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The Battle for Socrates’ Succession: Diogenes the Cynic’s Abuse of Plato

One of the papers from the Eta Sigma Phi panel at the 2011 APA

Caleb E. Scholle
New York University

In this paper, I argue that Diogenes the
Cynic’s abuse of Plato, recounted by the
biographer Diogenes Laertius, is not, as
scholars have generally assumed, a mere
literary invention. Rather, Diogenes’ abuse
provides us with a record of an historical
philosophical rivalry between Plato and
the earliest Cynics. By examining the
substance of his abuse of Plato, Diogenes’
motivations become clear, for these are
not random attacks on a prominent public
figure, but a concerted and systematic
effort to denigrate a philosophical rival.
By abusing Plato, Diogenes brilliantly sets
forth the tenets of Cynic philosophy and
establishes himself as the pre-eminent
philosopher in Athens — the rightful heir
to Socrates’ legacy.
In this paper, I focus on one major
theme of Diogenes’ abuse: Plato’s vanity.
Diogenes Laertius recounts that Diogenes
once asked Plato for some figs; Plato sent
him an entire jar full. Diogenes then
replied: “If some one asks you how many
two and two are, will you answer twenty?
So, it seems, you neither give as you are
asked nor answer as you are questioned”
(DL 6.26). In another episode, Diogenes
tramples Plato’s carpets and says, “I
trample upon Plato’s vainglory” (ibid.).
Plato is thus portrayed as the antitype to
the Cynic, who coolly restrains himself
from material pleasures. Plato’s philosophical
authority is seriously undermined by his
disgraceful attachment to luxury. How can
one who cannot even control his own appetites
be considered a serious philosopher?
Diogenes, who lives a philosophically pure
ascetic life, as Socrates did, abuses Plato
as a means of establishing philosophical
supremacy.
Classicists and philosophers have been
content to assume that Plato was a faithful
Socratic. I will show that his position as
the heir of Socrates was in no way guaranteed
in the fourth century. Rather, a
strange man named Diogenes, strangely
neglected in modern scholarship, was
Socrates’ true philosophical heir.
[Editor’s note: Caleb was unable to
attend due to a death in the family. David
Giovagnoli read his paper for him.]

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