Cynic Stories

I'm presently retired, and when people ask me what I spend my time doing, I tell them that I take care of my family and study the classics. They generally assume that the classics are stuffy and boring and that I am, too; but one of the reasons the classics are so charming is that they're funny! There is quite a cast of characters, all of them bombastic; and many, many amusing stories are told about them. This page contains some retellings of these stories. All are based on genuine sources (some of them of dubious authenticity), though I have taken some artistic license (mainly in combining several anecdotes together to form a story).

The aesthete, Alcibiades, once said, "Socrates, you are just like those troll-shaped cabinets they sell in shops which, when opened, have pretty little pictures of the gods inside. This is because—and please don't be offended when I say so—you look like a troll, act like a troll, and even bewitch people like a troll; but if one but looks within you, ah! what they see!—such beauty you hide within your coarse exterior!"

Critobulus once said to Socrates, "We beautiful people have a right to be proud of this fact, that whereas the strong man must get the good things of his desire by toil, and the brave man by adventure, and the wise man by his eloquence, the beautiful person can attain all his ends without doing anything at all."

Socrates, his devoted student Antisthenes, and friends of theirs are at a drinking party and the hour is getting on. Socrates, who was very ugly, had just failed to win a mock bet that he was the most handsome man present. Socrates turns the discussion to Love and, going around the room, notes that everyone present has been stricken by His arrows. Finally, he turns to Antisthenes, who is a bachelor, and says, "Are you the only person, Antisthenes, who is in love with no one?"

"Certainly not!" he replied, "I am madly in love—with you."

Socrates, pretending to be coquettish, bantered: "Oh, don't pester me just now, can't you see I'm busy?"

"Don't think I can't see right through you!" Antisthenes rejoined, "You're always doing something like this: at one time you refuse to see me because of your 'divine sign,' at another because you're busy lecturing about something or other!"

"Please don't beat me, Antisthenes," implored Socrates, "I'll gladly endure any other punishment from you. But," he went on, "we should keep your love a secret, because you only love me for my body." (Socrates then proceeds to lecture at great length about Platonic love.)

Diogenes was a native of Sinope in Asia Minor, the son of a money-changer. He was a very ambitious young man, and consulted the oracle of Delphi on what he should do to become famous. "Debase the currency," the oracle said. The young man returned home and did so, being swiftly discovered and sent into exile. He ended up in Athens, studied philosophy with Antisthenes, and in time became as notorious for his scandalous wit as Plato was famous for his scholarly wisdom, thus proving the oracle correct.

Years later, a traveler passing through Athens recognized Diogenes from his youth and berated him for his criminal behavior. "You fool," Diogenes replied, "don't you understand that is what made me a philosopher?"

When begging, Diogenes once received a fresh loaf of bread. He dumped the wheat kernels he had previously received out of his begging bowl, saying to them, "Stranger, make way for the king!"

Diogenes made a point of living with as little as possible, and had, after much experimentation, finally whittled his possessions down to a cloak, a staff, and a bowl. One day as he was going to a fountain to get some water, he saw a boy drinking from it with his hands. Diogenes lamented, "All this effort, to be beaten by a child!" and smashed the bowl.

True to his wealthy upbringing, Plato was fond of luxury. Diogenes, on the other hand, eschewed all possessions, following Socrates when he said that "the gods need nothing, so the one who is most like them is the one whose needs are fewest." After years of experimentation, he had settled on a cloak and staff, a coarse imitation of Heracles' lion skin and club.

An admirer of Plato's had given him a fine cape, and he wore it as he showed some guests around town. Diogenes spotted them in a marketplace, and tore the cloak off of Plato, and stomped it into the dirty street. "Thus I trample on the empty pride of Plato!" he shouted, to the laughter of those around.

Plato answered him patiently, "Yes, Diogenes, and how proud you are of it."

Plato and his students, in working out his Theory of Forms, would spend a lot of time trying to determine how many categories it takes to distinguish one type of sensible thing from another, in an effort to see if one can determine just how many Forms were needed to explain the things we see in the world. After much refinement, Plato finally settled upon a definition of man that required only three categories: "Man is an animal which has two legs and is featherless." He was much praised for the definition.

This didn't sit well with Diogenes, who considered it a pointless waste of time. He took a chicken, plucked it, and brought it to the Academy, shouting, "Behold, Plato, I have found your man for you!"

Plato quietly revised his definition to include "...and has broad, flat nails."

