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  • Diogenes the Cynic and Shakespeare’s Bitter Fool:The Politics and Aesthetics of Free Speech
  • David Hershinow (bio)

Being asked what was the most beautiful thing in the world, [Diogenes] replied, “Freedom of speech [parrhêsia].”

—Diogenes Laertius, Lives of Eminent Philosophers (3rd century AD)1

Cynicism is not, as is often thought, just a somewhat particular, odd, and ultimately forgotten figure in ancient philosophy, but an historical category which, in various forms and with diverse objectives, runs through the whole of Western history.

—Michel Foucault, The Courage of Truth (1984)2

If Diogenes the Cynic has left an indelible legacy in his wake, then it is a legacy bound up in the competing evaluations that his unusual way of life seems always and forever to provoke. To his admirers, Diogenes’s extreme material asceticism and his animal-like embrace of shamelessness go hand in hand with his role as the most formidable truth-teller that the world has ever seen, a man who fearlessly pits himself against the false values held by the rest of humanity. But, to his detractors, the very same conduct demonstrates Diogenes’s illegitimacy as a truth-teller; it functions as self-evident proof that he is nothing more than a grandstanding eccentric whose vitriol stems from severe personal distemper.

Thanks to a renewed scholarly interest in Cynicism and its legacy, we are just now discovering that these competing responses to the figure of Diogenes together play an important role in the unfolding of Western intellectual history writ large, especially as it concerns the countervailing movements of the Enlightenment and the counter-Enlightenment. [End Page 807] Heinrich Niehues-Probsting, David Mazella, and Louisa Shea have all added ground to this field of inquiry, and, for each of them, Cynicism’s guiding influence upon the trajectory of Western thought begins in the mid-eighteenth century and extends into the present.3 I do not contest this consensus view, and, in fact, it is important to my analysis that Cynicism can be shown to play a central role in our modern condition. But within this context, I will argue that Shakespeare’s response to the Diogeneana of an earlier period identifies a key insight into the relationship between the valorized and debased views of Cynic practice, an insight that is especially prescient in light of subsequent intellectual history. By extending backward the renewed investigation into Diogenical philosophy, I hope in this essay to deepen our understanding both of Shakespeare’s engagement with Cynicism and of Cynicism’s legacy in the West.

As Shea has persuasively shown, Cynicism first became central to Western thought when certain French philosophes, who had grown frustrated with polite conversation as the prevailing mode of enlightened discourse, made Diogenes into their role model. In the figure of the Cynic, Jean D’Alembert, Denis Diderot, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau, among others, saw the template for a new breed of public intellectual, one with considerably more bite and thus more power to effect change.4 And yet, as these thinkers quickly discovered, the adoption of a rigidly Cynic stance could not deliver to them the full emancipatory power of critique. To the contrary, any man who took his Cynicism too far was invariably dismissed by polite society as nothing more than an angry, puffed-up railer, a man not guided by the light of reason, but rather by shameful desires and warped emotions.5 Stung by this lesson in Cynicism’s evaluative reversibility, admirers of Diogenes sought to retain the ideal of a Cynic stance while moderating its indecorousness (a concession to pragmatism that was especially imperative for those philosophers, like Diderot, who were dependent upon the patronage of wealthy aristocrats). According to Shea, this strategy of assuaging polite society led, in turn, to a bitter debate within the community of aspiring Cynics, who increasingly accused one another of being a “false Cynic”—of being, that is to say, the sort self-serving rationalizer who only seems to fight for the advancement of reason while in fact participating in reason’s instrumentalization. In this second failure, we see the emergence of modern (lowercase) cynicism, and with it, the emergence of counter-Enlightenment critique.6



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