June 20, 2021 13 min read

Methodological preamble

This article is based on a comparison of the two texts "Diatribe III.22 On Cynicism" by Epictetus "Lives and Opinions of Eminent Philosophers", 6th book by Diogenes Laertios (this is the chronicler Diogenes and not the Cynic Diogenes of Sinope). From a methodological point of view, no source criticism is practiced in the following, but the scriptures are taken at their word (sola scriptura).

Representation of the Cynics by Diogenes Laertios

In the presentation of Cynicism in Diogenes Laertios I would like to refer primarily to the described traditions of Antisthenes, the formal founder of Cynicism, his most important student and probably best known representative of Cynicism, Diogenes of Sinope, as well as his contemporary, Krates.

Misanthropy among the Cynics

Conspicuous in Diogenes Laertios' portrayal are a certain form of misanthropy of the Cynics, their exclusivity, the inclination to asceticism, the question of eudaemonia, the eloquence, the attitude to the female sex and to one's own body, lust, the gods, as well as their inclination to cosmopolitanism. The work in the following is also oriented on the points mentioned: Already the deliberate comparison of Diogenes of Sinope with a dog, which stems from the fact that already Antisthenes, his teacher, was simply called an accomplished dog (Haplokyon), as handed down by Diogenes Laertios, shows the demarcation to man chosen by the Cynics. Thus, it is ultimately reported of Diogenes of Sinope: "He was particularly strong in making known his contempt to others.", so that he also did not orient himself to moral or legal norms, but strove to conform to the law of nature. For example, he is said to have occasionally raised his middle finger at his fellow human beings or even spat at them. His maxim to live according to nature is probably also the origin of the bizarre traditions about public masturbation or eating food in the marketplace. Diogenes of Sinope also seemed to distinguish between people of higher and lower quality, which is perhaps best illustrated by the following anecdote: "Once he cried aloud, 'Heda, people,' and when they ran up, he worked them with his stick, saying, 'People I called, not filth.'" Thus he distinguished between the rabble and the people, which must not remain inexplicable, after all Diogenes of Sinope himself knew the status of the free, as well as that of the slave. His mockery was universal, however, and did not even stop at the greats of his contemporaries, such as Plato. Thus, one can definitely see a misanthropic, or at least a separative intention of Diogenes of Sinope, which is portrayed in Diogenes Laertios. The former was certainly a radical loner, but he was by no means completely closed to access to other people. Nevertheless, his interpersonal dealings come across as histrionic, cynical, and dismissive, which in turn highlights the exclusivity of Cynicism as depicted in Diogenes Laertios.

Material minimalism

Another point is the presentation of the material asceticism of the Cynics. Already Antisthenes is said to have carried only a stick and a cross-bag, which Diogenes tried to surpass by throwing away even his cup when he had observed a child drinking from his folded palms; analogously he proceeded with his bowl. He is also said to have spent most of his life in the open air, and when asked for an ephod, he is said to have folded his cloak, as Antisthenes had advised him to do. He is even said to have begged a statue for a gift in order to practice the art of having something knocked off. Now this clearly shows the tendency to self-sufficiency, the principle of the Cynics to increase their material asceticism to a form of autarky. That possessions and dependence or fame are by no means paths to eudaemonia for the Cynics manifests itself expressively in the following quotation: "When one praised Callisthenes happily and said that he led a life of opulence and splendor with Alexander, he [Diogenes of Sinope] replied: 'The unfortunate one who has to be commanded to every meal only by Alexander.'" 

Happiness as a minor matter

The question of happiness is almost completely left out of Diogenes Laertios' account. The latter summarizes that the Cynics put as a "final goal" a virtuous life, but this does not yet imply in the same train the happiness of man, as this will only happen with the Stoics. The similarity of the two schools had however already Diogenes Laertios in the view. Lust also has no value according to Antisthenes, and he is reported to have said that he would rather be mad than succumb to lust. Diogenes of Sinope expands on this by postulating that hostility to lust itself is the highest lust to be experienced. Despite all the negative demands of what one should not do, the content of the philosophy of the Cynics remains limited to the discipline of ethics; they stay away from the arts and the other sciences. In the end, concerning happiness there remains only a saying of Antisthenes, who "to the question what is the most blissful thing among men, said [...]: 'To die in happiness.'" Basically, even the happiness in life is irrelevant for the Cynics, the only thing that has a value is the virtuous life, which, however, must not be limited to the lecture or disputing, but quite the opposite only in the application, the virtuous deed finds its meaning.

