Statue of Diogenes the Cynic holding the lamp of reason in Sinop, Turkey; Statue of Plato at the Academy of Athens, Greece

Life versus learning: a battle of the titans

In their lives we find fiercely opposed poles of a culture that has profoundly shaped our world


This article is taken from the December-January 2024 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

Two volumes sit on my desk: one, thick and weighty, features a marble bust of Plato on the cover. The other, slimmer volume bears the image of Diogenes in his amphora surrounded by dogs. The contrast between the two contemporaries and rivals shines through, and it is striking that more than 2,000 years after the height of Athenian philosophy, we are still revisiting them. In their lives we find two fiercely opposed poles of a culture that has profoundly shaped our world.

It’s a philosophical grudge match between the towering Goliath of the Western canon — the broad-shouldered champion of metaphysics and founder of the academy to whom all philosophy is a footnote; and the wiry, satirical, bitter-dark ascetic champion of the Cynical school, that tireless puncturer of pretension and chief heel of philosophy. As a committed Platonist myself, I regret to say that the bout — at least when it comes to the biographies — goes to the smelly man from Sinope, not our favourite Athenian.

Robin Waterfield’s Plato of Athens: A Life in Philosophy offers a thorough and well-structured account of the events of Plato’s life whilst placing his many dialogues into a clear chronology. It’s a work that will be useful to students seeking to get a handle on the context and biography behind the philosophical works. However, there are inherent risks to reading Plato’s work through the lens of biography: Waterfield imposes a number of interpretations on Plato’s thought that are, at a minimum, highly contestable.

Plato of Athens: A Life in Philosophy, Robin Waterfield (Oxford University Press, £21.99)

One of the difficulties that confronts anyone writing Platonic biography is the paucity of sources. That’s not atypical of ancient figures, but the more specific danger with Plato is that one exceptional episode, his failed attempt to educate the Tyrant of Syracuse Dionysius I and his heir Dionysius II in the ways of virtue and statesmanship, is very well attested. It thus tends to be the narrow aperture through which all biographical reductions of Plato’s thought will flow.

Waterfield belongs to a school of thought, dominant in many areas of Anglophone Platonic scholarship, that reads his dialogues as reflecting the evolution of his views. According to this reading, there is an Early Plato more wedded to Socratic dialectic and scepticism; a Middle Plato, champion of the forms and the idealistic Republic; and a more reserved Later Plato, who questions the forms in Parmenides and offers more conservative, non-utopian politics in the Laws.

This latter development is often linked to Plato’s failure in Syracuse, a neat just-so story in which idealism is gradually tempered by realism through the hard lessons of experience. Waterfield sets out his stall by explicitly presenting his belief in a “developmental” reading. Then he spoils matters by crudely caricaturing those with other perspectives as “unitarians” who “essentially believe that Plato never changed his mind”.

Of course, Plato’s ideas develop. In setting up the straw man of changing versus unchanging thought, he misrepresents the tension. The real question is not whether Plato’s thought developed, but whether there are substantial repudiations of earlier ideas, rather than refinements and deepenings. On that question there is inherent ambiguity, with good reason to think more of continuity than rupture. Other interpretations than “developmentalism” can be found in the work of scholars such as Lloyd Gerson (who is in the bibliography) and Jacob Klein (who isn’t).

The difficulty that afflicts Plato of Athens is presented at the outset: “this is not a book about Plato’s philosophy, but about Plato”. Yet whilst, as Waterfield acknowledges, our sources for his life are “thin and unreliable”, Plato’s philosophy is more extensively and completely available to us through his dialogues than almost every other ancient thinker.

Waterfield has quite simply embarked on the wrong approach: a life of Plato should centre on his philosophy and dialogues, which in fact constitute the substance of his pursuits, the venture to Sicily being very much the exception in a life devoted to teaching, study and contemplation. Large parts of the book inevitably end up as attempts to summarise Plato’s philosophy, though subordinated to the narrative logic of the Sicily episode.

The Dangerous Life and Ideas of Diogenes the Cynic, Jean-Manuel Roubineau (translated Malcolm DeBevoise) (Oxford University Press, £14.99)

If Plato is a victim of the dry Anglo-Saxon academy, a new translation of Jean-Manuel Roubineau’s work — The Dangerous Life and Ideas of Diogenes the Cynic — is the beneficiary of all the flair, humour and rigour of the French academy. Roubineau, to be fair, has a much easier job. He faces almost a reverse of the Plato problem: Diogenes’s writings have mostly vanished, but sources for his life are reasonably extensive, though not readily verifiable, largely comprising extremely entertaining, scurrilous and amusing anecdotes about his eccentricities and the many clever outrages he cheerfully visited on his hapless fellow Greeks.

The sheer volume of information this charming text packs into its 106 pages is striking compared to Waterfield’s sometimes plodding 230. Whilst Plato remains solidly in his marble tomb, Diogenes is raised up from his lowly grave to cavort again in all his irascible glory. Diogenes is a philosopher who lives in a giant jar, scraps with Athenians in dirty back-alleys, gatecrashes parties and puts leading citizens to flight for fear of his rebuke.

He was indifferent to physical suffering, his own enslavement and the pleasures of family: he would leave as progeny instead “a series of Olympic victories”.

Far more than a mad beggar with a sharp tongue, Diogenes emerges in the book as the ultimate citizen and athlete: inured to heat and cold; unruled by man or appetite; owning nothing but his staff, cloak, and wallet; and triumphantly self-sufficient. In that most famous episode when Alexander the Great comes to see him as he lies in the street, asking whether there’s any favour Diogenes wishes, he responds, “Yes, that you should stand a little out of my sun.” Alexander is reported to have confessed that, if he were not Alexander, he would like to be Diogenes.

Diogenes not only looked down on Plato for living in luxury, but snubbed Socrates for his soft ways. As Roubineau says, he “took a rather dim view of Socrates, accusing him of leading a life of luxury (he owned a little house, furnished with a couch, and he wore sandals from time to time)”. Roubineau makes marvellous use of the wealth of Diogenes stories, with episodes that span interrupting a speech waving a salted fish, through to waking up good-looking Greek lads lest they be buggered in their sleep.

Whereas Plato’s life is best represented by his work, Diogenes’ work is best represented by his life: an existence given over to fierce self-mastery and a merciless spur dug into the flanks of society. His was a mendicant career of liberty with profound echoes for modern-day philosophy and culture. It’s only fitting that in the battle of biographies, the laurel is given to the original “citizen of the world”, Diogenes the Cynic.

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