Part 2 of 2
The following text is a transcript by V. S. of a lecture on the presocratic background of Aristophanes’ Clouds. I have edited this transcript to remove excessive wordiness, and I have added section headings and transitions.
Xenophanes of Colophon wrote in poetic form. It’s very interesting that a lot of early Greek philosophers wrote large poems. Part of the reason is that books were very expensive. You’d have to copy them out by hand, and it was much easier to commit a text to memory if there was a certain meter to it. Rhapsodes, and sometimes just ordinary people who had the leisure to be educated, would memorize entire texts as vast as the Iliad or the Odyssey. These philosophical works, which were much shorter than that, were often times written in verse to facilitate memorizing them completely. Perhaps it worked too well. By depending on memory, people didn’t leave enough copies, so no complete ones survived.
On page 26, these fragments deal specifically with the gods, and they’re very revealing. “Give us no fights with titans, no giants nor centaurs; the forgeries of our fathers. Nor civil brawls in which no advantage is. But always to be mindful of the gods is good.” That’s a very interesting and maybe somewhat ironically constructed fragment. Because what he’s doing in these texts is saying, “Look: titans, giants, centaurs, all this fanciful mythology can’t really be true. It’s all anthropomorphic. It’s all so clearly connected with our own culture and history. Wouldn’t it be convenient, remarkably and unbelievably convenient, if the gods were really so much like us Greeks?”
Number 3: “Homer and Hesiod have ascribed to the gods all deeds which among men are a reproach and a disgrace, heaving adultery and deceiving one another.” If they’re gods, you’d think they’d be above all that.
Number 4: “Mortals believe that the gods are born and have human clothing, voice and form.” Preposterous! Who are we to think that the highest things in the universe are just like us?
Number 5: “Ethiopians say that their gods are flat-nosed and dark, Thracians that theirs are blue-eyed and red-haired.”
Number 6: “If oxen and horses and lions had hands and were able to draw with their hands and do the same thing as men, horses would draw the shapes of gods to look like horses and oxen to look like oxen and each would make the gods’ bodies have the same shape as they themselves had.”
So, this is a recognition of the nature of mythological thinking, and it works as a kind of unmasking or undermining of it, because it does seem rather convenient that the highest beings in the cosmos act like a bunch of Greeks and look like a bunch of Greeks, and if you go to Ethiopia you find that they look and act like Ethiopians, and so on and so forth for every other religion. And that just can’t be right! This kind of notion of the gods just can’t be correct.
However, Xenophanes did believe there was a kind of god, and Xenophanes’ god, though, is the kind of god that you would expect among philosophers. He’s just a mind, not a body. This is the perfect god for people who lead the theoretical life and fall down wells in the process.
Number 8: “God is one, greatest among gods and men. Not at all like mortals in body or thought.” So, god is going to be totally other than mortals and mortal things.
Number 9 at the bottom of page 26: “All of him sees, all of him thinks, all of him hears.” Which means that there are no non-mind parts to god. God doesn’t have a body in some sense. “All of him sees, all of him thinks, all of him hears.” So, god is a seeing, thinking, hearing thing, and he’s all thinking, seeing, and hearing. Everything about god is just the activity of knowing in some sense. God is the divinization of the activity of knowing, theorizing.
Number 10 at the top of page 27: “But without effort . . .” (Of course, philosophers love to do things with as little effort as possible. This is why leisure is so important.) “. . . he shakes all things with the thought of his mind.” Although god has no body, in a sense, he is all-thinking, and everything is set in motion by this activity of thought.
However, it’s fairly clear that Xenophanes doesn’t think that this kind of god is concerned with human affairs. He is not the kind of god that anybody but a philosopher could really find much in common with, and the gods of the Greek philosophers were, we would say, improvident. They didn’t exercise any concern or care toward human affairs. That meant especially this: they didn’t exercise any concern or care for moral matters. There’s nothing about divine or moral law, the legislation of any kind of moral law, in these conceptions of the gods. They are entirely theoretical gods divorced from the whole realm of practice and human affairs.
