Socrates was a lightweight

The Oldie, August 2023

Plato once described the philosopher Diogenes as “Socrates gone mad”. That was quite a claim, since Socrates was already pretty eccentric. He had little time for sex, for example, and whenever he had an interesting thought, he would stand stock-still for hours, until he had worked out the implications. 

According to Diogenes, though, Socrates was a lightweight. He criticised him for occasionally wearing sandals instead of going barefoot, and for spending too much time with the rich and famous. Diogenes himself, who believed that people were unhappy because they bought into artificial conventions (marriage, for instance) and weighed themselves down with unnecessary possessions (sandals, for instance), dedicated himself to living authentically. This involved begging for food, sleeping in a large ceramic jar in the Athenian agora, and openly insulting the powerful.  

On one occasion, Alexander the Great, who was the most powerful man alive, came to pay his respects. “What can I do for you?” he asked. “You can take a step back,” the philosopher replied. “You’re blocking out the sun.” Alexander was impressed, remarking later that, if he wasn’t Alexander, he would be Diogenes. When he learned of this, Diogenes declared that, if he wasn’t Diogenes, he would still want to be Diogenes.  

This is just one of a collection of killer anecdotes about the founder of the movement that became known as Cynicism, after the Greek word for “doglike”. The point of the name was that Diogenes lived more like a dog than a human, masturbating and going to the loo in public, on the grounds that both were natural. The first achievement of the French historian Jean-Manuel Roubineau is to have seen that these stories, which are alternately shocking and hilarious, make the philosopher a terrific subject for a biography. His second is to have strung them together to create an account that, clocking in at just over 100 pages, is as terse and clear as its unsentimental subject could have wished.

A book so short inevitably leaves a few stones unturned. The author argues that dogs had a bad reputation in classical times, but doesn’t mention the loyal Argos in the Odyssey, who would have been an obvious counter-example. Beggars were the lowest of the low, but again the Odyssey provides a telling counter-example, which he omits. 

It’s strange, too, that Roubineau doesn’t find space to tell one of the best-known tales about Diogenes, namely that he used to wander around in broad daylight holding up a lamp. When asked what he was doing, he replied, “Searching for an honest man.” It seems to have been a strategy of the philosopher to behave oddly until someone commented, at which point he could whip out a one-liner. Once he walked around backwards until he was questioned. “You ask me this,” he replied, “who have spent your whole life walking in the wrong direction?” Another time, he knelt before a statue and begged. Why? “I’m just trying to get used to rejection.”

On the plus side, I was fascinated to learn that the practice of living in ceramic storage jars, which could be large enough for a man to stand up in, had begun in Athens during the dark days of the Peloponnesian War. By making his home in such a jar several decades later, Diogenes implied that he was himself at war—with absurd human conventions. 

Intriguingly, though, Roubineau points out several ways in which Diogenes, for all his extremity, was more conventional than he claimed. While rejecting marriage, he denounced adultery. Although he claimed to believe in the equality of the sexes, when he selected mythological examples of virtue, they tended to be male. 

When one of his followers asked him how to achieve fame, Diogenes replied, “By thinking about it as little as possible.” Depending on how you take this, it either suggested that he couldn’t care less about fame, or that he cared enormously. As we’ve seen, he actually devoted a lot of energy to drawing attention to himself.

As the book progresses, Diogenes emerges as an ambivalent hero for our times—a man who would have stirred up a storm on the social media site formerly known as Twitter, attracting millions of followers, while protesting his indifference to how many he had. In this respect, too, you might say, he was more conventional than his reputation suggests. Which poses the question: if Diogenes himself didn’t take his philosophy as far as it would go, might someone else? What would a Diogenes gone mad look like?