Dead Greek People III: Enough Philosophy Already

20 Oct

Perhaps the Greek philosophers detailed in the first two posts in this series bore or annoy you. If so, you wouldn’t be alone. The list of people who didn’t think much of Socrates’ philosophy went beyond an upset Athenian jury. In fact, his most enduring critic wasn’t some angry plebe, but instead a playwright. Here he is.

His name is Aristophanes, and he was an early master of the satiric play. He wrote them for festivals around Greece, where he piled up a bunch of prizes. He made quite the art of making fun of other people, most famously a politician named Cleon, whom he harassed throughout his entire career. In his play The Clouds, he decided to take a shot at Socrates.

The play involves a decadent Athenian family in which the father, Strepsiades, has been driven into debt by his useless son, Pheidippides. Rather than pay the debts, however, Strepsiades wants to find an easy way out, and suggests his son enroll in Socrates’ school, where people are taught how to make bad arguments sound reasonable. Pheidippides tells him the school is only for losers and nerds, so Strepsiades enrolls himself instead. He learns that Socrates and his obsessive pupils spend their time doing things like devising new measurements for the distance jumped by fleas and floating about in baskets so as to better observe the sun. Bored, Strepsiades winds up masturbating rather than joining the absurd intellectual pursuits, and Socrates catches him and throws him out.

Angered, Strepsiades forces Pheidipides to go learn from Socrates. Unlike his father, he learns precisely how to make a bad argument sound reasonable, and comes out capable of making an argument for beating his father, which he promptly does. Disgusted, Strepsiades tells his slaves to grab the torches and pitchforks, and the play ends as they head off to teach the disreputable Socrates a lesson.

It’s hard to know how serious this critique is, and how much of it was just in good fun. One of Plato’s dialogues, the Symposium, has Aristophanes and Socrates chatting merrily during a dinner party, with no signs of disagreement. He may not even have been that relevant; Cleon’s political career was unaffected by the constant abuse, and Cleon, despite being a rather disagreeable fellow, apparently saw no need to suppress Aristophanes. But his criticism of Socrates endured, and it certainly isn’t a totally baseless one. Intellectuals always face the danger of getting caught too far up in the clouds and losing track of what really matters, even as they argue about what really matters.

One other memorable person who lived in Athens around that time also didn’t think much of the famed philosophers’ lives of detached thought. That guy is Diogenes.

If you think he looks like a bit of a slob, you’d be right. For starters, he lived in a barrel. His only real companions were a bunch of dogs. He went out of his way to drive a lot of people nuts. His targets not only included philosophers; he even took a shot at the most powerful man in the world. When Alexander the Great came before him one day, most likely hoping for the fawning and worship he inspired in everyone else, the sunbathing Diogenes had one simple request: that he move over and stop blocking his sunlight.

Alexander thought this was pretty awesome. (He was more than the military meathead so many of his fellow world conquerors were; remember, Aristotle was his teacher.) “If I were not Alexander, I would be Diogenes,” he said as he walked away.

The emperor of the known world was on to something. A lot of Diogenes’ actions can seem random and weird, especially since the only records we have of him are anecdotes collected by other people. He didn’t eat with utensils. He jerked off in public. He showed up at Plato’s lectures just to mess with him. He wandered around a marketplace in broad daylight with a lantern in search of an honest man. (He didn’t find one.) But Diogenes was more than an annoyance.

Instead, he had a fairly coherent idea of what it meant to lead a good life, and his philosophy was one of radical simplicity. At times, his actions are reminiscent of religious mystics. He sought to live in accord with nature, which for him meant simplicity and purity, and as an outsider, he was detached enough that he could study the culture around him and reject the customs that were damaging, or simply silly and unnecessary. He was the first person to call himself a “cosmopolitan”—that is, a citizen of the world, not some tribal loyalist to his city-state. He was in many ways far, far ahead of his times. Alexander may have been literally blocking the sunlight, but he might also, perhaps, have been blocking the light of the truth, with his obsession over wealth and power and other worldly goods.

Aside from weirdness, there is another charge that can be thrown at Diogenes. He may have claimed to be a citizen of the world, but as with Socrates, it really is impossible to imagine someone like him being tolerated in any ancient city other than Athens. He’d grown up in Sinope, but was so obnoxious there that he got thrown out, and lived in exile for the rest of his life. His cosmopolitanism was only possible because he was free to go about living his radical way of life in a safe, stable, and well-run city. This doesn’t mean he was wrong to go about pointing out the hypocrisies and stupidities of ancient Athenian custom, which certainly offered its share of ripe targets. Every community needs its cynics to keep everyone else from being too comfortable. But without the community to live in and play off of, Diogenes would quickly have been forgotten.

Aristophanes and Diogenes might not have as great a reach as the most famed Athenian philosophers, but they do offer a welcome counter-balance to the earnestness of Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle. Sometimes basic, practical sense is far more useful than endless theorizing, and this is something that philosophically inclined people should never forget.

Next: Pericles and Thucydides

Image of Aristophanes from http://www.crystalinks.com/aristophanes.html. Image of Diogenes (from Raphael’s The School of Athens) from Wikimedia Commons. Image of Nicolas-Andre Monsiau’s Diogenes and Alexander from http://classicalwisdom.com/diogenes-of-sinope/.

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4 Responses to “Dead Greek People III: Enough Philosophy Already”

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    […] Next: Aristophanes and Diogenes […]

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  4. On the Intellectual World | A Patient Cycle - January 25, 2015

    […] people. Along with the very first philosophers came their very first critics, with the likes of Aristophanes and Diogenes pointing out the all-too-real shortcomings of their way of […]

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