October 29, 2015

THE E’ER INSCRUTABLE | A Paean to Diogenes of Sinope

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“Le fanatisme en résulte, – tare capitale qui donne à l’homme le goût de l’efficacité, de la prophétie, de la terreur, – lèpre lyrique par laquelle il contamine les âmes, les soumet, les broie ou les exalte… N’y échappent que les sceptiques (ou les fainéants et les esthètes), parce qu’ils ne proposent rien, parce que – vrais bienfaiteurs de l’humanité – ils en détruisent les partis pris et en analysent le délire.” -Emil Cioran, Précis de Décomposition

Painting by Jules Bastien-Lepage

Painting by Jules Bastien-Lepage

Whenever I am asked the question of what precisely I want to accomplish with an interest in Greco-Roman Classics that I (hope to) pursue through my four years at Cornell, the nagging temptation in the back of my head is to respond with the concise declaration, “I want to live naked in a clay jar and eat nothing but octopus,” as the Ur-Cynic Diogenes of Sinope did. Frivolity and my aversion to the venerated hermit’s famous love of cold baths and the mollusk diet regime aside, I believe that one of the greatest, most salutary and yet utterly intangible influences of Hellenism can be found in his practiced self-abnegation and what James Warren dubbed an upfront “philosophy of protest.” Cornell can learn from him.

Diogenes’s efforts are devoid of the attention-seeking, precipitous lemming-mentality antics so prominent in the shriller patristic authors. They are devoid, moreover, of the modern conception of the term “Cynic,” meaning a sour, snarky and self-hating ersatz misanthropy. Therein lies his essential timelessness: Diogenes was a prophet of nothing — a man who offered neither commandments nor a ladder to enlightenment and of whom, despite his status as a prolific author, nothing remains to rival the stacks of garrulous papyri once piled high in Alexandria and Antioch.

The impulse to critical satire gave Diogenes’s life the ironic, flippantly gleeful quality of a contemporary satyr play. This same flippancy, matched in its extremity only by the abjectness of his poverty, pops out aggressively from a casual reading of his biography by the (unrelated) Diogenes Laërties. Diogenes balked not at defecation in public places, nor at bird-flipping, nor rhetorical emasculation, nor public masturbation, nor even (literally) spitting in the face of authority figures, unmoved by the pomp of Alexander the Great and his Diadochi cronies. This would reek of philosophical immaturity were it not enacted with as consistent an apparent ideology as it were. Drunkenness or an inborn love of rabble-rousing played no role in making him who he was: for Diogenes, the reputations, wealth and standards of decency demanded by his well-groomed Hellenic betters were costly airs that could only give the rot of their moral weaknesses a sickly sheen. Decency and articulation could not disguise the folly of property, social jostling and the affairs of state before the eyes of the gods.

One of the most astute analyses of Diogenes’s life and visceral works comes from Julian the Apostate, Rome’s last pagan Emperor, who lived nearly seven centuries after his death. In a celebrated Greek treatise entitled To The Uneducated Cynics, Julian rationally and with a genuine zeal chides the generation of pseudo-Cynics that sprung up like flies over the cadaverous, cultural exhaustion of the fourth century. These were men afflicted with a fetish for the outward trappings of the Cynic lifestyle — the weathered cap, entreatingly empty wallet, acerbic remarks and vagabond’s staff — but simultaneously loathed the introspective self-discipline and poverty demanded of them therein. This was a flabby, unthinking offshoot of what Diogenes preached; as much as the Ur-Cynic judged the world around him, he judged himself more, seeking to sink ever lower, ever further into a soiled, unassailable sainthood, tossing aside a bowl in his wallet when he saw a child drinking with cupped, bare hands.

Julian goes further: Cynicism, as practiced by Diogenes, is profoundly human, seeking human contact, but defiantly self-sufficient. Diogenes depended only on himself, his body hardened and tested beyond any athlete by his ordeals, his mind cleared of the frenetic bustle of a bourgeois society he cared nothing for and which cared nothing for him. The only standard is innate human reason, innate human codes of conduct, common to all and not the etiquette of the agora. What those are is to the individual to discover.

Cioran’s opening epigraph here becomes relevant: for every hellfire and brimstone rhetorician that emerges on the world stage, a small kernel of evil takes root. The best ideology is detached, not lapping up cheap platitudes of the folksy wisdom of the destitute or of the saintliness of the Kulturkampf, concerned not with the presumptuousness to call itself universal improvement. In a bastion of academics, Cioran’s admonition that the world needs more disciplined self-critics rings all the truer.

Never mind the prestige of degrees or the condescension of the casual intellectual rat race playing on repeat in every Cornellian’s inflated ego; sucking on the frigid barbecue sauce flavored teats of corrupted, expired Americana simply will not do! Leave prophecy, moralizing and secularized soothsaying to the flabby Jacobins, spectral missionaries and dry-heaving ideologues of yester- and tommorowyear! Give Diogenes a patch of sunlight and a good back-scratch and he shall go through streaking through the Library of Congress and all the hallowed halls of Democra-Palooza®!

“And [Diogenes] would wonder that the grammarians should investigate the ills of Odysseus, while they were ignorant of their own. Or that the musicians should tune the strings of the lyre, while leaving the dispositions of their own souls discordant; that the mathematicians should gaze at the sun and the moon, but overlook matters close at hand; that the orators should make a fuss about justice in their speeches, but never practise it…” -Diogenes Laërties, Lives of the Eminent Philosophers

Griffin Smith-Nichols is a freshman in the College of Arts and Sciences. Interested in studying Classics, he enjoys cultural criticism, cheap literature, the company of long-moribund civilizations and self-reference in the third person. The E’er Inscrutable appears on alternate Wednesdays this semester. He can be reached at [email protected].