On page 27, number 16: “Xenophanes says that the things on boats which shine like stars are little clouds which shine as a result of the moon.” These are heavenly phenomena that people looked up to and named, and he’s saying these are just natural phenomena. Heavenly phenomena which were treated as gods in traditional thought were just treated as natural phenomena by people like Xenophanes and others. We’re going to see a lot of that in the Clouds, and it’s an extremely important characteristic of pre-Socratic thought.
Now, let’s look to Anaxagoras. Anaxagoras is mentioned frequently by name in the text that we’re going to be reading. Anaxagoras was born around 500 B.C. He was from Clazomenae. He came to Athens and was an associate of Pericles, a teacher of Pericles, who was the great statesmen of Athens in the 5th century B.C.
He was reputed to claim that the sun, which most people thought was a god, was just a big burning rock. And he was pretty much correct about that. It’s just a big burning gas-bag, as it turns out. But the fact that he thought the sun was a great big burning ball of rock made the Athenians think he was impious. He clearly didn’t believe in the gods of Athens, and so they put him on trial for impiety, and he was exiled from the city, and he died, according to this text, in Ionia near Troy in the city of Lampsacus in 428 B.C.
Anaxagoras was the first philosopher that the Athenians ran out of town for impiety. Also, Socrates claimed to have read his work, and there are many ancient testimonials to the effect that Socrates was a student in some way of Anaxagoras at one period in his life. Socrates in Plato’s Apology, says, “You take me for Anaxagoras? Don’t you know the difference between me and Anaxagoras?” He was dogged by this reputation of having studied Anaxagoras’ teachings. Although he might not have ever known Anaxagoras personally, he still had the reputation of following Anaxagoras’ teachings.
What Anaxagoras believed is very obscure. Anaxagoras basically believed you could account for everything like this: if you wanted to explain why there are cups, that would be easy, because there are microscopic cups, little cup “seeds” as he puts it. The cosmos consists of a great mixture of the “seeds” of things. There are little book seeds and watch seeds and pen seeds and all other sorts of things. The cosmos is just a great jumbled wash of microscopically tiny things. The explanation of cups like these is that visible cups are basically microscopic cup seeds that have been amalgamated and brought together into a sufficient size, so that they rise above the threshold of visibility and we can see them.
Now this is not atomic theory, because atoms are not shaped like little cups. What he’s doing is basically this: the early Greek philosophers believed that there’s this one undifferentiated stuff and that it takes on forms, whereas he believed that the forms of everything were just as much already there as the stuff, and that the emergence of things into the world and their passing away could be explained simply in terms of them rising above or falling below the threshold of visibility, becoming amalgamated up to the size of something you can see and dissolving back into their microscopic constituents.
Anaxagoras believed that this process of coming into being and passing away was actuated by a cosmic principle which you can call the vortex. There’s this great spinning, cosmic whirlpool out there that moves everything around, and things glom on to one another and get larger or get broken up and get smaller. He called the principle that puts the whirlpool in motion nous, or mind. Mind is just the most finely divided kind of matter there is. So, he’s a complete materialist in some sense.
In a sense, Anaxagoras anticipates Plato, because he doesn’t really explain the forms of things; he just presupposes that the forms are already there; we just can’t see them. This big whirlpool imparts motion, and the whirlpool somehow, through necessity again, causes things to rise to visibility and to collapse back into invisibility. At the root of it, of course, is what he calls mind, but mind is in fact indistinguishable from matter. In fact, mind itself is just a very finely divided kind of matter.
Socrates was terribly interested in the theories of Anaxagoras as we’ll see. There’s one particular passage on 56 to 57 (number 13) that is fairly useful in explaining as best we can what Anaxagoras is up to. “The rest have a portion of everything, but mind is unlimited and self-ruled and is mixed with no thing but is alone and by itself.” The rest, I guess, means all the other little seeds that are out there.
“For if it were not by itself but mixed with something else it would have a share of all things if it were mixed with anything. For in everything there is a portion of everything as I’ve said before. Things mixed together with it would hinder it so that it would rule no thing the same as it does by being alone and by itself.” So, mind is set up on its own pulling the strings, getting everything going. It’s not mixed in and dissipated in its power amongst all the things of the cosmos.
“For it is the finest of all things and the purest.” It’s matter. Fine, pure matter.
