in complete indifference to how you are perceived and judged. Moreover, for Diogenes, people have always had, ready to hand, the means for living happily. Happiness is much simpler and easier than it seems, provided you had knowledge of the real limits of human nature.  Now here is a direct echo of Socrates: the good life, the excellent and happy life is, for Diogenes, still a function of knowledge.

But – and isn’t there always a but – the type and nature of knowledge is radically, 180 degrees different from the type sought by the Platonic Socrates. Diogenes was in fact called by Plato “a Socrates gone mad” (they had several famous run-ins). Like Socrates, Diogenes indicated that the aim of the moral life was the health or harmony of the soul. But this was not to be achieved under the rule of the pure intellect seeking reality above and beyond the world of the senses. The whole intellectualist side of Socrates is dropped out and devalued. The health and harmony of the soul instead begins with the satisfaction of the human’s animal nature. On this basis, people can then learn the rules for living well.

With Diogenes, Cynicism becomes perhaps the most anti-intellectualist of philosophies that the West has ever known. (And of which there are many echoes today in quite diverse philosophical/political movements) He maintained, for example, that mathematics, astronomy, physics and music were “useless and unnecessary”. Metaphysical speculation was absurd. The Platonic forms do not exist because they have never been perceived by the senses. What mattered was not reason, in the sense of a certain and infallible grasp of the intelligibility of the world, but a concrete way of life. Since intellect was not the route to living well, Diogenes did not go about interrogating people as to the reasons for their beliefs, as Socrates did – instead, his art of teaching was a form of guerilla theatre; or somewhat like the shock tactics sometimes employed by the Zen master.

Diogenes consciously took his cue as to the essence of nature and natural life from animals. “Through watching a mouse running about… not looking for a place to lie down in, not afraid of the dark, not seeking any of the things which are considered to be dainties, he discovered the means of adapting himself to circumstances.” The natural life, then, is the life without the goals fixed by society. Just like an animal, Diogenes will find what he needs when he needs it, or if compelled to do without it, he will not torture himself with worry about how important or worthy he is if he doesn’t get it.

The behaviour of animals, if correctly understood by reason, showed that almost all the things pursued with such desperation by human beings are actually the product of social conventions, and therefore unnatural and therefore superfluous. The good life does not lead to the separation of the soul from the body, but to the reintegration of the soul with its material basis in unselfconscious animal need and satisfaction. Now, there is a problem here, insofar as humans, unlike other animals, even when they take animals as models, need to use their reason (past the age of 2) in order to interpret how an animal goes about meeting its natural needs.  Animals do not reason about themselves or other animals and humans can choose to imitate them or not. Therefore for Diogenes, the goal was not the pure animal life, but the liberty the animal had in its insensitivity to conventional demands. Thus his model was the hero of Greek myth, Hercules (see 6.71)

The main concepts of Diogenes thought express nothing so much as the way to achieve this liberty or maintain it. For Diogenes, conventions, insofar as they introduce false and unnatural needs into our souls, are responsible for ruining that happiness which would be otherwise easily attainable. Here, as with some of the Sophists, convention is identified with the suppression of nature. The expression of nature is happiness and therefore the route to happiness is freedom from conventions. And the way to free oneself is to practice freedom.

Therefore Diogenes first proclaims complete freedom of speech (Gk. – parrhesia): the Cynic simply says to anyone what he thinks at any time. Gone are the elaborate courtesies and aristocratic verbal fencing games of the Platonic dialogues. Gone also is Socrates’ coy irony. And, whereas Socrates used his freedom to interrogate and got in trouble with the people (or some of them), Diogenes would speak his mind in a totally bold and brash way to the mighty: after the battle of Chaeronea “…he was seized and dragged off to Philip [King of Macedon] and being asked who he was, replied, ‘a witness to your insatiable greed’. For this he was admired and set free”. It takes a certain disregard for the niceties for a prisoner of war to do this sort of thing, especially when there is no Geneva Convention in effect.This freedom of speech is often insulting, but it is meant to prevent you from falling into the snares of convention and also to jolt others into recognizing how far they have departed from nature.

Second, Diogenes also proclaimed complete freedom of action (Gk. – anaideia), which was also meant to show up the complete arbitrariness of customs: that they were not obvious, not natural, not necessarily right. Now here is where most people, at least most philosophical commentators, begin to get upset with Cynicism, going so far as to sometimes accuse it of losing touch with the meaning of a specifically human life. I will just cite two instances: “At a feast certain people kept throwing all the bones to him as they would have done to a dog. Thereupon he played a dog’s trick and drenched them.” (6.46) “Someone took him into a magnificent house and warned him not to expectorate, whereupon having cleared his throat, he discharged the phlegm into the man’s face, being unable, he said, to find a meaner receptacle.” (6.32) This might be the appropriate time to note that “cynic” means “dog” in Greek (actually “kynos” = dog). Cynics were literally “dog-philosophers”. One commentator thinks that not only does Diogenes go beyond convention, beyond the elements of decency, but ends up even sweeping away nature itself. The example he gives is Diogenes’ ability to countenance eating human flesh (6.73).

Cynicism (in the Greek sense) is not a philosophy for the faint-hearted or the squeamish. Nor should you get the impression from Diogenes Laertius’ manner of describing it that it was simply the removal of inhibitions. Diogenes maintained that there was a method to achieving happiness. It was necessary to practice both discipline and work in order to strengthen the physical and psychic individual. One must discipline oneself in order to do the work of nature and habituate oneself to the power of pleasures in order to learn to scorn them. One gets the greatest pleasure from learning to despise pleasures. (6.71) Pleasure takes away freedom by making men slaves of other men and things. And freedom here is an ideal of complete individual self-sufficiency, a condition of the absence of need, or the reduction of need towards an absolute minimum. Diogenes, says Diogenes Laertius, lived in a barrel and used to say “it is proper to the gods to need nothing and to those who are like them to need very little.” (6.104) One of the most famous episodes in Diogenes’ life is described at DL 6.38: “When he was sunning himself in the Craneum, Alexander came and stood over him and said: ‘Ask of me any boon you like’. To which he replied, ‘Stand out of my light’. Alexander was the most powerful human ever known to the Greek world, the conqueror of the known world who had it in his power to do anything for Diogenes that was humanly possible. Yet Diogenes wants nothing from power (and nothing with it). He only wants the sunlight, the most natural and universally available thing.

Not only is the Cynic sage beyond the desire for power; he is beyond any and all desire for private property (6.37 & 6.46) Quite naturally, he was also against marriage (6.54) and for “free love” (6.72)

Now, this appeal to rid the natural man of all convention and achieve virtuous happiness through complete self-sufficiency would incline you to expect that Diogenes had no use at all for community. Yet he acknowledges the usefulness of the polis and of civilization (6.72) But Diogenes, even though he was a contemporary of Plato’s, did not see it any more in the way the classical Greeks did. The true community, the natural community was the worldwide community of human beings and Diogenes proclaimed himself a citizen of the world. (6.63) Is there a basis here for a political theory?

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