Diogenes the Dog: On Being a Classic Cynic

More than in any other philosopher of the Western world, some have seen in Diogenes the epitome of a long list of praiseworthy personal and intellectual traits and endowments: an absolute commitment to honesty, a remarkable independence of judgment, an unwavering decision to live a simple and unencumbered life, a steadfast devotion to self-sufficiency, an unparalleled attachment to freedom of speech, a healthy contempt for human stupidity and obfuscation, an unusual degree of intellectual lucidity, and, above all, a tremendous courage to live in accord with his convictions.1

And, yet, there are those like the arch-Conservative Peter Sloterdijk, who have seein Diogenes as “a dog-man, a philosopher, a good-for-nothing, a primitive hippie, and the original bohemian”-stands in first place on a long list of cynics who have undermined even the possibility of idealism.14 With his defiant attitude of negativism, argues Sloterdijk, the man who “pissed against the wind” has become the nihilistic standard bearer of those who promote a style of life akin to a malaise of culture, in which neither values nor aspirations have any meaning, and in which egoism and materialism reign supreme. As the archetype of the cynical man, therefore, Diogenes can be viewed as the source from which all sorts of cultural and ideological ills have sprung since his time.

As Luis Navia would remark: What truth and validity can there be in these disparate assertions and assessments of those who have either canonized Diogenes as a philosophical saint and extolled his value as a great philosopher, or condemned him as a deranged rascal, a worthless man, and a psychopath, and dismissed him as a pseudophilosopher? We might argue that one’s reaction to Diogenes, as happens in many situations, depends on one’s own frame of mind. Schopenhauer once remarked that one does not choose to appreciate a certain philosopher or a certain philosophical attitude, for the reverse is true: that appreciation is determined by the kind of person one is. It might be possible that in order to understand and appreciate the value of Diogenes as a philosopher, one may have to be a Cynic oneself or at least have certain Cynic tendencies. How can someone whose psychological predispositions and whose upbringing incline him to blindly accept all social norms and to deify the Establishment and the status quo, and who, as in the case of patriotic enthusiasts and religious zealots, cannot find fulfillment in life except as part of a group, discover any value in a man like Diogenes, who, partly on account of his character and the circumstances of his life, and partly because of certain philosophical influences, felt compelled to wage a relentless war against the human world that surrounded him, and found his fulfillment only in the shelter of his self-proclaimed independence?

After a lifetime of waging my own war against human stupidity and the humanistic system of philosophy and literature I’ll admit that Diogenes has always been one of my progenitors, a guiding light in a sea of darkness and apathy. A man who stood up to his own time and spoke truth to power, a man who did not cater to rank and privilege, whose life was exemplary in that he lived it as he chose without the constraint of State or Society to enchain him in conformity with its dictates. He was ironic, satiric, parodic, grotesque, and full of comic mischief, a complete abandonment of superfluities; an unwavering commitment to break asunder the fetters that, in the form of conventions and rules, tie and incapacitate human beings; an unquenchable thirst for personal freedom; the courage to despise rulers and governments; an indifference toward political affairs; an unwillingness to serve as a pawn in the wars manufactured and managed by the oligarchies; a life unattached to a wife and children; and a disdain for the market and financial preoccupations that entrap practically everybody. These are the values and attitudes I’ve lived by for most of my adult life. In the end as many a quip will relate one is born a Cynic rather than made, it’s a disposition of character not some natural right of the human in itself. To be a cynic is to step outside the conventions of one’s era and challenge them all, to be a contrarian whose only goal is to unmask the ignorance of belief and self-deceit which most humans live by. To realize we are all born into ideological traps, systems of deceit and hyperconformity that would rule our flesh and minds, our habits and thoughts, to break free of these local, national, and worldly powers which would imprison us is the life’s work of the Cynic.


  1. Luis E. Navia. Diogenes The Cynic: The War Against The World (Kindle Locations 146-150). Kindle Edition.

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