The Survival of Diogenes Traditions in Late Antiquity
The preservation of traditions about Diogenes in the school curriculum in Late Antiquity provides a suitable starting point for surveying comments about Diogenes and Cynicism in the writings of fourth-century Christians. Only then can we begin to understand what the figure of Diogenes meant to the architects of an emerging Christian intellectual culture. By the time of the early empire, Diogenes had become a cultural type, a πρόσωπον, a recognizable stock character. As such, he appears in works by a number of authors from the first and second centuries, including Dio Chrysostom, Epictetus, Plutarch, as well as in a collection of pseudepigraphical letters. Each of these writers had access to a loosely organized body of traditions about Diogenes which circulated both in oral and in written forms.
Familiarity with the figure of Diogenes did not fade away with the coming of Christianity. Sayings attributed to Diogenes and anecdotes about him were preserved (and even generated), particularly in the schools of grammar and rhetoric located in cities throughout the Mediterranean world. Diogenes, as a cultural type, became an element in Christian culture, an example from the past to be referred to in discussion of a range of topics, a bit of cultural property whose meaning and significance were widely debated. Christians’ exploitation of Diogenes’ meaning was part of their synthesis of the cultural legacy of the pagan past.
Traditions about Diogenes were preserved in the rhetorical exercises, particular in chreia (χρεία), the sayings and anecdotes which formed the building blocks of rhetorical education and hence had direct bearing on the very art of speech making. Drawing on literally thousands of sayings and anecdotes attributed or attributable to various ancient personages, teachers developed their students’ oratorical skills. Many chreiai were attributed to Socrates, Isocrates, and Menander. Perhaps the greatest number were attributed to Diogenes. One scholar estimated that, in all their variations and permutations, the chreiai attributed to Diogenes number more than a thousand.
Chreiai attributed to Diogenes also appeared in other literary contexts. In the Lives of the Philosophers, Diogenes Laertius gathers a number of earlier collections of chreiai specifically concerned with Diogenes of Sinope in compiling his anecdotal “life” of the Cynic. In this and other collections, there was little concern that the attributions should be accurate, only that they should be apt. The requirement of apt attribution presupposes that the conception of a given character (πρόσωπον) was well developed and well understood. In order to attribute a saying to Diogenes, for instance, one first had to consider whether it was appropriate to his character. This character was based in large part on what had been attributed to Diogenes in other chreiai, the materials which formed a Diogenes tradition. Chreiai attributed to Diogenes shared a “family resemblance,” in that they portrayed Diogenes as a certain sort of character determined by a set of loosely related “biographical” details which were commonly “known” to have happened in Diogenes’ life, such as his exile from Sinope, his arrival in Athens, the fact that he carried a wallet and a staff and wore a white robe. Chief among the details were witty sayings, an ascetic way of life, and shameless acts.
The wide dissemination of Diogenes traditions is exemplified in the work of the fifth-century pagan author John of Stobi, who compiled an anthology of poetry and prose from over 450 Greek authors. As Photius relates, John presented “opinions, sayings, and maxims” as “precepts to discipline and improve his son.” John’s anthology was copied frequently in the Byzantine world and has long served scholars because it preserves fragments of many texts now lost. Diogenes figures prominently in this collection; there are over sixty of his sayings, making him one of the most cited sources in the anthology. Reading through the Diogenes chreiai in the anthology can give us a sense of what constituted the character of Diogenes in the fifth century. Here are some typical examples:
When someone asked how can one become master of himself, Diogenes said, “When those things which he reproves in others he reproves even more in himself.” (3.1.55)
Diogenes mocked those who lock up their storehouses with bolts, keys, and seals, but who open up all the doors and windows of their bodies, through their mouth, their genitals, their ears, and their eyes. (3.6.17.)
Diogenes said that virtue can reside neither in a wealthy city nor a wealthy house. (4.31.c.88)
As in Diogenes chreiai elsewhere, John of Stobi’s Diogenes challenges hypocrisy and praises the virtue of poverty. He embodies the problem of living a moral life for the urban elite.
Throughout the Byzantine era, Diogenes remained an important figure in rhetorical handbooks. Twelve Diogenes chreiai appear in John of Damascus’s anthology known as the Sacra Parallela, consisting mostly of sayings attributed to Christian authors compiled early in the eighth century. Rhetors continued to employ the chreiai in their speeches, and their audiences continued to be familiar with Diogenes and the meaning that his character came to embody.
School exercises, of course, were not the only factor in the preservation of traditions about Diogenes in Late Antiquity. The writings of the church fathers, as well as the Emperor Julian and the Neoplatonist philosopher Damascius, give evidence for the existence of practicing Cynics in Late Antiquity. Some of the Cynics are known to us by name. Julian attacked a Cynic named Heraclius for misrepresenting the gods. Patriarch Gregory of Nazianzus preached in praise of Maximus, a Christian priest from Alexandria who also identified himself as a Cynic and who arrived in Constantinople in 380. Damascius’s Life of Isidorus gives a spare account of a Cynic and Neoplatonic philosopher named Sallustius who was born around 430 and seems to have survived into the early decades of the sixth century. Moreover, sources from the period either address or refer to groups of nameless practitioners of Cynicism. Julian composed a speech scolding the Cynics of his day for failing to understand Diogenes and achieve his objectives. Augustine was also aware of the continued existence of Cynics. The Cynic way of life continued to have a powerful appeal into the fifth century. https://publishing.cdlib.org/ucpressebo ... nd=ucpress