The abstract world of philosophy is interesting. From stoicism, to nihilism, to absurdism, there are many different schools of thought trying to teach us how to think, act, and tell right from wrong.
But have you ever felt that philosophy is sometimes a bit too elaborate? Too structural? Since written records began, philosophers have produced mountains of text, but how much of it really connects with us?
Some of it does, definitely. Descartes’ (day-kaart’s) “I think therefore I am” is one of the most beautiful realizations you can have. It is so concise yet so beautifully self-evident.
On the other hand, how many of us spend our days thinking about the form of a table or its corresponding “table-hood” like Plato? How many of us use Parmenides’ (paa-men-i-deez) argument against motion in our daily lives?
The Greek philosopher Parmenides was teaching In a school in Athens how motion doesn’t exist. His argument was that if motion exists, that would mean that the Universe has a beginning and an end. If that’s the case, motion had to have been created out of nothing, since before the beginning of the Universe, there was nothing. But that can’t be, since something can’t be created out of nothing.
It sounds intelligent, maybe even wise, but upon close inspection, you quickly realize it can’t possibly make sense because of course motion exists. You and I have our life experiences to show for that.
Parmenides’ argument may be philosophically interesting and even intellectually stimulating, but a bit silly if I’m being honest. And one of the people who sat in that class in Athens listening to Parmenides agrees. Like you and me, he felt that arguments like this were so complicated that they missed the rather obvious realities of our lives.
So what did he do to prove that motion existed?
He got up and walked out. His name was Diogenes the Cynic, the craziest philosopher of all time.
Diogenes was born in the Greek colony of Sinope (si-nuhp) which is present-day Turkey, and this was only a glimpse of his eccentricities. He lived from 400 BCE to 323 BCE.
Most philosophers of his time were sages, respected by the public and held to a high standard of conduct. Diogenes, on the other hand, would do things that weren’t just impolite but downright strange and insulting – even by history’s standards.
He lived in a giant stoneware wine container, and on most days would beg for his food. He would urinate and defecate in public and spit wherever he pleased, sometimes even at people.
Because of his behavior, one day, a man called him a dog and even threw bones at him as an insult. Diogenes, not one to ever feel insulted, simply walked up to the bones and peed on them. The man who had just called him a dog couldn’t believe what just happened. Diogenes, wittingly questioned, “Why call me a dog but be surprised when I acted like one?”
Diogenes not only relieved himself in public, he pleased himself sexually wherever and whenever he wanted to since he believed that what isn’t shameful in private, shouldn’t be shameful in public.
“Who are we kidding, really?” – he must’ve thought.
Diogenes believed that philosophers were making life much harder than it needed to be by creating unnecessary rules and regulations that aimed to block man’s true nature. And people blindly following these rules made it all worse. He recognized that these people had no self-mastery and would do as they were told, no matter how pointless the task was.
Once he was speaking and noticed that nobody was paying attention to him, so he began making strange noises, which immediately drew people’s attention. Diogenes lamented that nonsense draws attention far quicker than wisdom. And if that isn’t the state of social media today, I don’t know what is.
Like every philosopher, some of what Diogenes preached was controversial. Things like sexual promiscuity and cannibalism cast some doubt about the quality of his philosophy. But it’s difficult to draw too many conclusions, given how much of his life is still unknown.
What we do know is that his way of life was unique. But it begs the question, what inspired him to be so cynical about life? Why was he called Diogenes the Cynic, anyway?
It started off from an innocent observation. One day, Diogenes noticed that while the rest of the world was partying and finding ways to celebrate their wealth, rats were having a feast on the crumbs that fell from his plate.
One account notes: “By watching a mouse scurrying about – not anxious for a place to sleep, not afraid of the dark, nor pining away for any of the so-called pleasures – he discovered a way to cope with his surroundings.”
He realized that humans don’t need all that much to be happy. He also noticed that most people had a never-ending pursuit of wealth, which, at the end of the day, didn’t lead to any substantial happiness. So he set out on a journey to ridicule the public, to show them just how out-of-touch their lives had become. Even philosophers – people who were supposed to be the wisest among the masses – had become attached to their fame and material possessions. This is what ultimately led to his criticism of the philosophers of his time and his cynical view of life.
Cynicism is the idea that most human beings are fueled by self-interest rather than a deep inclination to be good. It’s a concern that most of us can relate to, the fear that most of our relationships are transactional. That the people we call friends and lovers are only with us because of something they can get from us and not because they truly like us.
