The Greek Praise of Poverty: Origins of Ancient Cynicism
by William D. Desmond
University of Notre Dame Press,
240 pages, $25

We all know the story: Carrying a lantern at midday into the marketplace, the great Cynical philosopher Diogenes states that he is searching for an honest man. As it happens, the source, Diogenes Laertius, makes no mention of the marketplace or honesty. But in whatever version, the story is a classic: Diogenes-critical and incisive-in one of his many provocations, defacing the currency, the customs, of the realm. Such provocations earned him his moniker, the Dog, and his followers their name, the Cynics.

Diogenes is, in the history of ideas, unique. Combine the poverty of St. Francis, the satire of Rabelais, the moral critique of Nietzsche, add a dash of Thoreau, and finish with a peculiar shamelessness. The ancients reverenced him: In Diogenes Laertius’ Lives of Eminent Philosophers, only Zeno, Epicurus, and Plato garner more attention. Modern scholarship, however, tells a different story. Studies of the Hellenistic period ignore him, arguing, in their silence, that he lacks the significance of Zeno, Epicurus, or even Pyrrho. He is viewed at best as a wayward child of the nascent Hellenistic age, the beginning of the end of classical thought, and at worst as illegitimate, the importation of an eastern asceticism and impoverishment.

Cynicism is the earliest of the great Hellenistic schools, a major influence on those that follow, but can we call Cynicism a Hellenistic philosophy? If the classical age ends with the death of Alexander in 323 b.c., then surely Epicurus, born in 341, and Zeno, born eight years later, are Hellenistic. But Diogenes-dying in the same year, by some accounts on the same day, as Alexander-was born in the waning years of the fifth century, and his forerunner and possible teacher Antisthenes (who has direct ties to Socrates) is born years before Plato. That Diogenes’ asceticism and impoverishment seems foreign to classical Greek thought perhaps reflects less historical fact and more our own desires. Cynicism’s founders are as classical as Aristotle and Plato.

In another story, Laertius reports that Plato, when asked about Diogenes, called him a “Socrates gone mad.” Diogenes’ poverty seems a perfect example. Socrates views his own poverty as incidental, the unintended result of his service to Athens, while Diogenes deliberately desires poverty itself. But is this madness? Socrates, the model of a philosopher, is more than merely unintentionally poor: Indifferent to his own comforts, conversing with rich and poor alike, he exhibits a self-sufficiency that calls into question any necessity for wealth. And Plato himself follows Socrates when he argues against the philosopher kings having any regard for money and finds decline when some of those kings turn to moneymaking.

In recent years, a small Cynic revival has taken place. A fine collection of essays, The Cynics: The Cynic Movement in Antiquity and Its Legacy, and new studies of Diogenes and Antisthenes by Luis Navia relate Cynicism’s reflection of Greek culture, its philosophical importance, and its continuing significance. But these studies still place Cynicism within a Hellenistic framework and leave Cynic poverty unexplored. Now, in The Greek Praise of Poverty: Origins of Ancient Cynicism, William D. Desmond wants to tell a new story, one of a classical Cynicism.

Through a comprehensive analysis of wealth and poverty in classical Greek thought, Desmond recounts two concurrent themes. The first illuminates the Greek understanding of the virtue of poverty, running mainly from Hesiod to Aristotle, though concentrating on the late fifth and early fourth centuries’ historical, comedic, and philosophical writings; the second illuminates this understanding’s continuation in Diogenes and Cynical thought in general. Desmond’s goal is to read the Cynic emphasis on poverty as part of the classical tradition, precisely as part of the cultural thinking of the late fifth and early fourth centuries that praises poverty. To this end, he argues, rightly, that “Cynicism should be seen as a purely classical phenomenon, with deep roots in many aspects of Greek experience,” interpreting even “Cynic asceticism as a response to the Greek experience of poverty.”

Greek thought continually debated the relevance of wealth for virtue. From Hesiod to Aristotle, the sufficiency of wealth for virtue is usually in doubt, although its necessity is often accepted. In outlining the Greek praise of poverty, Desmond concentrates on associated fifth-century themes: the injustice often lurking behind wealth, its connection with hubris, a negative estimation of businessmen, the traditional attack on usury. The rich man finds no respite, continually working to make more money, constantly fearful of robbers and sycophants, conscious of burdensome societal requirements. Virtue is more clearly allied with poverty. And Socrates’ paradoxical statement in Plato’s Apology that “not out of money does virtue arise, but out of virtue money and all other goods for human beings, both private and public”-a passage that has given modern scholars fits for generations-underscores the self-sufficiency of the virtuous individual.

