Reflections on Diogenes


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.

Image result for diogenes of sinopeNavia 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 eImage result for diogenes of sinopextremism 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.

Philosophical eating: “The clear dry soul is wisest and best.”


In Musonius’ Lecture/s on food, we hear straight off that, “On the subject of food he used to speak frequently and very emphatically too…”. The reasoning given is that as food is something we are obliged to handle daily, it is a key tool for developing the virtue of self-control.

The main thrust is:

“As one should prefer inexpensive food to expensive and what is abundant to what is scarce, so one should prefer what is natural for men to what is not.”

Musonius seems to layout three sorts of foods.

  • Natural foods which do not require fire for preparation.
    • Seasonal, fresh fruit, some vegetables, cheese, honey, etc.
  • Natural foods which do require fire for preparation.
    • Most cereals, pulses, etc.
  • Barbaric or unsuitable foods.
    • Namely meat-flesh in the first category, but also dainty foods like sweet cakes, extravagant dishes, dishes which harm the health, etc.

Additionally, in this paper that I’m currently reading, ‘Food and Counter-cultural Identity in Ancient Cynicism‘ the author Notario makes the statement that food choices are a key practice and symbol for in-group/out-group identification.  We can see that in the religious prohibtions in Semetic religions, national cousines, and societal choices about acceptable foods (cow, chicken, horse, dog, muskrat?).

In the cases of the Stoics, Cynics, and Pythagoreans it is also a counter-cultural act.

Paleo diet fans:  trigger warning.

Notario states that up to 80% of the calories of the ancient Greek diet were provided by cereals.  He treats at times dietary choices like a text, noting that the Cynics and Stoics repudiated the fancier foods, and extolled the virtues of the simple foods of the Everyman.

One of those is madzae/maza, a sort of barley cake (in the sense of party not a sweet treat).  A recipe for the food can be found here.  I gave my hand a try at this, and found it to be surprisingly tasty.  The author notes that it tastes of Honey Smacks cereal (red box, Frog), and that is spot on.  The grainy texture seems a little unavoidable, however your diligence with a mortar and pestle, or in my case a repurposed coffee grinder, may vary the degree.

I made the simplest ones, but I can see how adding some cheese or a bit of honey would be a nice change of pace periodically.

Over in the Cynosarges group on Facebook we’re putting together a “Philosophical eating plan” based on the prescriptions of Musonius, and the examples of Diogenes and Crates.  If you’re interested in collaborating, or making use for the final product, head over there and check it out.

CERP: Day 38 – Diogenes Eps. 49-51.


XLIX. untitled: “The Cynic to Aroueca…” (p. 181)
The allusion to the philosopher as “doctor for the soul” is an interesting one.  Reminds of me of the stigma which is placed on mental health issues, or at least the ones in the DSM-5.  We don’t see the same prejudice against folks with “diseases” of their desires and aversions, with their passions ruling their lives.  In fact, a certain amount of this sort of suffering is viewed as normal, or even healthy.  So, like the Cynic says, choose the doctor well.

L. To Charmides, greetings (p. 181)
“Those who propose to cure others of what they haven’t been able to cure themselves.”  I saw a documentary about Buddhist hermits in China, and one of the interviewers asks the monk to teach something of Zen.  He replies, ‘there’s nothing to say, it’s all in the text.  I can’t save someone else if I haven’t been able to save myself.’  Or something along those lines.

LI. To Epimenedes, greetings (p. 183)
So, this and the previous letter both speak to appearances versus actual reality.  The decorated but empty box, the promise of virtue, but laziness in the doing.  This is a good thing to keep in mind.

This is part of the Cynic Epistles Reading Plan.

CERP: Day 37 – Diogenes Eps. 41-45.


XLVI. To Plato, the Sage, greetings (p. 177)
So the rich appetites of Plato are compared to the gluttony of sheep, ever eating.  This harkens to the “wealth is not in having many possessions, but few desires” line we hear in Cynic and Stoic sources.  I do especially like the parting shot and mic drop of “But if this does not convince you, then practice fondness of pleasure and mock us for not knowing much.”  Boom.

XLVII. To Zeno, do well (p. 179)
This is a pretty pessimistic outlook, and its interesting how much this changed with Stoicism, esp. Musonius for whom family life is a form of piety.

XLVIII. To Rhesus, greetings (p. 179)
This is a strange little quip of a letter.  “Dude wants to see some horses, he doesn’t eat much, please oblige.”

This is part of the Cynic Epistles Reading Plan.

CERP: Day 36 – Diogenes Eps. 41-45.


XLI. To Melesippus (p. 173)
Whoa.  It’s not controversial to state that not everyone *will* be virtuous, but it’s another thing entirely to say that not every *is capable* of virtue.  And to think, the Stoics are considered elitists!

