How “eclectic” were the Stoics?

Brief outline of the influence of other philosophical schools on the Stoic tradition.

Zeno of Citium, copyright the Trustees of the British Museum. Reproduced with permission.
Zeno of Citium, copyright the Trustees of the British Museum. Reproduced with permission.

In ancient philosophy the term “eclecticism” normally refers to philosophers who don’t adhere to a particular school of thought but borrow concepts and theories from multiple sources.  In particular, the philosopher Antiochus of Ascalon, the teacher of Cicero, introduced an eclectic approach to the Platonic Academy, which attempted to assimilate elements of Stoic and Aristotelian thought into Platonism.

However, when people today talk about eclecticism they often just mean a more general notion of combining different philosophical elements.  The Stoic school itself was originally “eclectic” in this sense.  When Zeno, the founder of Stoicism, arrived in Athens, he found himself at a bookseller’s stall and allegedly read Xenophon’s Memorabilia of Socrates.  (Possibly the section in which Socrates’ relates the parable called The Choice of Hercules, developed by his friend, the Sophist Prodicus.)  According to other accounts, though, Zeno had already read the Dialogues of Plato in his youth.

Zeno was originally a wealthy Phoenician dye merchant who reputedly lost his fortune at sea, and was shipwrecked near Athens.  The story goes that Zeno consulted the Oracle at Delphi and was told to “take on the colour of dead men”, which he interpreted as meaning he should study the philosophers of previous generations.

After reading about Socrates, Zeno turned to the bookseller and asked where he could meet such a man.  The Cynic Crates of Thebes was walking past at that moment, and the bookseller pointed him out to Zeno, who became his follower for many years as a result.  Crates had been the student of Diogenes of Sinope, the founder of Cynicism.  Diogenes in turn was allegedly inspired by one of Socrates’ closest and most highly-regarded followers, Antisthenes.  (Although modern scholars doubt Diogenes could have actually met Antisthenes, it’s quite possible he encountered his writings and perhaps even some of his followers.)

Hence, in the ancient world, authors such as Diogenes Laertius, claimed that the Stoic school founded by Zeno descended directly from Socrates via Antisthenes, and the Cynics Diogenes and Crates.  This is sometimes called the “Cynic-Stoic succession” theory.  Antisthenes was sometimes even referred to as the founder of Cynicism in the ancient world – he was reputedly nicknamed Haplokuon (“Absolute Dog”) and taught at the Cynosarges (“White Dog”) gymnasium.

We’re also told that Zeno studied in the Platonic Academy, under the famous scholarchs Xenocrates and Polemo.  The Cynics did not teach Physics or Logic and it seems that Zeno felt this was a serious omission, which he could rectify by attending other more “academic” philosophical lectures.  Nevertheless, we also know that Zeno attacked Plato’s philosophy, particularly in his Republic, a critique of Plato’s book of the same name.

We also know, however, that Zeno studied under philosophers of another Socratic sect: the Megarians and the associated Dialecticians.  The Megarian school specialised in logic and was founded by Euclid of Megara, another one of Socrates’ circle.  The head of the Megarian school in Zeno’s day, Stilpo, was considered one of the greatest intellectuals of his time.  We find references to him and to Megarian Logic scattered throughout the surviving Stoic literature.  Zeno also appears to have studied with another famous Megarian called Diodorus Cronus.  Although the Megarians were particularly renowned for their Logic, they also had influential ethical teachings, which may have resembled those of the Cynics and other Socratic sects in holding that virtue is the only true good.

Zeno therefore studied under the main figures of all three major surviving Socratic sects of his day.  Xenophon, whose Memorabilia Zeno had read, greatly admired Antisthenes.  Like the Stoics, the Cynics believed that virtue was the only true good.  Antisthenes also appears to have believed this, and perhaps to have attributed it to Socrates.  Likewise, Xenophon appears to suggest this was Socrates’ ethical philosophy.  There are some indications that this was also the position of the Megarian school, and possibly they too derived it from Socrates.  The Stoics therefore possibly believed that the doctrine that became associated with them, that virtue is the only true good, was derived ultimately from Socrates himself, via most of his followers, with the notable exception of Plato, who portrays Socrates saying this in some of his earlier Dialogues, but equivocates elsewhere.  The Platonic Academy later became associated with the doctrine that virtue is the highest but not the only good, and that the good life is composed of virtue in combination with bodily and external goods, which was also the position of the Aristotelian school.

On some accounts, Zeno is surprisingly silent about Aristotle.  However, Plutarch claims that Zeno was heavily critical of the Peripatetic school.  Aristotle stood somewhat outside of the Socratic tradition, and Zeno apparently did not choose to study in the Lyceum.   The early Stoics generally appear relatively uninterested in Aristotle’s philosophy.

