As you know, I recently asked a few people if they'd like to contribute a guest blog for Evocations. Here is a guest blog from Landis Masnor, recent graduate and former student representative to the Shimer College Board of Trustees! Hurrah. And, please note: this is NOT a picture of Landis. NOr am I claiming, via hte post's title, that Diogenes is a Shimer alum.
I recently came across a small blog post on Diogenes the Cynic and loved it. I immediately fell in love with the character and have since digested an entire book of anecdotes and sayings. Having only encountered one story of Diogenes during my time at Shimer (which I’ll mention later), I wish I had read more. The man is enchanting, for starters, because he combines being a complete societal rogue with such realistic commonsense. For instance, in the book I read by Robin Hard, there is a short section on astronomy including encounters and sayings of Diogenes on the topic. Now, even the new Shimer student has to quickly come to terms with the way Plato, Aristotle, and others organize their ideas. One has to accept certain things, ‘this is just the way a great mind/argument/philosophy works’. These givens include the idea that the physical world bears largely upon the True philosophical reality. And hence, no one asks why Aristotle wrote an entire book, On the Heavens. So it’s hilarious when Diogenes is asked again and again what he thinks of the stars, he claims he’s never visited them. When someone speaks about their theory of the planets, Diogenes asks when exactly they returned from visiting them.
The snark is appreciated, but the literally down-to-earth-ness was something I hadn’t seen in Socratic philosophers and it was a joy to find someone who seemed to belong in a different zeitgeist. Because most of Diogenes’ surviving sayings and doings are preserved in fragments from various authors, when I read Hard’s compilation, Diogenes seems like he belongs among the pre-Socratics in Natural Sciences 1. But Diogenes was a contemporary and personal opponent of Plato and Aristotle. What is striking about Diogenes the dog, is not tenets of the philosophy, per se. That is, I would not have taken such an interest in him if he had said “all is water” and called it a day, or even if he had spoke about a divided line. Diogenes is really a pleasure to read because he is a radical polemicist who lived his radical values. These qualities would make reading Diogenes an easy-to-swallow remedy for the reader who treats their Kerouac scroll like the Gandharan scroll. Below are some fragments from the Bounded Spirit article on Diogenes.
In winter Diogenes walked barefoot
in the snow. In summer he rolled in the hot sand. He did this to harden himself
“But aren’t you overdoing it a little?” a disciple asked.
“Of course,” replied Diogenes, “I am like a teacher of choruses who has to sing louder than the rest in order they may get the right note.”
A student of philosophy, eager to display his powers of argument, approached Diogenes, introduced himself and said, “If it pleases you, sir, let me prove to you that there is no such thing as motion.” Whereupon Diogenes immediately got up and left….
“Why is it, Diogenes, that pupils
leave you to go to other teachers, but rarely do they leave them to come to
“Because,” replied Diogenes, “one can make eunuchs out of men, but no one can make a man out of eunuchs.”
The beggar lived a purely practical life, focused on being truly free. This included freedom from bodily demands; Diogenes is often said to have masturbated in the market place (where else?). “If only one could relieve their hunger by rubbing their stomach!” he said. Nicknamed the dog, known for his outlandish and antagonistic nature, the Cynic’s few interactions with Alexander the Great are quite endearing. The following fragments are from Hard.
“Alexander once appeared before him
and said, “I’m Alexander the Great King”
“And I,” he replied, “am Diogenes the Dog.”
Alexander the Great once approached the vagabond and asked, “Aren’t you afraid of me?” “Well, tell me this,” asked Diogenes, “are you a good thing or a bad one?” and when Alexander replied, “A good one”, he said, “Then who’s afraid of what is good?”
In my final semester at Shimer I had the privilege of studying Greek with a few students and Harold Stone where we translated the following anecdote of Diogenes. Once Alexander, impressed by Diogenes, approached him while he was sunning himself and asked, “What can I give you? What do you desire?” and Diogenes replied, “Stand out of my light.” Many sources include after this story, that Alexander so admired Diogenes he remarked to others, “If I were not Alexander, I would be Diogenes.”
Diogenes begged to teach people generosity, lived in squalor to teach them humility, and prided himself on having mastered himself, while others were slaves to the chains of life. Like a stray dog ruining a public picnic, Diogenes is reported to have run forward after the Olympic winners were announced and proclaimed that he was actually the Olympic victor over all humans in the category of excellence.
But he is impressive for more than his quick wit and committed asceticism. There is a practicality and charm to his life that shames more sophisticated philosophers, ‘like their unnecessary ideas on the stars’. While there are many funny comments he makes about Plato’s long windedness (a fact any reader of the Republic knows too well) there are two I can’t ignore that I found at the Bounded Spirit.
Plato was discoursing on his theory of ideas and, pointing to the cups on the table before him, said while there are many cups in the world, there is only one ‘idea’ of a cup, and this ‘cupness’ precedes the existence of all particular cups.
“I can see the cup on the table,”
interrupted Diogenes, “but I can’t see the ‘cupness’.” “That’s because you have
the eyes to see the cup,” said Plato, “but,” tapping his head with his
forefinger, “you don’t have the intellect with which to comprehend ‘cupness’.”
Diogenes walked up to the table, examined a cup and, looking inside, asked, “Is it empty?”
Plato nodded. “Where is the ‘emptiness’ which proceeds this empty cup?” asked Diogenes. Plato allowed himself a few moments to collect his thoughts, but Diogenes reached over and, tapping Plato’s head with his finger, said “I think you will find here is the ‘emptiness’.”
On hearing Plato praised, Diogenes said, “And what’s so wonderful about him, a man who has practiced philosophy all this time and never caused pain to anyone?”
In sum, I am happy that my first full book after Shimer was Hard’s translation on Diogenes. It provides comic and ideological relief from the sanctimony and deepity of Socrates. There are many excellent snippets I would like to include in this post, and too many profound ones I have omitted for the humorous. Because of that I will end with my favorite two (found in Hard) and encourage you to discover Diogenes for yourself.
When asked what weighs most heavily on the earth, he replied an uncultivated man.
When asked which weighs more heavily, lead or gold, he replied: A lack of culture.