Did Diogenes believe that all humans were fueled only by self-interest? Well, yes and no. Interestingly, he believed that people are inherently good. But that societal norms and an inability to accept our instincts has led us to our current state of misery. But, even though he had a tendency to make fun of societal norms, he wasn’t advocating for chaos or disorder. . He didn’t want to break customs purely for the sake of breaking them. He broke them to prove a point, and often at the expense of someone else’s prestige.
You might think that Diogenes simply hated life, and this was his way of letting other people know just how miserable it was. But even that’s not true. He was quite fond of life. When asked if life was evil, Diogenes replied, “Not life itself, but living an evil life.”
He appreciated the simple things in life and was grateful for whatever came his way, without the boastful show of wealth or the extravagant parties of the social elite. He enjoyed the warmth of sunlight on his skin. The sight of nature. The companionship of a dog. In fact, he claimed to be a “King among men,” which is ironic, to say the least, considering he was basically homeless. But he didn’t make that claim because of the wealth he possessed. He did so because he felt no need to possess such wealth in the first place.
He also mocked the remarkable lack of humanity that he had experienced in Athens. This led to another stunt of his where he went to a marketplace in the daytime with a lantern and stopped to say, “I’ve been looking for a man.” Because according to him, there was no one human enough in Athens.
Though calling him a “dog” was meant very much as an insult, Diogenes, in his own way, interpreted it as a compliment because a dog lives an unaffected and honest life. A dog eats anything that you give it, sleeps wherever, and lives free of anxiety. Exactly the life that Diogenes wanted to live.
An underrated part of his philosophy is his idea of self-sufficiency and autonomy. Diogenes doesn’t want you to simply recognize that our world is cynical, he wants you to be aware of that fact and eventually be free from it. It’s one thing to lament how transactional today’s world is, but it is another thing to act upon it, or at the very least, be prepared for it.
Diogenes is said to have stood in front of statues and begged for food. When asked about it, he said he did so to get used to being rejected. Yet another thing we can learn from.
Whether it’s a job that we applied for and missed out on, a school we think we should’ve gotten into, or a relationship we always wanted – we’ve all experienced rejection. Diogenes doesn’t want us to shy away from rejection but rather accept it as part of life.
This is in line with what a lot of us believe today: that one’s happiness is his or her sole responsibility, and relying on someone else or something else for it would be a serious mistake.
Diogenes went out of his way to manufacture discomfort by doing things like rolling in the sand on hot summer days to make himself more resilient to life’s misery. While this example might sound a little too much, it’s essentially the same as people who take cold showers in freezing temperatures when they could’ve just stayed in bed where it’s warm.
Why do this? Why expose yourself to this kind of discomfort? You do it to condition yourself against the misery of the rest of the day. After you experience that level of discomfort, whatever nature sends your way- whether it is the company of a dog or the warmth of sunlight- it’ll be the most beautiful and pleasant gift you could imagine.
Diogenes seems crazy at first glance. But, deep down, his beliefs resonate with us more than we might’ve thought. Most people have never read elaborate philosophical texts. And maybe it’s best that all of Diogenes’ writings have been lost.
All we have left are his examples and his actions to go by. How he felt alienated by shows of wealth, how he experienced rejection, and how he dealt with insults. Diogenes’ teachings and actions were aimed at critiquing conventional values and norms. He also highlighted our growing distance from nature – something that has left society puzzled and depressed. He used humor, paradox, and shocking behavior to provoke thought and challenge our assumptions about what truly matters in life. And his approach was influential in the development of later philosophical schools, particularly the Stoics.
Even in the worst of circumstances, even when Diogenes was held captive and enslaved, he didn’t lose himself in despair. Not once did he consider himself “less than” the people who were buying or selling him.
In his own eyes, even slave owners needed masters. Slaves were starved and poorly fed, and while this affected the other enslaved people, Diogenes merely reflected on how odd it was that instead of trying to make him look healthy by feeding him well, his masters were starving him and reducing his value on the market.
Regardless, there was no happier man when Diogenes did get to eat a good meal. Anyone else in this position would have lost all self-esteem. Not Diogenes.
When asked about what he was good for by someone who wanted to purchase him, Diogenes simply replied: “Ruling over men.”
The philosophy of Cynicism is closely related to Nihilism: The Belief in Nothing, watch this video next to understand the difference.