XLII. To the wise Melesippe, greetings (p. 173)
Oh, Diogenes, flouting the νόμος.

XLIII. To the Maroneans, do well (p. 173)
**Even though** Hipparchia is a woman, she’ s a good figure to name a city after.  <rolls_eyes>.  I wonder if there would have been a “Cynic temperance movement” a la the WCTU in the 1920s and 1930s.  I suppose they wouldn’t have used the state in horrifying way, rather they’d have pointed out the absurdity of the drunkards.  We probably would have avoided the rise of the mafia, and NFA ’34, though…

XLIV. To Metrocles, do well (p. 175)
I don’t recall ever seeing “manual labor” as taking the place of interpersonal romantic activities.  Crates and Hipparchia come to mind as two Cynics who continued to engage in martial relations of a sort.

It’s interesting that the Ps-Diogenes is here advocating, effectively, a form of celibacy.  Maybe Diogenes’ Cynic really did anticipate the future priestly classes.

XLV. To Perdiccas, do well (p. 175)
Here, the Ps-Diogenes, friend of the gods, warns someone threatening him that only bad things would result from killing him.  I wonder how this meshes with the issue of Diogenes beating up an interlocutor, and also his public shaming of those who assaulted him?  I’m not sure if those stories are here, but I’ll keep my eye out for them.


This is part of the Cynic Epistles Reading Plan.

CERP: Day 35 – Diogenes Ep. 40.


XL. Diogenes the Cynic to Alexander (p. 169)
Here, we see some of the proto-anarchist tinge to the Ps-Diogenes.  Likening tyrants to children, to the diseased, to those fearfully hiding behind walls.  He points that they (and specifically Alexander) hire men to watch after their health, but where are those who watch after their souls?

“For it is quite enough for them to be wicked by themselves; but, by giving a salary besides to very wicked men, you present them with the opportunity of doing no good.  And you yourself have a hand at doing things like this and worse.”


This is part of the Cynic Epistles Reading Plan.

CERP: Day 34 – Diogenes Ep. 39.


XXXIX. To Monimus, do well (p. 165)
Well, this is an interesting one.  Firstly, I usually see the “practice to die” in Stoic contexts, I don’t recall ever seeing it in a Cynic one.  Secondly, since Stoicism has effectively no conception of an afterlife, this view stands out.  For Stoics, the pneuma of the sould returns to its source, and only the soul of the Sage might in some capacity live on, but still not past Ekpyrosis, beyond which only Zeus lives.

So, this conceptions of Hades as a place to which the soul travels (after what appears to be a true physical journey) where even the souls of philosophers are give a higher standing of sorts to those enslaved by their passions, by typhos.

It’s difficult for me personally to decide where in a text an author wants one to extract a metaphorical lesson on the nature of the soul and the consequences of life here on earth, and where the author is saying, “No really, this happens.  Don’t screw it up.”

Maybe it’s not important for the modern reader, but in trying to learn to think like the folks for whom these were written, I wish the distinction were clearer.

This is part of the Cynic Epistles Reading Plan.

CERP: Day 33 – Diogenes Ep. 38.


XXXVIII. untitled: “After the games…” (p. 161)
Ah ha!   Here we have (finally) a second criterion on those from whom the mendicant my accept money or items.  The Ps-Diogenes even lays out the different sorts:  money, things worth money, food, and invitations to share a meal.  Previously, we’ve heard that only can philosopher accept things from the virtuous, or the good, or other philosophers.  Let’s lump them into one category called, and for the time being call them “the good.”  But, in this epistle, we have a second criterion, the mendicant can also accept from those who are benefited.

The Ps-Diogenes even lays out a sort of economic or market qualification.  I’d call it a capitalist one, but I’m sure someone would take umbrage.  So, let’s do that: a capitalist ethic then in mendicancy.

“…[S]ince I thought it improper to take something from a person who had himself not received anything.”

This second criterion makes the mendicancy of the Cynics practical.  One can generally see when an onlooker or interlocutor has understood or received something of benefit to them.  We can expect that the publicly-teaching philosopher would have developed this skill of discernment to a high degree.

I’ll reiterate:  I’m liking these longer letters a bit more than the previous 15 or so.

This is part of the Cynic Epistles Reading Plan.

CERP: Day 32 – Diogenes Ep. 37


XXXVII. To Monimus, do well (p. 155)
Again, we have one of the more elegantly composed letters.  Here, the Ps-Diogenes in visiting a friend, he meets with apparent hardship, but when his earthly guest snubs him he takes the hospitality of the gods.  I assume this means he was sleeping in the temple (scandalous), but I’d like to also think it mean he was sleeping rough, in the home of the Gods which they themselve built:  the earth itself.

After finally meeting his friend, and chiding him mildly, he proceeds to turn every “kindness” and “hospitality” on its head.  He’s presented with the common sort, as we might expect a guest to receive.  Lavish furnishing, fine foods, attendants, etc.  Diogenes discards all of these, and prefers the simple gifts of philosophers, but there’s a crucial difference.

The “opportunistic hedonism” of Cynicism varies with the Stoic perspective here.  Instead of seeing these things as a spiritual discipline (although that’s mentioned), Diogenes has learned to enjoy these things qua these things.  He no longer forces himself to take the less pleasurable choice, he actually is more pleased with the simpler one.

I’m enjoying these longer letters, which speak to a depth to the school which is not immediately apparent upon first glance.  Those of us who are spies from the Stoic camp may take a keener interest in these.


This is part of the Cynic Epistles Reading Plan.