Usually, Diogenes was in desperate want of food, but he would nonetheless use this as a tool of criticism. Once, he asked Plato for a fig, received an entire amphora of them, and said, "Why should I expect otherwise from Plato, who would use a thousand words when a few would do?"

Plato was wise to this, though. On another occasion, with great solemnity, Diogenes offered Plato a fig. Plato figured that Diogenes expected him to refuse it and had a witticism prepared, so he said, "Thank you, I will take your fig, and your joke, too."

Diogenes was fond of auditing Plato's lectures at the Academy, not so much as a student, but as a heckler. On one occasion, Plato was discoursing on the topic of the Ideas, discussing "tableness" and "cupness" and the like. Diogenes interrupted him and said, "But Plato! I can see a table and a cup, but I can't see 'tableness' and 'cupness.'"

Plato replied, "Well, while any given instance of an Idea is visible to the senses, the Idea itself is visible only to the intellect. So what you have said is natural enough, since while you have eyes, alas! you have no brain."

Later in life, Diogenes grew tired of the stubborn Athenians and decided to find someplace where his wisdom would be better-heeded; but the ship he was sailing on was set upon by pirates, and he was captured and sold into slavery. The slave-trader asked Diogenes what he was good at. "I govern men." The slave-trader laughed and said, "What, do you think people want to buy a master rather than a slave?"

But it turned out that Diogenes was proven correct, since he was purchased by a man named Xeniades who was looking for a teacher for his children. The children started taking after Diogenes' coarse manner, but even so, Xeniades became fiercely fond of him since his children grew to be of outstanding character. Diogenes must have been satisfied, too, since when some of his disciples finally learned of his whereabouts and attempted to ransom him, he told them, "I cannot be ransomed, since I am no slave: after all, it is the lot of a slave to be in constant fear, but I have no fear of Xeniades; rather, he is afraid of me!"

Xeniades bragged of Diogenes to his friends, and one of these—a wealthy money-changer—had a slave named Monimus. Monimus was constantly overhearing Xeniades speaking of Diogenes, and became fascinated and determined to learn from the man himself. But this was impossible as a household slave, so he pretended to be insane until his master finally discarded him. Monimus immediately went to study under Diogenes, and in time under Diogenes' pupil, Crates.

One day, the former master saw Monimus following Crates around—both sane, of course, but homeless and living lives of utter simplicity—and he said to himself, "Oh dear, he's even crazier than I thought!"

Plato's interests were diverse, but perhaps the one he is best remembered for is his longstanding political utopianism: his longest and most-read dialogues concern the state and how carefully-crafted laws might improve its citizenry. Plato's great rival, Diogenes the Cynic, instead taught the opposite: that one should withdraw from not only politics but all cultural norms, adhering to no laws but Nature's.

Plato never involved himself in Athens' politics—perhaps unsurprisingly, Plato's wish for a "philosopher king" didn't fly in a democracy—but later in life he became involved in the politics of Syracuse. Syracuse was one of the jewels of the Hellenic world, rivaling Athens in size, wealth, and beauty—but, notably, was ruled by a tyrant, Dionysius I.

Dionysius had heard of the great fame of Plato and invited him to Sicily: Plato, noble-born and always happy to feast with kings, agreed. It seems the two did not hit it off, however: Plato kinda sorta insinuated that, without virtue, Dionysius would never become a true king; and, of course, the king kinda sorta answered that, without a head, Plato would never become an old dotard. As it happened, though, the king's brother-in-law, Dion, had taken a liking to Plato and managed to stay the execution. Plato was instead sold into slavery, but a friend happened to be at the auction and bought Plato for a small fortune and sent him back to Athens.

Not long after this, Diogenes, sniffing about, came upon a pensive-looking Plato in an upscale restaurant. "Oh, Plato," he barked, "you don't seem to be enjoying yourself. After dining in Sicily, are Athenian olives not good enough for you?" (By "Athenian olives," Diogenes was apparently referring to Athens' home-grown democracy.) Plato didn't catch Diogenes' meaning, so he motioned to the plate and said, "You're welcome to have some." To drive his point home, Diogenes stuffed the whole plateful in his mouth. Plato exclaimed, "I said some, Diogenes, not all!" but the rascally dog merely winked and wandered off.

