That’s Not Funny: The Humor of Diogenes
College of Marin
The term “cynic,” as it is commonly used today, tends to be associated with negative evaluations. To call someone “cynical” is to suggest that a person sees the worst in others, distrusts the motivations of others, and has a generally dark and critical perspective on the world and people in it. Today, a cynic is rarely thought of as an affirmative, happy or joyful individual; and if the cynical attitude is associated at all with humor, it is with a cruel, spiteful and mean-spirited sort of humor that holds others in contempt. This obscures the historical fact that the origins of the “cynical” perspective are actually found in a philosophy having more to do with the affirmation of life than with dismissive and negative criticism of others. This philosophy began with the ancient Greek figure Diogenes of Sinope (c.412 – c.323 BC), a man who was exiled from his homeland and who spent the rest of his days in Athens, living a barrel while using humorous means to educate others concerning the nature of a good life.
Diogenes’ use of humor remains an innovation that, while frequently highlighted and noted by scholars, has rarely been explored systematically and in depth. In this paper I shall offer a methodical analysis of the role humor plays in the philosophy of Diogenes. I shall argue that the cynicism authored by Diogenes is a philosophy premised on a number of doctrines – none of which are essentially negative in character – and that among these doctrines humor holds the central place. The cynical humor of Diogenes, I shall claim, is more than just a feature of his personality or a method through which he communicates his real message. It is, in fact, the foundation of the philosophy of cynicism itself.