Furthermore, the eloquence of the Cynics, which was raised to an art form and which Diogenes Laertios also appreciates, is striking, which can perhaps be shown most clearly in the descriptions of the sale of Diogenes of Sinope as a slave. He as well as Epictetus thus also knew the socially isolated form of existence of a slave from their own biography. Here he let call out namely whether one would be there, who would like to buy a master, whereby nevertheless he should be sold as a slave. To seemingly every question, they have an aphoristic, to the point answer, even if this also partly seems somewhat morbid and dismissive. However, as already shown, the Cynic sect of Diogenes Laertios is a highly exclusive one, to which only a few single and special individuals can join.

The particularly harsh rhetoric of the Cynics

Their cynical mockery of their fellow citizens seems to be able to maintain them exactly in this status and anyway their extremely peculiar behavior, their fundamental anti-attitude, must have had an extremely alienating effect, especially in the Athenian polis, which was actually oriented towards ideals of unity and community. Also the Greek virtue concept of the Areté (ἀρετή), can hardly be coincided with the ideas of the Cynics although Antisthenes took up the understanding of virtue of his teacher Socrates and added his own ideas. He believed that the arete was teachable, but that it consisted in action and therefore did not require many words; theoretical knowledge was not important. The arete was not a privilege of the nobility, but the true nobles were the virtuous. We see in Diogenes, of course, that this intensifies, as his particularly harsh words criticize above all the nobility, which pretends to be virtuous but in reality indulges in (material) vices. 

The body must not be despised

Likewise, the reference to one's own body in Diogenes of Sinope is striking and worthy of description. Training in virtue is supposed to take place on both the mental and physical levels, here once more adopting the original viewpoint of Antisthenes. What he means by "taking care" of the body is more reminiscent of Nietzsche's winged words, namely that "what does not kill you makes you stronger." Both mental and physical toughening, then, is what Diogenes of Sinope sees as the essence of virtue.

Diogenes of Sinope further states, that one should equip oneself in life either with brains or a noose, which expresses a rather anti-emotional attitude of the Cynics and can be grasped as perhaps the first form of Stoic apathy, for, as Diogenes of Sinope says, they are good-for-nothings who serve their desires and that refraining from dealing with the hetaerae has a much greater benefit than uniting with the very same. An exception to this point of view is certainly the Cynic Krates, probably a disciple of Diogenes of Sinope, who had a marriage with his philosophical follower Hipparchia without having to reject the Cynic ideals. Diogenes of Sinope, on the other hand, describes love as an occupation for idlers and, on the other hand, virtuous men as images of the gods. On the last point, one also recognizes the polytheistic faith of the Cynics and that the accusation of them being faithless and mocking the gods is not justified. Diogenes of Sinope also knows how to cleverly counter this accusation by replying in a question that he could not be unbelieving at all, since he considers his opponent to be an enemy of the gods himself. Diogenes Laertios, however, writes that other authors would attribute this statement to Theodoros.

Diogenes and Alexander the Great

Cosmopolitanism among the Cynics

As a last point, the identification of the Cynics with the cosmopolitan should be treated here, as what Diogenes of Sinope also literally calls himself. Krates also joins this by answering the question of Alexander the Great, if he sees his hometown to be rebuilt, "What for? For who knows, soon another Alexander will come and destroy it." He, on the other hand, is a fellow citizen of Diogenes, his fatherland the glory contempt and poverty. To the Cynics, then, a sense of home and belonging to the state seem to be mere accidences, or to use a Stoic term: Adiaphorisms, which in themselves have no value. This attitude is also fundamentally opposed to the attitude of the population of a classical city-state, with which, however, the Cynics know how to distinguish themselves, as well as to immunize themselves. The thought of the cosmopolitanism carries itself finally further up to the younger Stoa, thus up to Marc Aurel.

