The Insolent Sage

"We are all absurdly prudent and timid: cynicism is not something we are taught in school. Nor is pride."

-- E.M. Cioran, A Short History of Decay

Of those thought to be a “philosopher” or “wise,” we expect a certain mix of traits to be much in evidence: prudence and temperance for example, also disinterestedness, modesty, restraint. Yet history offers examples of sages who do not fit this profile at all; these include founders of schools and proponents of ideas that have informed the best thinking over the ages. Individuals who were ill-tempered, contumacious, unashamedly alone, and scornful of societal norms and customs.

Consider Diogenes, leader of the Cynics, on whom an interesting vignette is offered in E.M. Cioran’s A Short History of Decay. The passages below appear in the Viking Press edition (1975), pp. 63-65, translated from the French by Richard Howard.

Unknowable, what a man must lose to have the courage to confront the conventions – unknowable what Diogenes lost to become the man who permitted himself everything, who translated his innermost thoughts into actions with a supernatural insolence, like some libidinous yet pure god of knowledge. No one was so frank; a limit case of sincerity and lucidity as well as an example of what we could be if education and hypocrisy did not rein in our desires and our gestures.

“One day a man invited him into a richly furnished house, saying ‘be careful not to spit on the floor.’ Diogenes, who needed to spit, spat in his face, exclaiming that it was the only dirty place he could find where spitting was permitted.” – Diogenes Laertius.

Who, after being received by a rich man, has not longed oceans of saliva to expectorate on all the owners of the earth? And who has not swallowed his own spittle for fear of casting it in the face of some stout and respected thief?

We are all absurdly prudent and timid: cynicism is not something we are taught in school. Nor is pride.

“Menippus, in his work entitled The Virtue of Diogenes, tells how he was captured and sold as a slave, and that he was asked what he knew how to do. Diogenes answered: ‘Command!’ and shouted to the herald: ‘Ask who wants to buy a master.’”

The man who affronted Alexander and Plato, who masturbated in the marketplace (“If only heaven let us rub our bellies too, and that be enough to stave off hunger!”), the man of the famous cask and the famous lantern, and who in his youth was a counterfeiter (what higher dignity for a cynic?), what must his experience have been of his neighbors? Certainly our own, yet with this difference: that man was the sole substance of his reflection and his contempt. Without suffering the falsifications of any ethic and any metaphysic, he strove to strip man in order to show him to us nakeder and more abominable than any comedy, any apocalypse has done.

“Socrates gone mad,” Plato called him – Socrates turned sincere is what he should have said, Socrates renouncing the Good, abjuring formulas and the City, Socrates turning, finally, into a psychologist and nothing more. But Socrates – even sublime – remains conventional; he remains a master, an edifying model. Only Diogenes proposes nothing; the basis of his attitude – and of cynicism in its essence – is determined by a testicular horror of the absurdity of being man.

The thinker who reflects without illusion upon human reality, if he wants to remain within the world, and if he eliminates mysticism as an escape-hatch, ends up with a vision in which are mingled wisdom, bitterness, and farce; and if he chooses the marketplace as the site of his solitude, he musters his verve in mocking his “kind” or in exhibiting his disgust, a disgust which today, with Christianity and the police, we can no longer permit ourselves. Two thousand years of oaths and codes have sweetened our bile; moreover, in a hurried world, who would stop to answer our insolences, to delight in our howls?

That the greatest connoisseur of human beings should have been nicknamed “dog” proves that man has never had the courage to accept his authentic image and that he has always rejected truths without accommodations. Diogenes suppressed pose in himself. What a monster in other men’s eyes! To have an honorable place in philosophy you must be an actor, you must respect the play of ideas and exercise yourself over false problems. In no case must man as such be your business. Again, according to Diogenes Laertius: “At the Olympic games, when the herald proclaimed: ‘Dioxippus has vanquished men! Diogenes answered: ‘He has vanquished only slaves – men are my business.’” And indeed he vanquished men as no one else has ever done, with weapons more dreadful than those of conquerors, though he owned only a broom, the least proprietary of all beggars, true saint of mockery.