I’m still agonising over a permanent logo for this website but am clear that I want to incorporate Diogenes' barrel as the central image. I’m also still struggling to find my voice, being new to this form of discourse and not yet entirely comfortable with it as means of communication. At least with email you know the destination, and with traditional publishing you go through a rigorous editing process. That aside, I want to acknowledge a debt to Yiannis Gabriel and Luis Navia for their tireless support and advice in writing my ‘history’ of Cynicism and getting to grips with some of the interpretations for the chapter on the ancient Greeks. The antics and adventures of Diogenes of Sinope, not least his choice of an earthenware wine vat as a mobile home, provided the springboard for a thorougoing re-evaluation of this much misunderstood philosophy, and many hours of pleasure, amusement and suffering in equal measure.
It was Yiannis who pointed out that the familiar images of Diogenes in a wooden barrel where an unlikely, modern interpretation of the vessels that would have been used to store wine at the time Diogenes set up home; providing me with the Greek and English words that are now aiding me in my search for a suitable image (variously spelt πιθος πιθαρι, πυθος πυθαρι, pithos, pythos or pythari).
Characteristically, the Cynics turned to the habits of lower animals as a source of rhetoric for the most natural way to live. Diogenes' lifestyle, it is said, was inspired by watching a mouse running about: not looking for a place to lie down in, not afraid of the dark, not seeking any of the things which we consider to be dainties. From such observations Diogenes discovered the means of adapting himself to circumstances, and it is from his observation of a snail that his choice of dwelling is said to have been inspired. The ability to roll one’s home around to afford different views, and turn it to protect oneself from wind and rain does seem a very ingenious choice of shelter.
The term Cynic itself is derived from the Greek kynicos, the adjectival form of the noun for dog and is a literal reference to dog-like appearance and behaviour: fornicating and defecating in public, scavenging for scraps of food, etc. Diogenes was himself nicknamed ‘the Dog’ because of his growling, snapping demeanour. In his indifference to the waste of his own body, Diogenes marks himself out from the pretensions of human beings’ sham sophistication. He lays bare his own mortality, and in so doing becomes the living embodiment of the mortality and fragility of people in general. He reinforces his own position on the margins of society, a society which in turn rejects his Cynic lifestyle as base and inhuman in order to reinforce its own higher level of functioning. When Diogenes pisses, farts, defecates and masturbates in public, he is doing no more than a ridiculing the artificial conventions of society around him. Peter Sloterdijk gets straight to the point of this whole issue regarding the Cynics’ relationship to human waste:
“As children of an anal culture, we all have a more or less disturbed relation to our own shit . . . The relationship that is drummed into people with regard to their own excretions provides the model for their behaviour with all sorts of refuse in their lives . . . Diogenes is the only Western philosopher who we know consciously and publicly performed his animal business . . . Those who do not want to admit that they produce refuse . . . risk suffocating one day in their own shit.”
Or as Jacques Lacan put it:
“The characteristic of a human being is that - and this is very much in contrast with other animals - he doesn’t know what to do with his shit. . . . Occupying an uncertain and troubling space between a nature that is never surpassed and a culture that is never closed off, shit defines civilisation.”
Abjection is of course a human construct. Those who transgress their own rules of civilized behaviour act in ways that animals never could. And yet, paradoxically, animals have become the symbol for that which humans have striven to eject from their own nature. And so for the Cynics, their simple lifestyle protected them and removed any possibility of an Icarian collapse as their asceticism left them with nowhere to fall. Diogenes’ pupil Crates even considered Diogenes tub a luxury. Living an ascetic life style removed the possibility of destitution because the Cynic had already cast themself down out of a positive choice of lifestyle.
Clearly I’m not suggesting here that the answer to our current difficulties would be resolved by us all abandoning our current lifestyles and going off to live in barrels; for starters we do not all enjoy a Mediterranian climate. But we ignore the wisdom of the ancients at our peril. The world’s bankers would have done well to consider the lesson of Icarus. For the spectacular collapse of the god of free market economics in 2008 that has turned the lives of many of us upside down was already predicted by those much wiser than ourselves over 2,000 years ago (original 'occupation', 4th century b.c.).