This wasn't the end of Plato's political involvement in Syracuse, however. Dionysius died and his son, Dionysius II, took the throne, but he was as much a tyrant as his father, and moreover dissolute and incompetant. Dion remained an advisor, and, as I said, had taken a liking to Plato; he invited him back to Syracuse in order to teach his nephew and hopefully moderate his behavior. Plato did so, but his proposals to rewrite the city's laws made Dionysius suspicious of his uncle's motives: he imprisoned Plato and sent Dion into exile. In retaliation, Dion formed an army and conquered Sicily. He freed Plato and sent him home, but proved to be no better of a ruler than Dionysius was—in fact, he was soon assassinated and the throne was usurped by Callippus, another of Plato's disciples.

Back in Athens, Diogenes had scavenged some wild vegetables to make a coarse supper of, and was washing them in a public fountain, when Plato came by and said to him, "You know, Diogenes, if you made friends of the rich, instead of enemies, you wouldn't need to wash vegetables." Diogenes answered him, "Yes, Plato, but if you had been washing vegetables, you wouldn't have languished in prison."

Eventually, Dionysius regained his throne. Plato sailed a third time to Syracuse, hoping to make some amends and moderate the tyrant's renewed cruelty, but he returned home disappointed. And for all his hopes and idealism, what had he accomplished? Twenty years of chaos for the poor men and women of Sicily.

In the weeks that followed, as Plato pondered all of this, a letter arrived for him from Corinth. Plato glanced at the address, which read, "Diogenes to Plato the Sage." Plato sighed; thought, "I didn't know dogs could write;" and opened the letter.

It read, simply, "I told you so."

One day, Diogenes was sitting at a favored haunt and Alexander the Great, then in Corinth and aware of the exploits of the notorious Cynic, came to offer his respects. Standing before Diogenes and casting a shadow over him, Alexander said, "I am Alexander, the great king."

Diogenes looked up and replied, "I am Diogenes, the dog."

"Why are you a dog?"

"Because I fawn upon those who give me anything, and bark at those who give me nothing."

Desiring the former, or perhaps wishing to put Diogenes to the test, Alexander said, "Very well, then. Ask any favor of me you please, and it shall be given."

"I ask, O great king, that you move out of my sun."

Surprised, Alexander stepped aside so that his shadow fell elsewhere. He regarded the indigent man before him. "You don't fear me?"


"Why not?"

"Are you a good king or an evil tyrant?"

"A good king, of course."

"Why would anyone fear what is good?"

Alexander laughed. Turning to his retinue, he said, "If I were not Alexander, I should be Diogenes."

Diogenes replied, "And if I were not Diogenes, I should be Alexander."

Indeed, it seems the lives of these two great men were linked in some strange way, as it is said that they died on the same day, though some fifteen hundred miles apart.

Diogenes was not nearly so poor as he seemed, as he was the pet dog of all Athens and, later, all Corinth. Nonetheless, he insisted on living an utterly simple life, eschewing every luxury as unnecessary, saying that since the gods want nothing, that those whose wants were least were therefore most like them. He lived to a great age despite his asceticism, and as he was becoming old and infirm, some of his friends offered to take him in and asked him to live less strenuously. Diogenes answered them, "Would you have a sprinter ease up as he neared the finish line, too?"

"But Diogenes," they said, "you have no one to look after you. If you die, who will bury you?"

"I'm sure whoever wants my house will find a way to bury me."

As it turned out, though, he had returned to homelessness in his old age, and died in his sleep in a public park. So great was the respect he commanded that not only did the city pay for his burial, but they erected a marble statue—of a stray dog, of course—over his grave with state honors.

Crates of Thebes was a wealthy man, but upon seeing the futility of the rat race, he sold his estate, gave the proceeds to the poor, and became Diogenes' most outstanding pupil. He was nicknamed the Opener of Doors since, like a stray dog, he had a habit of wandering into people's houses—both to beg food of them, and to instruct them in philosophy (whether they liked it or not). Usually they became his friends.

On one occasion, he came into a house and lectured so excellently that one of the daughters of the house, Hipparchia, fell utterly under the spell of both man and his teachings. Indeed, she threatened her parents, saying that she would commit suicide if they did not permit her to run off after Crates. The parents begged Crates to dissuade the girl, and so he took off his coarse clothing—revealing a deformed leg and hunchback—and placed his staff and begging bowl on top of them—for these were all the possessions that remained to him in the world—and said, "Consider carefully my beauty and my fortune, for I won't have you complain of it later." Hipparchia answered, "Nowhere will I find a fairer or richer husband—take me where you will!"

