How to Swim Against the Stream: On Diogenes

By Costica BradatanJanuary 14, 2023

How to Swim Against the Stream: On Diogenes
DIOGENES THE CYNIC once tried to enter the theater at the end of a performance, even as everybody else was leaving. When someone, puzzled, asked him why, Diogenes said: “This has been my practice all my life.” (This history is recounted by Laertius in Lives of the Eminent Philosophers, among many other stories starring Diogenes the Cynic.)

As with every Cynic “anecdote” (or chreia, as they called it in ancient Greece), several layers of meaning are buried inside.

There is, first, the notion of philosophizing as a live performance, which Diogenes embodied like few thinkers, ancient or modern. On this view, philosophy is not a purely theoretical affair, something to be thought out and formulated in impenetrable jargon, but rather a way of acting and being.

When he wanted to prove a philosophical point, Diogenes used not just his speech but his whole body, his sensuous presence in the world. To make an argument, you just have to make a move — sometimes literally.

When some philosopher was trying to prove, before a gullible audience, that “motion did not exist,” another story goes, Diogenes said not a word but “stood up and walked about” — the best possible counterargument most economically delivered.

On another occasion, he was conspicuously begging alms from a statue. Asked why, Diogenes answered: “To get practice in being turned down.” When your fellow humans are as cold as Athenian statues in winter, you can teach them something about charity by pretending to expect it from stone.

An important part of Diogenes’s performance was his strategic shamelessness. He did in public, gleefully and to great rhetorical effect, what most people go to great length to keep private: spitting, scratching, defecation, urination, masturbation. Not that Diogenes was particularly exhibitionistic, but he must have found it to be an effective strategy to mock his society’s customs and conventions and to prove their unnaturalness (a central tenet of the Cynic philosophy).

At a dinner attended by Diogenes, “some guests were throwing bones to him, as one would to a dog.” The gentlemen were apparently having a good time at the Cynic’s expense. Later that evening, “in the manner of a dog,” the story goes, the philosopher “urinated on the guests as he was leaving.” Be careful what metaphors you use for they may come to haunt you.

That we are still discussing the meaning of his scandalous deeds some 23 centuries later shows that Diogenes had a more serious point to make than merely to shock. Diogenes’s motivation may seem succès de scandale at first, but it turns out to be something more consequential.

In this respect, Diogenes is, unwittingly, the founder of a grand school of wise foolishness, with illustrious followers among Christian hermits, Sufi sheikhs, and Zen masters. When that Sufi “holy fool,” Nasreddin Hodja, was once riding his donkey backwards, and people were puzzled, his response seemed to be taken from Diogenes’s book: “It’s not that I am sitting on the donkey backwards; the donkey is facing the wrong way.”

By acting out his philosophy so expressively, Diogenes gained his place in the tradition of what Pierre Hadot called “philosophy as a way of life.” Ancient philosophy, thought Hadot, was not about the production and transmission of texts but rather about the inner transformation that students of philosophy underwent as they engaged with the ideas.

When a certain Hegesias asked Diogenes for one of his treatises, the Cynic responded: “What an ass you are, Hegesias! For you do not choose painted figs, but real ones; yet you neglect real training, and rush to read about it instead.”

Nothing has survived from Diogenes’s written output (assuming there was such a thing), which seems appropriate. Indeed, a Diogenes sans books exudes the same aura and melancholy beauty that attracts us to ancient statues with missing heads or limbs. There would be something suspicious, if not overtly fake, about an impeccably preserved ancient statue. A Diogenes whose complete works could fill a bookshelf would be similarly dubious. It’s precisely the absent part that’s so fulfilling here.

At a deeper level, what we come across in the theater-entering chreia is the figure of Diogenes the contrarian. Socrates had been a vigorous naysayer in his time, yet Diogenes outdid him. Nothing brought him more pleasure than doing the opposite of what everybody else was doing. No wonder that, asked once “what was the most beautiful thing in the world,” Diogenes replied: “Freedom of speech.”

In our age of unapologetic conformism and generalized herding, such a contrarian spirit may be the one thing that can save our lives — politically, culturally, intellectually, and spiritually. Contrarianism shows that there are other manners of acting and being in the world. In any society, some will have to go against the stream of pious lies.

We also see here the Cynic philosopher as a powerless figure. This is Diogenes the exile — a man without country, without rights and protections. After a coin-defacement scandal, in which his family seems to have been involved, Diogenes was banned from his native Sinope and had to spend the rest of his life in Athens and Corinth. He always acted as though he couldn’t care less. When someone reminded him of the scandal, he said: “But it’s thanks to that, you fool, that I became a philosopher!”

When asked where he was from, he proudly responded: “Cosmopolitēs” (“I am a citizen of the world”), possibly coining the word as he did so.

Yet another story tells us something more. For all his antics, Laertius writes, the Athenians still admired their resident contrarian. That’s why, “when a young fellow had broken Diogenes’ tub[,] they gave the boy a flogging and presented Diogenes with a new tub.” It is not hard to picture the philosopher as having become the object of public mockery, the butt of silly jokes, the easy target of late-night revelers — and even of Athenian boys showing signs of gratuitous cruelty. He was an always-ready scapegoat. For all his barking, Diogenes was defenseless.

Diogenes’s vulnerability is the vulnerability of philosophy itself, when properly done. It may put up a bold front and act as if it doesn’t care, but at its core, philosophy is as easy to break as his tub. And just as Diogenes’s defenselessness didn’t prevent him from engaging in risky acts of public pedagogy, neither does philosophy’s fragile constitution come in the way of its biting.


Costica Bradatan is the author, most recently, of In Praise of Failure: Four Lessons in Humility (Harvard University Press, 2023).


Featured image: Paul Klee. In the Kairouan Style, Transposed in a Moderate Way, 1914. Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Partial, fractional and promised gift of Janice and Henri Lazarof. Accessed November 11, 2022. 

LARB Contributor

Costica Bradatan is a professor of humanities in the Honors College at Texas Tech University in the United States and an honorary research professor of philosophy at University of Queensland in Australia. He is the author and editor of more than a dozen books, including Dying for Ideas: The Dangerous Lives of the Philosophers (Bloomsbury, paperback, 2018) and In Praise of Failure: Four Lessons in Humility (Harvard University Press, 2023). His work has been translated into more than 20 languages, including Dutch, Italian, Turkish, Chinese, Vietnamese, Arabic, and Farsi. Bradatan also writes book reviews, essays, and op-ed pieces for The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Times Literary Supplement, Aeon, The New Statesman, and other similar venues.


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