Monday, June 11, 2018

Epictetus Discourses Book 3 Chapter 22 - the virtues of Diogenes the Cynic

Who doesn't love a good dog!  Especially an under-dog!  The greatest dog of all time was Diogenes.

Cynicism, as practiced by Diogenes, shocked people in the ancient world.  In today's society, he would be considered a homeless, loathed bum who would be waved off as mentally unstable or drug-addicted.  To give you a taste for Diogenes ...

"Diogenes was once invited to dinner by a wealthy man. During the evening, one of the guests became so outraged by Diogenes’ general behavior that he began to throw bones at him, calling him a “dog.” Whereupon Diogenes got  up, went to the guest, cocked up his leg and urinated on him."(source)

He lived in a barrel.

He pleasured himself in public.

He begged for food

He only wore a tunic.

And he was called a dog.  The name Cynic comes from ancient Greece, meaning 'dog-like'.


That is the burning question and Epictetus reveals the answer.  Epictetus admired Diogenes and often used Diogenes' as a good example of Stoic behavior.

Epictetus was quick to point out that wearing nothing but a tunic, sleeping on the ground, not shaving, begging - all these behaviors - do not make one a Cynic.  It goes deeper.

Epictetus begins to explain why Diogenes acted the way he did; and in so doing, he teaches us Stoicism too.

"You have to set a different example with your behavior.  No more blaming God or man. Suspend desire completely, train aversion only on things under your control. Banish anger, rage, jealousy and pity. Be indifferent to women, fame, boys and tempting foods.  Other people indulge in these things protected by walls or the gloom of night. They have many ways of hiding; they can lock the gate and station someone outside their chamber: ‘If anyone comes, tell them, “The master’s out,” or, “He’s occupied.”’  The Cynic, in contrast, only has his honour to protect him. Without it he will be exposed to shame – naked, and out of doors. Honour is his house, his gate, his guards, his cloak of darkness." (see verse 12-15)

Whereas some will hide behind walls to indulge in pleasure, Diogenes, other the other hand, intends to put as little between him and the rest of the world.  This is extreme transparency.  There is no shame, fear, anxiety.  He bares (and bears) all.  The Cynic man is "the man of the open air."  The only medium, in the Cynic's art, is his mind - nothing else.  The start of the Cynic's duty is to train the mind; and so it is with Stoicism too.

Observers may scoff at the idea of possessing as little as possible and wonder how one can be content with nothing.  Diogenes would reply, "Look at me, I have no home, no city, no property, no slave; I sleep on the ground; I haven't a wife or children, no officer's quarters - just earth and sky, and one lousy cloak.  What more do I need?  I am cheerful, I am tranquil and I am free.  You've never seen me fail to get what I want, or get what I try to avoid.  I have never been angry with God or another human being; I've never yelled at anyone.  Have you ever seen me with a sad expression?  The people before whom you bow and tremble - when I meet them, I treat them as if they were slaves.  In fact, whenever they see me, they all without exception think that they are in the presence of their lord and master."  (verses 45-49)

Diogenes contrasted with those who sought contentment and happiness in food, women, possessions or fame.  He further contrasted with people who would be upset and angry when they did not get what they wished or when things did not go their way.

While others sought the thrills of watching athletes compete, Diogenes, who was ill with fever, would yell at them as they passed, "Idiots, where are you going in such a hurry?  You are going a great distance to see those damned athletes complete; why not stop a bit to see a man do combat with illness?" (verse 59).

Later on, Epictetus describes how Diogenes wasn't some ordinary bum; but rather a person with a fit body and an attitude of a gentleman: "the Cynic's body should be in good shape, since his philosophy will not carry as much conviction coming from someone pale and sickly.  He not only needs to show his qualities of soul in order to convince ordinary people that it is possible to be a gentleman without the material goods they usually admire, he also has to prove, with his physique, that his simple, frugal life outdoors is wholesome ... his very ruggedness should be a clean and pleasant kind." (verses 86-89)

Equal to his fit body, should be his wits and sharpness, "otherwise he's just a boring windbag" (verse 90).

Lastly, his endurance to physical and verbal abuse mush be unmatched.  Epictetus uses the example of a block of wood, describing someone who can endure "insults or hits" (verse 100); whereas Marcus Aurelius uses the "rocky headland" as an example of unwavering endurance to brutality (see Meditations Book 4 Chapter 49).

In summary, Epictetus attempted to describe, to his students, the Herculean  effort it would require to embrace the Cynic life.  He even begged them to "take some time to judge [their] aptitude" for becoming a Cynic.  It is not for the faint in heart, rather, it is all out war.

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