Tag Archives: Cynic philosophy

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.

The Cynic Prayer of Crates

The Cynic Prayer of Crates

Crates-in-BookCrates of Thebes was Diogenes the Cynic’s most famous pupil and the main teacher of Zeno of Citium, the founder of Stoicism.

Glorious children of Mnemosyne and Olympian Zeus,

Pierian Muses, hearken to my prayer!

Grant me food without fail for my belly,

Which has ever made my life simple and unenslaved…

Make me useful rather than sweet to my friends.

Glorious goods I do not wish to gather, as one

Who yearns for the wealth of a beetle or riches of an ant;

No, I wish to possess righteousness and collect riches

Which are easily borne, easily gained, and conducive to virtue.

If these I win, I will propitiate Hermes and the holy Muses

Not with costly offering but with pious virtues.

From the Emperor Julian, the Apostate’s Orations.  This is a Cynic appropriation of a famous verse-prayer by Solon, the Athenian sage and statesman.  Solon prayed for prosperity and reputation, and to be sweet (pleasing) to his friends.  Crates, makes a pointed contrast by praying instead for just enough food as the body naturally requires, enough “riches” to survive and live simply, and he seeks to be useful rather than pleasant to his friends, by helping to make them better (more virtuous) people, even if that sometimes requires harsh words or actions.  Virtue replaces wealth, throughout, as the chief good in human life, being likewise what the gods value.

Poems about Diogenes the Cynic

Poems about Diogenes the Cynic

Diogenes-the-CynicHere are some lines of ancient Greek verse about Diogenes of Sinope, the founder of Cynic philosophy.  I’ve also included some ancient verse about his student Monimos of Syracuse.

The staff and cloak are mentioned as typical accoutrements, along with the knapsack.  What is the main thing Diogenes gets praised for here?  Teaching the doctrine of self-sufficiency (autarkeia), or self-reliance, which is paradoxically described as the “easiest path through life”.

He is now no more, the Sinopean,

The staff-bearer with the doubled cloak who lived in the open air,

But has gone off because he pressed his lips and teeth together

And held his breath; for he was Diogenes in very truth,

A son of Zeus and hound of heaven.

Cercidas of Megalopolis, in Diogenes Laertius.  “Diogenes” means son of Zeus, and “Cynic” comes from the word for dog.  These verses describe some of the stereotypical accoutrements and behaviours of the Cynics.  Death by holding one’s breath was considered a form of suicide favoured by philosophers.

Even bronze yields to time, but your glory,

O Diogenes, will remain intact through all eternity,

Since you taught mortals the doctrine of self-sufficiency

And showed them the easiest path through life.

Engraved on bronze statues of Diogenes the Cynic erected in Corinth following his death, according to Diogenes Laertius.  These lines might be taken to refer to what was considered the essence of the Cynic philosophy, the legacy of Diogenes being what the ancients describe as a “short-cut to virtue” consisting of a life of voluntary poverty and self-imposed hardship for the purposes of philosophical training.

The following relates to Monimos of Syracuse:

There was a man named Monimos, Philo, a wise one,

But none too famous – who carried a knapsack?-

Not one but three.  Never did he use a saying

Like “Know thyself”, by heaven, or other of the quoted

Proverbs, no, he went much further, the dirty beggar,

And declared all human suppositions to be illusion.

From Menander’s comedy The Groom.  Monimos, a student of Diogenes the Cynic, seems to be mocked here for being greedy compared to other Cynics, and carrying three knapsacks of food.