The representation of the Cynics in Diogenes Laertios can be summarized in the words of Diogenes of Sinope, when the following saying is attributed to him: "To fate [...] I oppose courage, to the law nature, to passion reason." According to Diogenes Laertios, it was already Antisthenes who, in addition to Cynicism, laid the intellectual foundation for the Stoa. Finally, from the above quotation, the concepts of autarky and apathy can also be gleaned. On the other hand, one cannot speak of a philosophical system with the Cynics; only the Stoics formalized this certain kind of ethics. One should keep in mind, however, that the founder of the Stoic school, Zenon, had also listened to Krates.

Epictetus' depiction of Cynicism

Let us now contrast this description with the description of Cynicism in Epictetus. Here I will proceed as follows: First, I will present the reference to the world of the gods in Epictetus' conception of Cynicism; then, I will describe the treatment of fellow human beings, after which I will render Epictetus' Cynic view of asceticism, freedom, eudaemonia, the body and lust. Subsequently, I will compare the opinion of Epictetus with the account of Diogenes Laertios and point out similarities, but above all the fundamental differences.

First of all, Epictetus' strong emphasis on the divine approval, yes, the chosenness, the divine mission of the Cynic as a basic condition to integrate the philosophy of the Cynics in one's own life; - otherwise, one would only expose oneself to public ridicule. Thus, in Epictetus, the Cynic is even called the "apostle of true freedom." Furthermore, the formulation of a monotheistic god (Zeus) stands out in Epictetus' accounts. Likewise, it is a prerequisite that the soul and the whole way of life be purified before venturing to become a Cynic. One sees here that there is a kind of initiation rite in Epictetus, the Cynic himself is surrounded by a divine aura. One should first test oneself whether one has what it takes to live according to the Cynic ideas, which certainly expresses the exclusivity of this movement.

In dealing with people, the Cynic should completely detach his personal affairs from his own will. Also, he should not quarrel with God or any other person, offend them or resent them. For, as Epictetus writes, it is "indeed the tricky thing that is inseparable from the profession of the Cynic: he must allow himself to be kicked like a dog, and under the kicks he must also love the very ones who kick him, like a father of all, like a brother!" Thus, the Cynic is granted a completely passive moment in interpersonal intercourse, which is why patience is demanded in an extreme form by Epictetus for his endurance of reality.

Regarding asceticism, Epictetus can state that the Cynic must not desire anything at all, neither possessions, nor fame, nor family or fatherland. The idea of self-sufficiency is also in the foreground here. He should also free himself from the emotions in order to make himself untouchable in case of insults and mistreatment of his fellow men. The principle of apathy is thus also found formulated in Epictetus. This is what constitutes the freedom of the cynic, that he becomes unreachable by his fellow men, that he has no everyday worries or emotions to deal with. This freedom, which is composed of inner purity and outer independence, is now equated by Epictetus with lasting happiness, eudaemonia.

To tell of this state, to enlighten men about it, is the profession of the Cynic. Their method and their proof for it is their own life, that they lead just not in misery, but in leisure and energy. That is why things like the civil service do not concern the Cynic, for they rule in a realm of their own, which is much more glorious than that which is always before the eyes of every man. The common good cannot be achieved by political measures, but must be sought where the fewest look: within themselves. Thus, introspection replaces external mechanisms of supposedly happy living, which are brought in from the outside and are only superimposed.

The evaluation of physical training is quite contradictory in Epictetus. On the one hand, he has this to say about it: "The wretched body is none of my business. Its limbs are none of my business. Death? May it come when it will, be it for the whole man or one of his limbs!" On the other hand, besides verbal repartee, he presupposes a certain physical strength and charisma of the Cynic, for if he appears weak and soiled, he will only arouse pity and disgust. In this case, however, he cannot be taken seriously by his fellow men and cannot pursue his profession of moral vigilance and conviction with sufficient vigor.

