Diogenes Versus Plato: Who will set you free?

No one can question Plato’s writing and rhetorical abilities. He was a superstar of the ancient world, and the fact that his dialogs have endured for millennia attests to the fact of his beautiful writing. Of course, Bertrand Russell found it ludicrous to praise Plato’s ideas based on the quality of his writing, saying, “That Plato’s Republic should have been admired, on its political side, by decent people, is perhaps the most astonishing example of literary snobbery in all history.” Other famous thinkers of the ancient world weren’t as lucky as Plato; although their reputations survive somewhat through the words of others, we often have no copies of their original works or just a few remaining fragments. It may be that Plato was simply such a great writer that his works were preserved while the works of others were not, or perhaps other factors played a role in which works were saved and which were lost.

According to the biographer of philosophers, Diogenes Laertius, the Cynical philosopher Diogenes of Sinope (no relationship to the biographer), also wrote a number of books.* If he actually did, none survives today. The biography is here. The Cynic is infamous for masturbating in public, going naked, eating in the market, and carrying a lamp around in the middle of the day. As we don’t have the original works of Diogenes, we can’t be sure which of these stories might be true and which are apocryphal as they reflect how others saw him, not necessarily how he presented himself. The lack of surviving texts may be down to Diogenes himself, at least partly. When Hegesias asked todiogenes-800px read some of his writing, he reportedly replied, “You are a simpleton, Hegesias; you do not choose painted figs, but real ones; and yet you pass over the true training and would apply yourself to written rules.”

So, it seems that Diogenes, like Socrates before him, valued face-to-face interaction over the more passive learning that comes from reading. It is worth noting that Diogenes was a student of Antisthenes, who was in turn a student of Socrates. Although Antisthenes was reluctant to accept Diogenes as a student, Diogenes considered Antisthenes, not Plato, to be the true successor to Socrates.

According to Bertrand Russell’s History of Western Philosophy, Antisthenes enjoyed a comfortable and aristocratic life until the death of Socrates. After that, “He would have nothing but simple goodness. He associated with working men, and dressed as one of them. He took to open-air preaching, in a style that the uneducated could understand. All refined philosophy he held to be worthless; what could be known by the plain man.” Also, “There was to be no government, no private property, no marriage, no established religion.”  Diogenes, it would seem, followed the lessons of his teacher to their logical extremes, which lead Plato to describe Diogenes as “Socrates gone mad.”

When studying the history of philosophy, we generally follow the lineage from Socrates to Plato to Aristotle. We could just as easily follow it from Socrates to Antisthenes to Diogenes. With the former approach, we find justification for authoritarian rule over the ignorant unwashed masses constantly threatening the fabric of society. With the latter approach, we find a rejection not only of authority but of all the values that drive the totality of social regulation and empty social status.

It should be no surprise, then, which works were preserved. We know Socrates primarily through the works of Plato, which painted Socrates as a victim of ignorant Athenian leaders who rose to positions of power through a democratic process and not on their own merit. Threatened by the wisdom of Socrates, the thoughtless and insecure leaders sentenced Socrates to death. In response, Plato promised order could be secured under the direction of educated and dispassionate leaders who would tame the rabble, leading from their own realm outside the cave of illusion and delusion. The Cynics, on the other hand, would cause disruption, encouraging the working people to believe that they could take control over their own lives even without the aid of book learning and academic discipline. The Cynics valued reason, but not the well-healed reason of the aristocrats such as Plato and Aristotle.

Further, the Cynics encouraged citizens to question the value of everything that is supposed to motivate the working class. For Plato, workers driven by their appetitive elements would produce more goods in order to receive rewards to satisfy their hungers and desires. Diogenes rejected the value of expensive clothing, food, shelter or anything else, and often lived off what he could get through begging. Having almost no possessions and no desires for any more, how could anyone take control over him or threaten him with anything? When Perdiccas threatened Diogenes with death if he didn’t appear before him, Diogenes reportedly replied, “That is nothing strange, for a scorpion or a tarantula could do as much: you had better threaten me that, if I kept away, you should be very happy.” As Todd Snider said in his song, “Looking for a Job,” “Watch what you say to someone with nothing. It’s almost like having it all.”

Imagine if the working class (note: if you work for money, you are working class) now began to question the value of cars, wide-screen TVs, sports, clothing, and “good” neighborhoods. And if the poor of the world adopted Diogenes’s views on citizenship, who would fight our wars? Diogenes gets credit for coining the word “cosmopolitan,” which is usually taken to mean citizen of the world. People who travel the world, speak more than one language, eat varied cuisine, and are not, to put it simply, provincial, consider themselves cosmopolitan, but this is not what Diogenes meant. Diogenes considered himself a citizen of the universe with no political allegiance and without political rights. He was banished from his home for defacing currency or something, and he was what would now be described as a “man without a country.” Imagine everyone being that way (John Lennon thought it should be easy, if you try).

Examined rationally, as the Cynics would have us do, virtually nothing we hold dear has any intrinsic value. We spend our lives working for trifles while ignoring anything that make us genuinely happy. When Diogenes was told it is a bad thing to live, he said, “Not to live, but to live badly.” We can live well, but we may be thought mad.

* Diogenes Laertius says, “The following books are attributed to [Diogenes of Sinope]. The dialogues entitled the Cephalion; the Icthyas; the Jackdaw; the Leopard; the People of the Athenians; the Republic; one called Moral Art; one on Wealth; one on Love; the Theodorus; the Hypsias; the Aristarchus; one on Death; a volume of Letters; seven Tragedies, the Helen, the Thyestes, the Hercules, the Achilles, the Medea, the Chrysippus, and the Oedippus.”