“When Diogenes Pisses and Masturbates in the Marketplace” – On Peter Sloterdijk’s Greek-Jewish Kynical Hero


Many philosophers have their pre-Socratic precursors. Plato had Parmenides, Karl Marx had Democritus, Friedrich Nietzsche had Heraclitus, and Martin Heidegger had Parmenides (and Anaximander). In contrast to all of these thinkers, Peter Sloterdijk takes Diogenes as his precursor. The choice is telling and, to be sure, it flies in the face of philosophy. And that is exactly what Sloterdijk, in his book The Critique of Cynical Reason, wants to do.

Like Nietzsche, Sloterdijk wants to challenge idealism; and like Marx, he takes to materialism. However, Sloterdijk sees in Diogenes a challenge that, to his mind, is fundamentally better than Nietzsche and Marx’s challenges because Diogenes and his kynicism leaves discourse behind.   Instead of arguing with idealism, kynicism is a living, “embodied,” challenge to idealism.

Regarding what he calls “ancient kynicism,” in its “Greek origins,” Sloterdijk argues that it is in principle “cheeky” (or in German “frech,” which, in old German is associated with “productive aggressivity” and “bravery” and “boldness”). This cheekiness is found in its total disrespect for civility and emulation of “embodied” vulgarity. In the face of this, “respectable” Greek thinking doesn’t “know how to deal with it.”

To illustrate, Sloterdijk gives two examples of how the kynic relates to Socrates. When Socrates “speaks of the divine soul,” he “picks his nose.” When Socrates discusses the theory of ideas, the kynic “farts” (101).   And when Socrates speaks of Eros, as he does in the Symposium and the Phaedrus, the kynic “masturbates in public”(101).   Seen in relation to Alciabades, who stumbles in drunk to the Symposium, the kynic is much more radical. According to Sloterdijk, what makes him more radical is the fact that he, unlike someone like Alciabades, doesn’t engage in conversation with Socrates:

Socrates copes quite well with the Sophists and the theoretical materialists if he can entice them into conversation in which he, as a master of refutation, is undefeatable. (104)

The problem is that conversation itself “presupposes something like an idealist agreement”(104). For this reason, we don’t see Diogenes in a dialogue with Socrates. Nonetheless, we do bear witness to Plato’s characterization of Diogenes as “Socrates gone mad”(104) because, according to Sloterdijk, this phrase is one that gives respect and recognition to the kynical challenge.

Sloterdijk also cites an anecdote attributed to Alexander the Great to illustrate why Diogenes and kynicism are the greatest challenge to power:

An anecdote has Alexander the Great say that he would like to be Diogenes if he were not Alexander. If he were not the fool of his political ambition, he would have to play the fool in order to speak the truth to the people, and to himself. (102)

Those who rule, according to Sloterdijk, “lose their self-confidence to fools, clowns, and kynics.” In other words, cheekiness is not “discourse” (idealized discussion or debate, Socratic style) or politics (in the spirit of Alexander), which are on the side of untruth (because they are what he calls “head” theory); cheekiness is on the side of truth and the body.

Sloterdijk creates something of a metonymy to describe what this cheekiness is. It is “desperately funny,” “satirical resistance,” “uncivil enlightenment,” “material embodiment,” “low theory,” and “practical embodiment.” Sloterdijk calls the language of Diogenes the “language of the clown” which uses “pantomimic materialism” to refute the “language of the philosophers”(103).

But, to be sure, Sloterdijk argues that kynicism has two origins. The Greek kynic is not alone. One origin is Greek; the other is Jewish. Diogenes’s counterpart is David:

The prototype of the cheeky is the Jewish David, who teases Goliath, “Come here, so I can hit you better.” He shows that the head has not only ears to hear and obey but also a brow with which to menacingly defy the stronger: rebellion, affront, effrontery. (103)

Taken together, one could argue that, for Sloterdijk, the kynic is a kind of baudy (cheeky) Jewish clown whose goal it is to defeat “the stronger.”

But the clincher is to be found in what the kynic does in the public sphere. For Sloterdijk the best place to “demonstrate” the kynics argument is not a public debate so much as in a public spectacle:

The animalities are for the kynic a part of his way of presenting himself, as well as a form of argumentation…The kynic, as a dialectical materialist, has to challenge the public sphere because it is the only space in which the overcoming of idealist arrogance can be meaningfully demonstrated. Spirited materialism is not satisfied with words but proceeds to a material argumentation that rehabilitates the body. (105)

Playing on this call for public defecation and vulgarity, Sloterdijk calls for “pissing in the idealist wind”(105).   But Diogenes does more. Not only does he urinate in public; he also “masturbates” in public. And when he urinates and masturbates in public he creates what Sloterdijk calls the “model situation”(106).

In a moment of scatological humor, Sloterdijk imagines the scene of the “real wise man” who shits and masturbates in front of Alexander the Great. To his mind, Alexander would “stand in admiration.” Given this imagined admiration, it “can’t be all that bad.” And, apparently, Alexander laughs: “here begins a laughter containing philosophical truth”(106).

This laughter, claims Sloterdijk, is the very thing that Adorno denied “categorically” (106).   In the face of Adorno and the world, Sloterdijk suggests that we take the “model situation” to heart and shit, urinate, and masturbate in public for all to see. That “demonstration” of the kynical argument will evoke laughter and, as he suggest, a truth that has been stifled by idealism.

Given this way of thinking (can we even call it that?), one can understand why Slajov Zizek (who has great interest in kynicism) would take to the spectacles that were going down at Occupy Wall Street.

Although the movement went on for a while, it failed, according to many critics, because it lacked a coherent message. In other words, it failed because it couldn’t enter discourse. This, to be sure, is what Sloterdijk seems to be saying it should do. Indeed, for him kynicism’s greatest challenge is to stay out of public discourse. The problem with this is that if it doesn’t do this, it will have no political meaning. But, perhaps, that’s the point. As Sloterdijk suggests above, Alexander would laugh in the face of such public displays of vulgarity. He would give up politics and power if he were to see this. However, what we saw was the opposite. Power didn’t laugh at the spectacle. It became utterly serious and drove it out of the public sphere.

The problem, therefore, with kynicism has to do with its ends. If its only end is to be embodied, then fine. But the question is whether it will win in the long run. Sloterdijk thinks it will because, as he suggests, these public acts leak into the private realm. And he cites proof based on how the public changed its views toward sexuality. However, the ultimate laughter, the laughter of Alexander when he gives up power for truth, cannot be but a kind of utopian-slash-messianic thing.

That said, I think we should keep our eyes open for more kynicism in the future. Zizek and many intellectuals stand behind this kind of public affront and many of them believe that it is greater than public discourse and conversation. It is, as they believe, greater than the Enlightenment and it’s truth, the truth of materialism, is greater than the truth of idealism. This truth is to be found, for Sloterdijk and those like him, in public vulgarity and kynicism. This truth, for Sloterdijk, is a Greek-Jewish hybrid of Diogenes and David – it is a Greek-Jewish-Warrior-clown of sorts. And it’s “model situation” is public defecation and masturbation. The question, however, is who is going to have the last laugh.

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