Nick Pappas in NYT's The Stone "Socrates, Cynics & Flat-Nailed, Featherless Bipeds"

Nick Pappas in NYT’s The Stone “Socrates, Cynics & Flat-Nailed, Featherless Bipeds”

The New York Times 


The Stone

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There’s a story that would have taken place (assuming it’s true) not long after the death of Socrates. Plato set out to define “human being” and announced the answer: “featherless biped.” When Diogenes of Sinope heard the news he came to Plato’s school, known as the Academy, with a plucked chicken, saying, “Here’s the Platonic human!” Naturally, the Academy had to fix its definition, so it added the phrase “with flat nails.”

Cynics like Diogenes behaved not as the authors of theories but as performers of wisdom. They were philosophers in action, notable for existing rather than for their accounts of existence.

This story is widely told, and not just because it has a punch line. It represents philosophers as always having belonged to two very different types; and it’s worth remembering how far back the division goes. Recently Robert Frodeman and Adam Briggle wrote a column for The Stone, “When Philosophy Lost its Way,” that argued philosophy ceased to be what Socrates had made of it sometime around the late 19 century, when it became professionalized within the institution of the modern university. But there was already a divergence between two ways of being a philosopher long before — in the generation after Socrates — and two kinds of inspiration that Socrates represented for the philosophers who lived after him.

Diogenes of Sinope, better known as “Diogenes the Cynic,” considered himself Socratic. If he never met Socrates, he knew philosophers who had. Plato himself called Diogenes “a maddened Socrates,” and if there’s praise in that description it is grudging praise; even so it puts Diogenes somewhere in the Socratic legacy. And stories like the one about the plucked bird bring the two together for a stark contrast. They represent two ancient ideas of what a philosopher should be.

This anecdote alone points to several differences between the two ideas of philosophizing. We associate Plato’s name with the Academy, the name of the gymnasium at which he founded his school (and later, because of him, a name synonymous with “school”).  The anecdote suggests an institution at which some people were teachers and others learned from them, and became philosophers by virtue of having learned from authorities. This is the side of philosophy that tries to systematize knowledge.

The anecdote also tells us that philosophers at this institution had a project to complete. It apparently involved defining terms. According to a comedy written in Plato’s time, students trained by defining “the pumpkin” — a joke at Plato’s expense, no doubt, but a joke that made fun of the enterprise of classification and definition and therefore tells us that enterprise was under way at the Academy.

An anthology of essays from The Times’s philosophy series, published by Liveright.

Diogenes gets the better of the plucked chicken exchange; it sounds, in fact, like a story that later Cynic philosophers circulated. After all Diogenes is right that a plucked chicken is a biped and has no feathers and so disproves the Academy’s definition. On the other hand the philosophers in the Academy keep their dignity. As if they didn’t know they were being made fun of, they looked up from the chicken in the room and fiddled with their definition to improve it.

When philosophers gather together they can build on one another’s insights and improve on past accomplishments. Plato’s dialogues offer glimpses of how philosophy would have been practiced at his school, as a collective and cooperative quest for the demarcation of “species” or “kinds” of things. Moral terms, political concepts and biological entities were investigated and defined. Pumpkins, no; human being, yes; human as featherless biped, maybe. In fact “featherless biped” conjures up an enterprise of taxonomy. First you sort animals by the number of feet they have, which means you have a category for spiders with eight, flies with six, horses with four, and so on. Then among the genus of two-legged animals you separate the species with wings from the naked species.

Plato’s alleged name for Diogenes, “maddened Socrates,” also suggests taxonomy. You start with the Socrates type and distinguish the sane examples from crazies like Diogenes. A sane Socrates presumably was someone like Plato himself, joining with other philosophers in cooperative study, organizing a project, even proposing to articulate all bodies of knowledge together. Crazy philosophers, like Diogenes, carried a lit lamp in the daytime and not only ate in public, but masturbated in public too, expressing the wish that it was as easy to treat hunger by rubbing his stomach.