“It has all judgment about everything and the greatest power, and mind rules all things that possess life, the larger and the smaller. And mind rules the entire rotation so that it rotated in the beginning. At first it began to rotate from a small area, but it rotates over a greater range and will rotate over a greater one.” So there’s this vortex that starts in a small place, and it gets larger and larger and draws all the little seeds into it, and finally you get the whirl going around.
“Mind set in order whatever kinds of things were to be, whatever were, and are now, and whatever will be. It also this rotation in which we are now rotating the stars and the sun and the moon and the air and aether, that are being separated off. This rotation caused the separating off.” So, everything comes to be because of this great swirling material whirlpool, and at the root of it is this material force that he calls nous, or mind.
Empedocles & Pythagoreanism
Empedocles was born in Sicily a few years after Anaxagoras was born. He was, according to the notes here, a very active politician in his home city, very much involved in the affairs of the polis. Yet at the same time he was a philosopher and, again, he wrote in verse. The poem of Empedocles survives in some fairly substantial fragments.
He was rather an odd figure. Let me just read from page 60. About twelve lines from the bottom on page 60:
Empedocles was both a philosopher and a medical man and he was a truly flamboyant figure. He dressed ostentatiously, of which reports tell of purple robes, a golden diadem and bronze shoes. He claimed magical powers for himself. In fragment B112 he says of himself “I go about among you an immortal god no longer mortal, honored among all as it seemed wreathed with headbands and blooming garlands.”
Empedocles believed he was a god. He believed he was a god because of the wisdom that he had attained that had exalted him above the merely human.
This wasn’t that unusual. In the 3rd century A.D., the neo-platonic philosopher Plotinus claimed that he had become a god, in fact that he had done it several times. Pythagoras of an earlier generation, also from southern Italy, claimed to have become a god.
But this is rather extraordinary. And again, it makes one suspicious about the philosopher’s piety. Just as the image of god you get in Xenophanes sounds suspiciously like a philosopher. You get philosophers going around and claiming “we are gods.” We have become divine through the activity of philosophizing. Empedocles eventually tired his fellow citizens of him, and they exiled him. They sent him away. He died in Peloponnese which is the part of Greece where Sparta exists.
Empedocles took up certain elements of Pythagoreanism and also the religion known as Orphism, which was an ancient Greek mystery religion. It’s worth talking about because you’re going to see certain elements of this quasi-religious philosophy in the Clouds too.
The Pythagoreans basically believed something like this: there is a divine principle which is a mind. Little sparks of this divine principle somehow get cast off like sparks are cast off a fire. Little sparks go floating off into the darkness. Just think of a campfire. Instead of being extinguished, the sparks get caught up in the material realm and become “enmattered.” So, what you have is souls, which are bits of the great soul, god, caught up in material things, and you get animals, including human beings. These souls are alienated from their source, which is blissful and happy, and because they have bodies now they are capable of suffering. Therefore, life is suffering for all living things, and that’s because we really don’t belong here. Our souls are just trapped here for a short period of time.
Fortunately, however, the mind has also set in motion a process by which we can return to our source. What happens is this: as souls live out their lives in a body, and as the body dies, they are incarnated in new bodies, and they go through a cycle. The cycle is governed by a kind of moral law, and if you are so lucky as to be a soul stuck in a human body, a rational soul, you can get a hold of the teachings of Pythagoras, and you can learn how you can get out of this endless cycle of birth and suffering, death and rebirth.
The way to do this is to purify your soul as much as possible of any connection to or admixture with the body. The best way to do this is by engaging in intellectual activities that strengthen the soul. The best kind of intellectual activities are the ones that have the least to do with anything practical. So, that would include science and mathematics. Pythagoras was really the founder of mathematics as a theoretical activity. Beforehand, geometry was literally what the word means, which is “Earth measuring.” That’s surveying. He turned geometry into a purely theoretical discipline. The purpose of this was to separate the soul as much as possible from the body, so that when the body died the soul would no longer be caught in this endless cycle of birth, rebirth, and suffering and would instead ascend and reunify itself and be annihilated as an individual entity and rejoin the original World Soul, if you will.
Now, this all sounds very Buddhistic, and the Orphic mystery religion of the time taught very similar things. Pythagoras was in a sense one of the first “gurus” of the West. He took up a certain religious kind of teaching and combined it with spiritual exercises which were designed to bring about the salvation of the soul. These spiritual exercises involved study. They also involved other things; asceticism, self-discipline, and self-denial were very important for him.
