Life lessons from Ancient Greek hobo philosophers

Stoicism has gained massive attention this decade. It’s an ancient philosophy that’s all about hanging back, letting the world be the way it is and accepting that you can’t change things that are out of your control, like bad weather or a video game before patches come out.

It started in Ancient Greece with thinkers like Zeno of Citium, then made its way to Rome where the great emperor Marcus Aurelius accidentally left us a stoic masterpiece in the form of his personal diary.

There was another philosophy in Ancient Greece that could use a revival. If you have trouble with social interaction, you might already be practicing it. It was called cynicism (from the Greek word kynikos meaning dog) and it was all about living as simply and honestly as you could, the way a dog does.

These days in the English language, being a cynic is seen as a bad. This negative image has followed just about every handy philosophy. Pessimism (started by Schopenhauer) was about preparing for the worst and always being grateful for the good, but now people think it means only seeing the bad. Stoicism was about mentally letting go the need for control, but now people think it’s being blank and not feeling anything. Cynicism was about being free and able to depend on yourself to survive, but now? Cynicism means bitterness.

It doesn’t have to be that way.

I’m excited about this philosophy and what we can learn from it. For someone with autism, to interact with statues as if they were people, stim in public or to speak with inappropriate tense, formality and honesty are quick ways to get in trouble. Those things can make anyone uncomfortable, but the earliest cynics found a way to do them all. They wanted to show that no matter what your needs are, you can belong.

It started with Socrates’ student Diogenes. As a philosopher, he wanted to live a good life and not depend too much on others. He created a rough idea of cynicism that would evolve into a craft and culture over time. One of his first observations was that wild dogs were happy, because they could survive wherever they went and had no shame. So he decided he wanted a dog’s life. Here are the ways he lived his dream:

He lived in a clay tub. Well he said he lived everywhere, but the tub kept out the rain. His only possession was a bowl, until he saw a boy drinking water in his cupped hands, not needing a bowl or cup. Then Diogenes decided to own nothing.

He didn’t care about a person’s importance. When Alexander the Great offered him literally anything, Diogenes told Alexander to move out of the sunlight.

He called himself a citizen of the world. Diogenes invented the term ‘cosmopolitan’. He didn’t need to conform to one society or live by its limits, and didn’t seem to fear punishment. His teacher Socrates got a death sentence for following his own philosophy, and Diogenes had once been a slave. Speaking of which,

When slave buyers asked Diogenes what he was good for, he said he was a leader of men. This was a great joke because a lowly slave would never get to run an army or a city, and it showed that he didn’t want to play by the slavers’ unfair rules.

He asked statues for money to get used to being ignored while he begged. It’s practically impossible to properly diagnose dead people with autism (still, keep relating to da Vinci or Picasso if you’re into them), but come on.

When Diogenes disagreed with people, he was theatrical and harsh. There was a single prostitute’s son throwing rocks at people, so Diogenes said to the boy “Be careful, you might hit your father.” Plato was famous for saying that humans are featherless bipeds, so Diogenes plucked a chicken, threw it over Plato’s outside walls and yelled “Here’s your human!” When the men of Athens gathered for important business, he walked around with a lamp at daytime saying he was looking for an honest man. He wasn’t just living his philosophy, he was teaching it in a way that he’d learned would get people’s attention. These days, though, we have to be nicer because a person can die living alone on the street like Diogenes did. His points weren’t good because they were mean, but because they were funny and surprising.

He did many more inappropriate things in public. Don’t do any of these. People now are more difficult to shock than the Ancient Greeks, but we still punish offenders. Greece was a modest society. So when Diogenes masturbated in public, it shocked people. He defended it by saying “If only I could rub my belly and stop being hungry!” If people disturbed him, he barked at them and threw things, and urinated on someone who called him a dog as an insult.

Tyler Durden in Fight Club is based on Diogenes, and it shows.

Some of this behaviour was mind-bendingly awful, but people loved Diogenes and the cynics who followed in his footsteps. A whole movement started, people who travelled around wearing nothing but a fur and owning nothing but a staff, because these things kept them safe and were things Hercules was said to have owned. Hercules was a mortal man who could survive anything and did things only gods could when he put his mind to it. Crates of Thebes was a rich man who gave away everything for this life. Hipparchia of Maroneia moved to Athens with her parents, then completely disappointed them by choosing to live on the street as a cynic … and marrying Crates of Thebes, who became the teacher of Zeno (who invented stoicism, remember?) Even a lot of cynics disagreed with the ‘dog wedding’, since they didn’t want cynics to be seen depending too much on others, but Crates and Hipparchia didn’t care how they looked. They wanted to be happy. For the rest of their lives, these radically honest philosophers could go anywhere and people would let the couple stay in their homes.

Once they started writing down their beliefs, the cynics made it to Ancient Rome where people like Menippus wrote cynic stage plays and left us a lot to read and learn.

If you want more, I suggest Cynics by William Desmond. Penguin Classics also has a great volume called ‘Anecdotes of the Cynics’ for two bucks.

Our right way may not be theirs anymore. We get away with a lot more blasphemy and a lot less nudity than the Ancient Greeks, for example. There needs to be a balance between what people in public are comfortable with, and what they could get used to if we exposed them to it. But isn’t it interesting to think that for a few hundred years, there were people who refused to be normal and still found their own place in the world? Some of them chose to be outcasts, but the ones who really committed to being themselves were loved for their genuineness and what they could teach everyone else.

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