- Dogs’ Tales: Representations of Ancient Cynicism in French Renaissance Texts
As Hugh Roberts points out in his introduction to Dogs’ Tales, the history of Western philosophy is not renowned for its jokes. The reception of Cynicism (‘cynic’ literally means ‘dog-like’) is a special case, because it relies on transmission through comic, not to mention obscene, anecdotes. And to study the reception of Cynicism in the Renaissance is of particular interest, because writers of this period demonstrate self-conscious delight in mixing high and low registers and cultural levels. Roberts has done a good job of mixing cultural levels himself, and has pulled off the impressive feat of producing a book that is at once carefully researched and written and an entertaining read. His subject matter is how Diogenes and his followers, and their various subversions of social expectation (starting with public masturbation), are written about in Diogenes Laertius, Plutarch, and Lucian, as well as in other ancient sources that came to prominence in the Renaissance. He then devotes significant space to Renaissance commonplace and emblem books, to encyclopedias and other miscellanies, including Erasmus’s educational writings. What emerges in these texts is a multifaceted, creative, and sometimes idealized portrayal of Diogenes and his disciples, where asceticism, pride, self-sufficiency, and the ability to turn a pithy retort are emphasized along with shamelessness. The diversity of the Cynic tradition encourages Rabelais’s playfulness (here Roberts aims to show that Bakhtin is ‘fundamentally right’ (p. 165)) and Montaigne’s richly paradoxical writing on nature and virtue; the second part of the book is devoted to these and other more discursive engagements. Throughout, Roberts makes it clear that we cannot reduce Cynicism to a single ideology, nor identify with Cynicism any philosophical content that does not take into account the scattered, anecdotal, serio-comic form of its expression (his emphasis here differentiates this book from recent work by Michèle Clément). The tools of poetics are therefore essential to examining Renaissance receptions of Cynicism. Although this is stated as a methodological priority, there would perhaps have been room for closer consideration of how these writers respond to and adjust the linguistic reach of their predecessors than Roberts offers with his references to paradox and paradiastole. All the chapters are split into brisk subdivisions, and the need to provide an overview sometimes seems to have taken precedence over in-depth rhetorical analysis. But this is not necessarily a criticism, since the overview itself is so valuable. Roberts himself suspects, disarmingly, that ‘more than one reader will be tempted to skip Part I for the racier material of Part II’ (p. 30). He hopes that such readers ‘may eventually be tempted back to the first part’. Among the wide audience this book deserves, no doubt many will be. Roberts has written a thorough and coherent account, and has succeeded in his goal of giving new life to the old Dogs.