So, Pythagoreans would give up their attachments to worldly things. They would live together in little colonies. They would give their property over to the group or to its maintenance. And they would practice vegetarianism. They would swear off sex and any of the other pleasures of the flesh. Because again, the pleasures of the flesh were considered rivets that keep the soul trapped and attached to the body.
After a sufficient amount of this kind of preparation, living the Pythagorean life, one was supposed to become enlightened and then freed from suffering. Empedocles basically accepted this kind of teaching and incorporated it into his work.
Pythagoreans were set up in a very interesting way. They distinguished between the akousmatikoi and the mathēmatikoi. Akousmatikoi just means “listeners,” the “auditors.” According to this text which quotes Iamblichus, a Pythagorean in late antiquity, they were two different sects of the Pythagoreans. But I think the truth is they represented two different stages within the Pythagorean hierarchy.
The akousmatikoi were the neophytes. They’re the people who became interested in Pythagoreanism, and they were undergoing a kind of initiation, and so they’re only allowed to listen, and they were lectured to from behind a veil. They couldn’t even see their teacher. They would come to the lectures. They would listen. They would begin these ascetic practices. They would give up their worldly possessions. They would swear off sex and fun and meat and so forth. The idea was if they became sufficiently good students they could graduate on to the next level.
Now, the Pythagoreans were very clever about this. If you were a bad student, they wouldn’t tell you that you were a bad student. They’d say “congratulations, you’ve learned all of our secrets. You’re now a full-fledged Pythagorean.” They would give them a diploma and send them on their way. Sort of a booby prize. Then they would go off happy and feeling enlightened.
I guess in that way you could say there would be two sects, for two different groups. The ones that flunked out would be just the listeners, but the next level would be to become one of the mathēmatikoi, which means “knowers.” They went on to various degrees of Pythagorean wisdom and so forth.
This became the model of every sort of organization like this that’s ever existed since. from the Freemasons to Dianetics. You go through all these different levels of initiation, keep paying in and getting wiser and wiser and wiser and more enlightened until finally, when you die, that’s just the end.
I’ve never understood that. I’ve always thought that I’d like to be reincarnated as many times as possible, because I really don’t experience life as suffering. They did. They experienced life as great suffering, and therefore just wanted to get rid of it.
Empedocles took very seriously these sorts of teachings, and he taught them himself. You’re going to see elements of this in the Clouds. Unfortunately, it’s not very well done. It’s sort of a parody of these initiation rites and secret cult-like facilities, these little thinkeries, these little huts they’d get together in and keep the world out. They would go through initiation rites and learn all the secrets of nature, study geometry and astronomy and other things that were useless, precisely because they were useless.
There are six basic principles in Empedocles’ system. The four elements: earth, air, fire, and water. Then there are two principles which cause the elements to move around and get reorganized. Those principles are love and strife. The four elements—earth, air, fire, water—are the material stuff out of which everything is made. Then the question is how do they get rearranged, and what causes the processes of transformation. He said there are two forces that do that. There’s love and strife. Love is the force that brings everything together, and strife is the force that disperses everything: the forces of integration and disintegration.
Let me just read a couple of these little fragments, which I think are really very interesting. First of all, number 28 on page 61:
Friends who dwell within the great city wall of yellow on the heights of the citadel, you whose care is good deeds, respect all havens for strangers untouched by evil pale. I go about among you an immortal god, no longer mortal, honored among all as it seems wreathed with headbands and blooming garlands. Wherever I go to the flourishing cities I am revered by the men and women and they follow together in tens of thousands inquiring of the path to find the prophet. Some in need of prophecy, while others pierced for a long time with harsh pains ask to hear the voices of healing for all diseases.
So, here he is this itinerant teacher with tens of thousands flocking to this living god to find the way out of their suffering. He’s sort of a bodhisattva. He’s attained enlightenment, but instead of just dying, he stuck around to teach all of us the way to salvation. This is what he conceived of himself as doing.
