For the past few months, most of my philosophical reading time has been spent with Diogenes of Sinope; specifically via Luis Navia, and his several works on the subject. Navia seems to be one of the few writers on the Cynic paragon to think of him highly. After working through several volumes, the main take away that I have from Navia is one which surprised me.
Navia posits, contra most others, that above all Diogenes’ actions and mode of life are an act of love. A love of people, particularly. Many others see the man’s reported actions, demagogue-like haranguing, and lewd activities as a repudiation of humankind. Navis says no, this cannot be the case. If Diogenes were a misanthrope, he would reasonable retreat to the wilderness, live howsoever he chose, and quietly pass his life in solitude. This is not the only reason to seek retreat, clearly, but this is the argument as I’ve seen it.
Navia instead notes that while Diogenes disapproves of the moral character of his time, he throws himself into the very middle of it. He speaks to every passerby with the shocking honesty of his actions. He points out the flaws in others, not to be a curmudgeon, but that they might seem themselves reflected in the mirror of his austerity and be called to better action.
Navia even goes so far as to say that the apparent extremism of Cynic living is a pedagogical tool, and not the direct advice for the people. I’m not so sure I agree with him on this point, however. He says that much like the Overton Window in politics, an extreme example can nudge the perception towards the middle. Diogenes is the extreme candidate, then, whose purpose is didactic rather than one motivated on winning. The extreme candidate makes the slightly less moderate appear moderate.
If an extreme example of the minimums needed virtue prompts an interlocutor to make small changes, that seems like reasonable progress to me. I do think this is a bit more speculative than I’d like to be, however, and we should take the mode of life of Antisthenes, Crates, Diogenes, and Zeno at face value as they have told us they are. Their utility, however, towards this trend seems inarguable to me, motivations aside.
More and more, I find myself called back to the question of how we take the specific examples of the Cynics and Stoics and transplant them 2,000+ years today. This questions has really been perennial for me since the beginning of this blog, and my studies. I think it is the core question of my progress in philosophy.