Along the way, Desmond elucidates the Cynics’ paradox that poverty is wealth, a seemingly clear example of Socrates gone mad. Their emphasis on self-sufficiency and frugality-so complete that questions should arise how Diogenes ever procured a lantern and why he was wasting oil in a search so futile-is the result of a long tradition of praise of poverty, culminating in their view that wealth is qualitative, the internal condition of virtue, to which only poverty can lead.

Desmond locates in Herodotus a similar understanding, although at the level of society. In a series of stories, Herodotus narrates that a country’s great wealth leads to hubris, inevitably resulting in its downfall at the hands of a seemingly weaker country, impoverished yet virtuous. First is the story of Croesus, he of inexhaustible wealth, and the Persian king Cyrus. Croesus’ hubris results in the loss of his kingdom, and his freedom, to Cyrus, who in turn repeats the pattern: After gaining great wealth, he decides-even though Croesus himself warns him against it-to invade a poor country, and he loses not only the war with the Massagetae but also his life. A generation later, Darius attempts to invade Scythia and loses as well.

These stories, though, are mere prologue. Persia has been transformed from a poor country into one of infinite wealth, setting the stage for the invasion of poor but valiant Greece. Now led by Xerxes, the great Persian army, so large it takes seven days to cross the Hellespont, is slowed by no more than six thousand Greeks at the Battle of Thermopylae, allowing the Athenians time to evacuate Athens, bring their fleet to Salamis, and defeat the Persians. With this victory of impoverished virtue over hubristic wealth, the classical age is born. And for fourth-century thinkers, nothing could be more clear than the later chapter of Athens itself, which, having become hubristic through great wealth, attacks impoverished Sparta and loses its empire. Wealth leads to hubris, to vice in general; a martial life, the life of a lowly impoverished hoplite, fighting for his country and not for wealth, leads to virtue. The Cynic, at war with society for his soul, lives a martial life, the continual hardships of self-sufficiency and frugality, for which courage is the essential virtue.

For Desmond, Cynicism need not be the logical outcome of the virtue of poverty. Deliberately chosen poverty is not the only response to wealth’s vices. Self-sufficiency need not be understood as individualistically as the Cynics interpret it, an extreme neither their contemporaries nor we may find especially fruitful. Aristotle cogently argues that complete self-sufficiency is only for a wild beast or a god, referring perhaps in the first to Diogenes himself, and both he and Plato write of self-sufficiency without the seeming madness of a complete rejection of society. But (and here lies the strength of Desmond’s fine analysis) Cynicism is, like Platonism and Aristotelianism, a classical Greek enterprise, arising from and expanding on its preoccupation with poverty, wealth, and virtue.

The book is not without small problems. Desmond accepts, without addressing recent criticism, M.I. Finley’s primitivistic theory of Greek economics. A five-chapter tome in which one chapter forms half the book needs further editing. An incomplete subject index and the absence of an index locorum, especially in a work of this type, are regrettable. The Greek font is, at best, messy.

And what of this new story of poverty and virtue? To the Greeks we turn again and again, not in some vain pursuit of knowledge, but to illuminate how best to live. Do we find here yet one more case, as Nietzsche would argue, where the Greeks are wholly foreign to us? Certainly the virtue of poverty was not foreign to Jesus; camels are still large and the eyes of needles small. Diogenes and St. Paul agree: The love of money is the mother, the root, of all evil. St. Francis lived his life in strict accordance with the virtue. Modernity still knows it. Gray and Goldsmith, in their magnificent paeans to rural life, impoverished yet virtuous, relate its nobility. And Thoreau, standing at the door of our age, elucidates, for the first time since the Cynics, the philosophical centrality of the virtue of poverty.

But could Dickens, who was publishing A Christmas Carol as Thoreau contemplated moving out to the local pond, comprehend such a virtue? Can we, now that poverty itself is a condition in need of eradication or amelioration, when its stories, revolving around some type of failure, stress the lack of conscious choice? We all know those stories.

Drew E. Griffin is a writer living in Cambridge, Massachusetts.