These gestures and anecdotes might strike you as not enough to count as philosophy. This is John Cooper’s reason for leaving the Cynics out of his engaging study of ancient philosophical ethics, “Pursuits of Wisdom,” a book that promises to be about “ways of life in ancient philosophy.” Cooper’s point is that vivid personal lives do not make up for the absence of that rationality and systematic argumentation that characterize the true philosophers of antiquity.

Beards mangy, posture slumped, dressed in one big rough cloth and resting on a walking stick, the Cynics wandered through the Roman world as its image of the freethinker, never at home.

Being a few sandwiches shy of an intellectual picnic, Diogenes cannot be said to wax philosophical. In the world of philosophical theories, he comes along with a counterexample here and there or a sneer at someone else’s idea. The plucked chicken shows where Plato’s theory went wrong. Diogenes supposedly walked through Athens with a lit lamp in daylight “looking for a human being” in another sort of rebuke to the same Academic project. (The story is often told, erroneously, to say that he’s seeking “an honest man,” but the problem is even more urgent than that.) To a Cynic, using a lamp at noontime is no more ridiculous a way of finding human beings than defining them is.

In the later centuries of antiquity, into the years of the Roman Empire, the Academic and Cynic philosophers were both popularly presented as philosophical types. An irresistible book by Paul Zanker, “The Mask of Socrates,” shows plentiful examples of both types, dating from Hellenistic Greece well into imperial Rome. Plato, and the Platonists after him, and the Peripatetic philosophers who came after Aristotle, and the Stoics who took themselves to be Socratics – in fact, just about all the later philosophers who organized themselves into schools of thought – appeared before the Hellenistic and Roman worlds as serious gentlemen. As seen in busts and statues, these philosophers dressed soberly and grew full, well-tended beards. Their foreheads were sometimes furrowed with the work of contemplating philosophy, but this was a permissible variation on being a gentleman and upright citizen.

Then there were other graven images of philosophers during those same years that we can classify as legacies of the Cynics. Beards mangy, posture slumped, dressed in one big rough cloth and resting on a walking stick, the Cynics wandered through the Roman world as its image of the freethinker, never at home – not even in a philosophical theory — but “cosmopolitan,” to use a word the Cynics invented: citizens of the world, meaning that they didn’t belong anywhere in particular. Counterculturalism was their instinct even if it was a negative impulse. Diogenes was asked what was most beautiful and answered parrhesia — “candor, freedom of speech” — but the word literally means “saying everything,” and the Cynic had to be ready to say anything at all, improvising philosophy under all circumstances.

In their role as walking counterexamples, the Cynics mattered more as who they were than for the content of anything they said. In this sense Cooper is right to separate them from the ancient traditions of moral theory. In the human drama, they behaved not as the authors of theories but as performers of wisdom. We know them anecdotally because they lived anecdotally, as the subjects of retold tales. They were philosophers in action, notable for existing rather than for their accounts of existence.

When Christianity became legal in the Roman Empire, Platonism gave the early church’s thinkers a vocabulary for understanding the divine, helped to explain how divinity offered guidance to human beings, and suggested how human beings might aspire to divinity. But the countercultural appeal of Socrates also affected Christians, who would remember the persecutions against them long after they had ceased being persecuted. Reading about Socrates you could believe that you might be right about your course of action even with the world against you, and Christian hermits who wanted to immerse themselves in their faith saw the Cynics as their best models.

Philosophy has pulled in both directions, systematic and subversive, for as long as it has remembered Socrates. It doesn’t forget him by inclining one way or the other. The Academy had the originality to envision an intellectual society – what a university still is, at its best – distinguished by the virtues of modesty and self-control, always ready to usher new students into the tradition. Philosophy as a tradition would have withered without an academy to live in. If it sometimes appears to be withering within the academy, that is because the subversive side of Socrates has its appeal: the virtues of the eccentric, above all eccentric courage, and the willingness to make your life an improvisation.

The Cynics need a nearby academy, if only as a place to throw their plucked chickens, but the academy needs nearby cynics too, if only as walking advertisements for philosophy as a serious study, reminders that this is a subject people fall in love with.

Nickolas Pappas teaches philosophy at City College and the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. He is the author, most recently, of “The Philosopher’s New Clothes.” 

Image: Wabby Twaxx