On page 67:
But I shall return to that path of songs which I recounted before drawing off from one account this account. When strife had reached the lowest depth of the vortex and love comes to be in the middle of the world at this point all these things come together to be one single thing. Not at once, but willingly banding together, different ones for different places. As they were mixed myriads of tribes of mortal things poured forth but many contrariwise remained unmixed while they were mingling all that strife still held back aloft. So, had it not entirely completed its brainless retreat from them to the furthest limits of the circle that it remained in some of the limbs where from others it had withdrawn.
Now, this is very hard to figure out. But again, the idea is apparently there’s some kind of great cosmic whirlpool or vortex out of which all things are emerging, and the principle of love is apparently the principle which causes things to congeal together and form into something solid, whereas strife causes them to dissolve and disperse. I don’t know any more to say than that, but again this is an interesting and peculiar teaching, and you’re going to find echoes of it in the Clouds.
On page 68 and 69 too, there are some passages about the origins of living things. Number 52 at the bottom of 68: “By her love many necklace faces sprouted but on her wandering naked bereft of shoulders and eyes were roaming alone in need of foreheads. In this situation, the members were still single-limbed as a result of the separation caused by strife, and they wandered about aiming at mixture with one another.” So, first of all, you have these disjecta membra, these bits of bodies floating around. Then what happens is love draws the bodies together to form moving organisms.
“So when divinity was mixed to a greater extent with divinity and these things began to fall together however they chanced to meet and many others beside them arose continuously.” So there’s a kind of random process where all these things come together and out of this process form living animals.
“Many came into being with faces and chests on both sides, man-faced ox progeny, and some to the contrary rose up as ox-headed things with the form of men compounded partly from men and partly from women including the shadowy parts.” Now, all of these creatures of course failed to survive, but after a long enough period of time of random collocations of body parts, things were put together that actually worked. So, you have the basis of a kind of evolution through random mutation and natural selection account of the origin of living things. Again, there’s no necessity of referring to gods at all.
Diogenes of Apollonia
Let’s flip to Diogenes of Apollonia. We just have a couple things to look at from him. Diogenes of Apollonia’s teachings are mentioned in Plato’s Phaedo. We’ll see that later. He was an approximate contemporary of Socrates, a bit older. He hung around Athens, so his teachings were widely known.
Let’s look on page 94, number 5:
In my opinion, that which possesses intelligence is what people call air and all humans are governed by it, and it rules all things. In my opinion, this very thing is god and it reaches everything and arranges all things and is in everything, and there is no single thing which does not share in this. But no single thing shares in it the same way as anything else, for there are many forms both of air itself and of intelligence, for it is multiform. Hot air and cold, drier and wetter, more stable and possessing a sharper movement and unlimitedly many other alterations are in it both of flavor and of color.
So, this is probably why Anaximenes chose air, too. Because it’s something you can imagine taking on infinite different forms, especially if you look at clouds and see them taking on shapes and how fluid they are.
On page 95, number 8: “Air is the element where are unlimited worlds and unlimited void. The air by being condensed and rarified is generative of the worlds. Nothing comes to be from or perishes into what is not. The earth is round and is supported in the center of the cosmos and has undergone its process of formation through the rotation [again, a vortex] resulting from the hot and the solidification caused by the cold.” “All things are in motion and there are infinite worlds.”
His account of cosmogony is the following, “the whole is in motion and comes to be rare in one place, dense in another. Where the dense parts chance to come together it formed the earth while revolving and the other things in the same way. The lightest things occupy the highest position and produce the sun.” Take it or leave it. The fragments are, for the most part, bereft of the arguments for why we should believe these things.
Natural Philosophy in General
The main characteristic of the natural philosophers was the attempt to, first of all, come up with a non-theistic, non-mythological explanation for everything. You don’t need gods to explain the cosmos. You can explain it in terms of natural forces, natural necessity. Not design. Not will. Not choice.
Another characteristic is that they do make reference to gods or divine principles, but their gods are entirely improvident. They have no concern with human affairs. They’re just purely theoretical gods. They might get the cosmos moving, get the vortex spinning. That’s it. They don’t have minds, so how could they be concerned about us? Well, Xenophanes’ god is mind, but water doesn’t have mind or air doesn’t have mind. So, either they’re mindless principles, or if they’re minds, their minds are unconcerned with merely human affairs. In any case, they’re improvident gods.
