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  • The Cynic Enlightenment: Diogenes in the Salon
  • David Hershinow
Louisa Shea. The Cynic Enlightenment: Diogenes in the Salon. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 2010. 262 pages.

In The Cynic Enlightenment: Diogenes in the Salon, Louisa Shea follows the trajectory of what she calls “philosophical Cynicism,” which names the appropriation of Diogenes the Cynic, from the eighteenth century onward, as a model for philosophical conduct capable of effecting real social change. Shea announces this driving concern at the outset:

One key argument of this book is that much of the interest generated by Cynicism in the eighteenth century as in the twentieth derives from internal tensions in the search for an appropriate language in which to communicate social criticism (how much of the Cynic’s bite could one, and should one, make use of?) and from philosophers’ deeply felt need for an ethical basis from which to engage in criticism.


Though the grammar of Shea’s sentence ropes together the eighteenth and the twentieth centuries as equally invested in the two objectives she lists (social criticism’s language and its ethical basis), in practice her analysis suggests that each period sees an emphasis placed on one at the expense of the other. In other words, Shea tends to describe the philosophes (and their peers) as searching for an appropriate language for the project of social criticism, while Foucault and Sloterdijk, closed in by the well-rehearsed critiques of Enlightenment [End Page 1148] thought, feel much more urgently the need for an ethical basis from which they might break through the traps laid by instrumentalized reason.

Diogenes is a compelling figure to turn to in search of the language and ethics of social criticism. A Greek philosopher and contemporary of Plato, he is known to later ages by way of a rich anecdotal tradition. These stories—influenced as they have been by both admirers and detractors of Diogenes’ peculiar lifestyle—collectively depict a man who exercised autonomy through rigorous self-training in material and social abjection. He lived in a barrel, sought out physical hardship, and embraced shamelessness as a means of purging himself of false social values. A public masturbator who wished it were as easy to satisfy hunger by rubbing his belly, Diogenes practiced an ethics in which the pursuit of personal virtue becomes the enabling condition for a particularly confrontational philanthropy: to challenge the normative values that subtend society-at-large.

Shea situates a recent turn to Diogenes—not only in Foucault’s last course at the Collège de France, but also in Peter Sloterdijk’s 1983 Critique of Cynical Reason—in the context of mid-eighteenth-century efforts to cast Diogenes as the ideal, independently-minded man of reason. Following D’Alembert’s declaration in his 1775 Essai sur la société des gens de lettres et des grands that “every age, and especially our own, stands in need of a Diogenes,” the Cynic began to circulate as an archetype for the period’s exemplary man of letters:

Denis Diderot and Christoph Martin Wieland each made him the subject of a philosophical novel; Frederick the Great, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and the Marquis de Sade all claimed the role of Cynic for themselves. Lesser-known writers such as Pierre le Guai de Prémontval and M. L. Castilhon joined the fray, as did Catholic writers of the French Counter-Enlightenment and anonymous pamphleteers from the 1760s through the French Revolution. At times with humor, but often with bitter acrimony, writers fought over the question who had the right to speak in the name of Diogenes.


D’Alembert initially turns to Diogenes as a way of locating the best possible example of philosophical integrity; he calls for a Diogenes of his age in order to mobilize a practice of living strictly according to one’s principles as the central feature of Enlightened man’s rational ethos. This ethos requires that one accept the consequences of living in accordance with any rationally superior position. Yet the philosophes’ careful redescription of Cynicism, eliminating from their account Diogenes’ more aggressive rhetoric and uncivilized behavior, weakens Cynicism as a coherent ethics and instead enables Cynicism to name an intellectual’s...


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pp. 1148-1152
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