He took her to his usual sleeping place on the street where—like dogs, of course—they shamelessly fucked in public view. From that day, the two were inseparable and seen everywhere together. To add to the scandal, Hipparchia wore the same men's clothing her husband wore and took up his philosophical profession, lecturing no less eloquently than he. The two had several children, lived joyously and long, and taught many in both word and deed that wisdom and the good life are within reach of everyone, rich or poor, male or female.

No record of Crates' epitaph remains, but Hipparchia's is said to have read, "I have abandoned a lady's life for that of a dog, and finery for sleeping on the bare ground: but let my name be to Atalanta's as wisdom is to sprinting."

Diogenes to Crates, greetings.

Don't forget that I gave you your life-long poverty. Try not to lose it, and neither let anyone else steal it from you, since it's likely that the Thebans—deeming you unhappy—will accost you. But consider your ragged cloak a lion's skin, your staff a club, and your wallet the land and sea which feed you: for thus would the spirit of Heracles, mightier than every turn of fortune, stir in you.

...but if you happen to have any lupines or dried figs left, please send them to me.

Lysimachus was having a party and had invited several of his philosopher friends to dine with him, including Theodorus the Atheist, Crates the Cynic, and his wife Hipparchia. Now, Ancient Athens was a patriachal society where women were expected to stay at home and tend their domestic tasks: for Hipparchia to aspire to philosophy was crass, and to accompany her husband on a social outing was scandalous. So Theodorus, not wishing to dine with a woman, criticised her as they sat to dinner, saying, "Shouldn't you be busy at your loom?"

Hipparchia replied, "Do you think I have made a made a poor trade in exchanging my weaving for philosophy?"

Theodorus, himself a philosopher, couldn't reply in the negative, and was embarrassed at being outwitted by a woman. So as to embarrass her, too, he pulled at her cloak, exposing her.

But Hipparchia showed no shame and apparently changed the subject. "Now, now, we're all philosophers here: such pettiness is beneath us. Let us spend our time in something more becoming, like logic. For example, consider this syllogism: the law applies equally to all—what is lawful for one to do is lawful for another to do. So what is lawful for Theodorus to do is lawful for Hipparchia to do. Now, it is certainly lawful for Theodorus to beat Theodorus. Therefore, it must also be lawful for Hipparchia to beat Theodorus." So saying, she socked Theodorus in the mouth.

As a young man, Lacydes of Cyrene was very poor; but because he was both industrious and frugal, he gradually built up a well-to-do household. Because of how much effort it had taken him to accrue wealth, though, he is said to have become quite a miser. In fact, he used to keep his store-room under lock and key, taking out everything the household needed—food, wine, wool, whatever—himself. But he worried about the key being stolen off his person, so he would take a wax writing-tablet, seal the key within it, and hide the writing-tablet in a hole in the wall of his bedroom.

Now, his slaves were salty about having even the least luxury withheld from them. It didn't take them long to discover their master's trick, and whenever he left the house, they would collect the key, unlock the store-room, and help themselves to an impromptu feast. Lacydes would later open the store-room and find empty plates, jugs, and shelves—but so certain was he that his secret was safe, he became convinced that the bodily senses were deceitful and, hearing that Plato's Academy taught something of the sort, began to audit courses there. Eventually there was a lecture on skepticism, and Lacydes jumped up and said, "I can prove that we ought to suspend judgement on what our senses tell us, since I have first-hand experience of it!" He proceeded to relate his story to the room, and they could scarcely hide their laughter, as what was really going on was obvious to everyone but Lacydes.

After being set straight and punishing his slaves, Lacydes began to take extra precautions, like hiding his writing-tablet in a different location. But his slaves were no fools: they started preying on their master's skepticism by switching the writing-tablet, or using a different color of wax to seal the key, or putting the writing-tablet back with the key in it but without wax, or moving it back to its original hole in Lacydes' bedroom, or other things of the sort. Lacydes began to argue with his slaves, but they would protest their innocence and insist he merely forgot where he put the tablet, or what kind of wax he put on it. Lacydes would learn proofs of his memory and senses from the Academy and test the slaves; but the slaves would sneak off to the competing Stoic school and learn refutations of Lacydes' tests. This went on and on for months until, at length, the store-room lay empty and Lacydes, finally, understood that the whole problem wasn't his senses or his slaves—it was his miserly behavior. Chastened, he slowly got his household back in order.

Still, the whole silly drama had gained him quite a lot of logical and rhetorical experience. Lacydes became a leading student of the Academy, and he eventually became the head of it himself. When he died, he was eulogized as being the most moderate of men—but he never did live down the story of how he came to the Academy in the first place.

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