And a third common feature is that they’re entirely unconcerned with moral or practical issues. The whole point of early Greek natural philosophy is, in a sense, to rise above the practical and to understand what nature is. There’s an implicit assumption here that nature is not moral. If you look out into the natural world, you discover just natural forces moving around by necessity. You do not discover any right or wrong, any moral law written into nature. Just the forces of necessity.
So, what does one do with the gods and morality? If something is excluded from the realm of nature, it is placed in a different realm. It is placed in the realm of convention or custom. And what happens at this time is the concepts of Greek nomos or dikē, which can be translated as “law” and “justice” or “right,” lose their primitive meaning of “the way of things,” and nomos and dikē become treated as conventions, as things that exist by the agreement of human beings. They’re cultural things. Law and right are matters of culture. Any notion of law or right in a moral sense is removed from the natural realm. The term for nature is physis, from which we get the word physics. A distinction is made by these Greek philosophers between things that happen by nature and things that happen by convention.
The things that happen by nature are amoral, and the things that happen by convention include the realms of the gods (the mythological gods) and morality.
Now that is interesting, and the implications become striking when one adds a fourth characteristic of these early Greek philosophers of nature, which is that they regarded nature as good. If anything’s good, it’s going to be nature. Not morally good, because morals are matters of convention. Good in an extra-moral or super-moral sense: worthy of respect. If anything’s worthy of true respect, it’s nature. Conventions are not worthy of any respect. They’re contemptible. The main reason for this is that nature is unchanging.
Now, what does that mean? Well, everything’s changing around us, right? The weather, the seasons. But the patterns of nature never change. The underlying causes of natural phenomena are eternal, unchanging principles, whereas with human conventions and customs there is a recognition that they change. And they change over time and from place to place. They’re relative to time and place. Well, let me ask you: What do you want to bank on? Things that never change or things that are always changing, always in flux?
The ancient Greek natural philosophers thought that what’s unchanging is best, and what changes is contemptible, and, therefore, the realm of convention, the realm of human things if you will, was regarded by these people with a certain amount of contempt. Human beings who were too caught up in human things were regarded with a great deal of contempt. This is true among the natural philosophers, the Pythagoreans, people like Empedocles. Ordinary human beings were regarded as contemptible, because they’re caught up in the things that change, that are unimportant, that just flow along.
Morality was regarded as somewhat contemptible. Because again, it’s merely a matter of convention.
Now, these purely theoretical thinkers laid the foundations for a school of thought that was almost entirely practical in its orientation: the Sophists. The Sophists accepted the basic metaphysical framework of the natural philosophers, especially the distinction between nature and convention and the value judgments that were made about that distinction. They regarded nature as good and convention as contemptible.
Now, when you want to turn your attention to human affairs with that distinction in mind and you want to ask yourself “how do we govern ourselves?” then the answer is this, “we govern ourselves by nature, not by convention.” And what is nature in human beings? How does nature manifest itself in a human being? What’s the most natural thing about us? I mean, as opposed to the merely conventional or customary. What’s the most natural?
Your urges, your desires. It is not the mind, because the mind is so heavily stamped with convention that the body would be more natural than the mind in some sense. The most natural thing about the body are our desires. You find that those things are invariant from human being to human being. We all need to eat. We all need to sleep. We all have our little lusts. So, that’s just what’s human. That’s what’s natural.
So, the Sophists taught that we need to live by nature, not by convention. To live by nature meant, to the Sophists, to satisfy your desires as best as you possibly can.
So, we’ll break off here, but let me just say that at the beginning of the next session when we look at the Clouds we’ll look at these little tiny chunks from Protagoras’ thought. There are four of them. Four little sentences. And we’ll look at this passage from Antiphon, which is number 16 on page 105. In the Antiphon fragment, particularly, the distinction between nature and convention is very much operative and is very clear as the foundation for the Sophists. The Sophists taught living by nature, and that meant a certain cavalier contempt for law and for morality, because these were merely conventional.
Now, there’s another group that had this very same teaching. This is the group known as the Cynics. The Cynics were really not a defined school or philosophy until after the time of Socrates. But the Cynics also believed that you should live by nature, meaning to satisfy your basic desires, not by convention.
