Verses from the Cynic Philosopher Crates of Thebes

Verses from the Cynic Crates

Crates-in-Book

We have several fragments of poetry attributed to Crates of Thebes, the Cynic philosopher who followed Diogenes of Sinope and was the first teacher of Zeno of Citium, the founder of Stoicism.

The first fragment, cited by Diogenes Laertius, treats their characteristic knapsack (pera) as a metonym for the Cynic life, portraying it as an ideal city, perhaps comparable to the ideal Republic postulated by philosophers of different schools.  It is surrounded by an ocean of folly, or vapour (tuphos), the Cynic’s favourite word for the illusion of conventional values, the view of the majority that prizes “external goods” such as material wealth and public acclaim, etc.  However, because this city is populated by people who live  simple and wise life, with only the most basic possessions, ironically, they do not attract foolish or lewd citizens and their poverty means there is no reason for anyone to invade them.  By “fair and fat”, he means beautiful and wealthy, in its own paradoxical way.  The word for thyme is virtually identical to the word for courage or being highly “spirited” (thumos), which is apparently a play on words: the reader is to take it that the realm of the Cynic knapsack, by consisting of simple living, is characterised by the virtue of bravery.

There is a city, Pera in the wine-dark sea of folly,

Fair and fat, though filthy, with nothing much inside.

Never does there sail to it any foolish stranger,

Or lewd fellow who takes delight in the rumps of whores,

But it merely carries thyme and garlic, figs and loaves,

Things over which people do not fight or go to war,

Nor stand they to arms for small change or glory.

Again, from Diogenes Laertius, these lines express the Cynic notion of being a citizen of the world:

Not one tower does my country have, not one roof,

But for home and city, the entire earth lies

At my disposition for a dwelling.

Crates reputedly came from a wealthy family but disposed of all his money on becoming a Cynic.  Here he refers to his former wealth as vapour (tuphos) again, implying its insubstantial and ephemeral nature.  According to Diogenes Laertius, elsewhere he wrote:

This I own, what I have learned and thought, and the Muses’

Solemn precepts; but all my riches are gone like empty smoke.

The Greek Anthology includes the following lines of his Hymn to Frugality, which describes it as a species of temperance:

Hail, Goddess and Queen, beloved of the wise,

Frugality, worthy offspring of glorious Temperance,

Your virtues are honoured by all who practise righteousness.

Plutarch, in Rules for the Preservation of Health, cites these lines, commenting that Crates “believed that civil strife and despotism were brought about in the main by luxury and extravagance”.  Lentil soup was a cheap and simple meal traditionally associated with the Cynic way of life:

Do not throw us into strife

By preferring fine dishes to lentil soup.

Teles of Megara quotes these lines, referring again to the characteristic knapsack of the Cynic, and to lupin seeds, another typically cheap meal associated with them:

You have no idea what power a knapsack holds,

And a quart of lupins, and freedom from care.

Apparently, the meals emblematic of the Cynic way of life, lupins and lentil soup, are particularly associated with flatulence, and this happens to be a topic the Cynics also liked to mention.  For example, the following anecdote is recounted by Montaigne:

In the midst of a discussion, and in the presence of his followers, Metrocles let off a fart.  To hide his embarrassment he stayed at home until, eventually, Crates came to pay him a visit; to his consolations and arguments Crates added the example of his own licence: he began a farting match with him, thereby removing his scruples and, into the bargain, converting him to the freer stoic school from the more socially oriented Peripatetics whom he had formerly followed.

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