Interesting here is the tradition that Epictetus himself is said to have been lame, since his master, when he was still a slave, is said to have crushed one of his legs. With Epictetus, the Cynic is also not ostensibly responsible for his personal salvation, but for the entire common good, which is why he has no time or patience left for such things as women, marriage or family. He asks how a man who subordinates his life to such a high goal, the service of the common good, could have any muse at all for such trivialities. Also, he says, his actions are much more valuable than those who beget children and strive only for closer family ties. Nevertheless, the marriage of Krates with Hipparchia is considered an exception. Epictetus uses in this matter several times the comparison that the Cynic has in all people his brothers and sisters, that he stands in a family state with the whole world and thus again works in his higher realm, a completely different level of abstraction.  

Commonality and differences of the two conceptions

So let us note the similarities and differences of the conceptions of Cynicism in Diogens Laertios and in Epictetus. First of all, the emphasis on the individual and the idea of exclusivity is striking, to which the human being has to bring along certain skills in order to become a Cynic at all. Epictetus probably aptly states that no one can be born a Cynic. Socialization influences and personal imprinting probably play a certain role, in the always conscious decision for Cynicism. Also shining through is what Wilhelm Capelle called "poor man's philosophy", after all, the philosophers treated came from slavery and if they did not (such as Hipparchia), it was a fundamental premise to choose poverty. In Epictetus, the divine slogan of the Cynic is added, a component nowhere to be found in Diogenes Laertios. Likewise, these differ in the formulation of polytheism (Laertios) and monotheism (Epictetus). The specific unworldliness of the Cynics is virtually lifted into the metaphysical in Epictetus, for according to him, they rule in a completely different realm, a much more glorious one, while in the earthly world they seem to function only as apostles of a higher truth.
What still emerges as misanthropic and cynical behavior in Diogenes Laertios' dealings with fellow human beings in the Cynics described, is completely turned into the opposite in Epictetus, into a principle of philanthropy, because the Cynic, according to his conception, must not do any harm to any other human being or even to God. While Diogenes of Sinope does not let himself be stopped from physically as well as verbally attacking his fellow men, Epictetus focuses on the moment of passively enduring possible misery. The stoic image of the imperturbable clearly emerges here.

Epictetus' language is clearly colored by Cynicism, and yet he tries to integrate Cynic philosophy into Stoic philosophy. In doing so, he must cut back on the radicalism of the original Cynicism as it is still described in Diogenes Laertios. Also, the educator thought of the Cynic is much more emphasized in Epictetus than in Diogenes Laertios. The Cynics are described in the latter much more as a small, isolated, and elitist community, whereas in Epictetus the Cynic's watchword becomes his profession of convincing others of virtue. In Diogenes Laertios, it seems that the Cynics are rather unsystematic, fundamental doubters. Their behavior seems almost anarchistic, as they seem to be constantly intent on polemics and contentiousness, whereas in Epictetus the whole subject takes on a much more systematic character. In a certain way, he "convolutes" the philosophy of the Cynics by prescribing guidelines and modes of behavior. The misology of the Cynics in Diogenes Laertios is again led back to the Logos in Epictetus. This need not be surprising, however; after all, he formulates his views in a manual for happy action; mere anecdotes or doxographies would not be enough for him to do so.

In both concepts the principle of apathy and autarky can be recognized, however, only in Epictetus the consequence of the two, the ataraxia, emerges clearly. Both concepts reject the orientation of life based on affects, as well as they despise material possessions and striving for fame, status and family and devote themselves solely to ethical discipline, which is even more focused in the account of Diogenes Laertios than in Epictetus, but this is only in the latter, who sometimes also speaks of a purification of the soul, that virtuous life, which becomes directly one with freedom and happiness. Here, too, the clear Stoic influence in Epictetus is recognizable. The emphasis on the ethical deed is in Epictetus just as secondary to the ethical attitude as Diogenes Laertios wants to bring this deed to the fore through his described philosophers. In short, we can summarize that the idea of radical self-sufficiency was lived in practice by the early Cynics and later formalized as a theoretical doctrine for the Stoics via Epictetus. 

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