The main distinction between the Cynics and the Sophists was this: the Sophists were still somewhat conventional about their desires. So when they looked to their desires, they decided, “I desire to get rich” and “I desire to get famous” and “I desire to have power.” These are fairly conventional desires. “I want a big house.” “I want a Lexus.” And on and on and on. So, they went to law school, basically. They went to school to study how to become politically powerful by arguing in the public, and they wanted to get rich; they wanted to get powerful; they wanted to get famous.
The Cynics saw through that, and they said, “Look, these people are just as enslaved to convention as anybody else. They think they’ve seen through it all, but they’re just caught up in material gain, merely conventional needs. No one needs a big house. No one needs a lot of clothes. No one needs these things, these luxuries.” To live by nature means to live by the barest of necessities. The highest good for a human being is to be free, and to be free, for the Cynics, meant that you just gave nature its barest due.
So, Diogenes the Cynic was famous for living in a rain barrel because he didn’t need a house. He went around barefoot, and he had a single ragged cloak. A lot of these people looked to Socrates as a model because Socrates lived a life of voluntary simplicity as well and valued his freedom more than anything else too.
The Cynics regarded the gods as contemptible, and Diogenes was known to clout people who were worshipping the gods over the head with his staff. That was the only use he had for it. He would chase people away from religious shrines. He was quite dirty, because he didn’t need to wash every day. That was a luxury. He had a cup and a bowl for his food, but he threw his cup away when he saw a beggar drinking water with his cupped hands because he realized this man had taught him a lesson that he didn’t need cups. Nature had provided cups for us. When he saw a little boy dipping lentils out of a pot with a piece of bread he threw his bowl away too because he realized that that wasn’t necessary as well.
So, he pared his life down to the absolute bare minimum, and he lived like homeless people live today, but instead of being a deinstitutionalized schizophrenic or somebody who drinks a lot, he was living this way on high moral principle. Because he thought this was the best kind of life for a human being. He was dirty, ragged, and filthy. But he felt that he was free, and that he was good because he was living by nature, and he had nothing but the most lofty contempt for ordinary people, including the Sophists who were caught up with worldly things, with conventional desires.
The Cynics did not seek to free themselves from all desires. They sought only to free themselves from any unnecessary desires and any unnatural desires. When you think about what are the basic necessary desires for human beings there are very few; food, clothing, shelter, occasional sexual satisfaction. Nothing else. They didn’t have families.
Diogenes was sometimes seen masturbating in the marketplace. He didn’t have to go to a darkened theater. Diogenes was seen masturbating in the market place once, because he had divested himself of things like shame that got in the way of the satisfaction of his natural desires. Somebody rebuked him for this shameful activity, and he said, “If only I could only satisfy the hungers of my belly simply by rubbing it.” And he went on about his business. These were strange people.
I mention the Cynics because there’s a strand of cynicism you’re going to see in the Clouds, too. Cynicism before there was Cynicism. The reason for that, is that a lot of the Cynics looked to Socrates, and they looked to this portrait of Socrates, which has some merit, as a guide.
But Socrates is also shown in the Clouds as a Sophist, and what the Sophists did to get ahead and be rich is teach the art of public speaking, basically, because that was the key to wealth and power in ancient Greece. They taught how to make the weaker argument the stronger. The reason they felt this was OK was, again, if you learned how to swindle people, gain political power and so forth over them, that would be a way of satisfying your desires.
Morality, religion, and all conventional scruples were contemptible, and you needed to free yourself from these things as much as possible. However, you also needed to know how to exploit these things as much as possible in order to gain power over other people. We’ll see all this when we look in the Clouds.
We’ll see all of these things in the Clouds, because Socrates in the Clouds is shown to be a kind of combination of all the pre-Socratic schools. What Aristophanes is also trying to show is the inner harmony of all these pre-Socratic schools, even though they’re radically different. From the zonked out Pythagoreans eating vegetables and starving themselves in their little ashrams, to the natural philosophers who were gazing at the stars and falling down wells, to the well-dressed bejeweled Sophists with their “if it doesn’t fit, you must acquit” kind of oratory, to the Cynics sitting around in their rags masturbating in the marketplace. All of these guys were radically different. Yet at the same time, there’s an inner coherence in all these schools of thought. Aristophanes shows this inner coherence by showing how they can all be characteristics of a single man, and unfortunately the butt of this is poor Socrates.