Those were the major Hellenistic influences on Stoicism.  However, there are also many references to the pre-Socratic philosophy of Pythagoreanism in the surviving Stoic literature, particularly to the Golden Verses of Pythagoras.  We know that Zeno wrote a book on Pythagoreanism.  So he may have studied Pythagorean writings when developing his conception of the Stoic philosophy.

It’s also generally believed that the pre-Socratic philosopher Heraclitus was important to Stoicism.  There’s no evidence Zeno studied Heraclitus.  However, Cleanthes, Zeno’s successor, the second head of the Stoa, wrote a book on Heraclitus.  For all we know, though, Zeno may have also referred to Heraclitus in his own writings on Physics and that may be why Cleanthes chose to write about him.

These philosophies all influenced the development of Zeno’s original Stoic school, and they continue to be influential among Stoics right down to the Roman Imperial age.  That’s probably because references to these different schools of philosophy were interspersed in the canonical Stoic writings, which subsequent generations of Stoics continued to read.  As far as we’re aware, among other topics, Zeno wrote books on Plato (The Republic), Pythagoras (Pythagorean Questions), and Memorabilia of Crates the Cynic.  He also wrote books on Homer and other poets.

These different philosophical and literary traditions influenced Stoicism in many ways.  However, the Stoic curriculum combined the scholarly study of Physics, Ethics and Logic, probably influenced by the scope of the Platonic Academy.  It’s sometimes said, crudely, that the Stoics derived their Ethics from the Cynics, their Logic from the Megarians, and their Physics from Heraclitus.  They also appear to have been particularly known for taking the Cynic ethical doctrine that virtue is the only true good (perhaps shared with Antisthenes, Xenophon, and the Megarians) and reconciling it with the Platonic (and Aristotelian) doctrine that the good life consists in a combination of virtue, bodily, and external goods.  They did this by introducing the novel concept that virtue consists in making proper selections between things of secondary value (axia), known as “preferred indifferents”.

Although Zeno was the founder of Stoicism, it’s sometimes held that the third head of the Stoa, Chrysippus, was in fact the most influential Stoic scholarch.  He was by far the most prolific of the school’s founders, writing over 700 texts.  Chrysippus modified the earlier doctrines of Zeno and Cleanthes significantly.  It was traditionally claimed that he did so in order to defend them against an onslaught of criticism from the rival Epicurean and Academic schools, particularly from the Academic Skepticism of Arcesilaus, which was just being developed, prior to Arcesilaus being appointed head of the Academy.

Antisthenes and Stoicism

Short article summarising some things we know about the life and thought of the philosopher Antisthenes, one of Socrates’ closest companions and an important precursor of Stoicism.

AntisthenesSome ancient authors, such as Diogenes Laertius, claim that the Stoic school descended from Socrates in the following succession: Socrates taught Antisthenes, who inspired Diogenes the Cynic, who taught Crates of Thebes, the mentor of Zeno, the founder of Stoicism.  This is called the Cynic-Stoic succession.

See my earlier article for a description of the passages in Xenophon’s Symposium depicting Antisthenes’ character and his philosophy.

Aside from Xenophon, one of our best accounts of Antisthenes comes from the chapter about him in Diogenes Laertius’ Lives and Opinions of Eminent Philosophers, which this article explores in detail.

Antisthenes’ Life

We’re told Antisthenes (445 – 356 BC) was an Athenian, although he was not of pure Attic blood.  He distinguished himself, as a young man, at the second battle of Tanagra, during the Peloponnesian War, and was praised by Socrates for his bravery in battle.  Whereas other Athenians sneered at the fact his mother was a barbarian, from Thrace, Socrates defended him and appears to have thought very highly of him.

At first he was a student of the Sophist Gorgias, from whom he learned an elegant rhetorical style.  He became a teacher and gathered a following of students at an early age.  Later he became one of the most prominent followers of Socrates, whom he actually told his students to attach themselves to instead.  He was also highly-regarded by the Athenian general Xenophon, another close friend of Socrates.  Xenophon was about fifteen years his junior so it’s possible they may have fought together in some of the same battles.  Socrates himself was a decorated war hero.  So perhaps these three men may have bonded over their common debt to the military way of life.

Antisthenes was about twenty-five years younger than Socrates.  He and Xenophon undoubtedly both looked up to Socrates as an older veteran, renowned for his courage in battle.  Diogenes Laertius says that the most distinguished of the followers of Socrates were Antisthenes, Xenophon, and Plato.  Plato was about the same age as Xenophon.  Of the three, only Antisthenes seems to have been present at Socrates’ trial and execution; Plato was absent due to illness and Xenophon was on a military service.  Antisthenes is also said to have sought justice against the men who brought Socrates to trial on false charges.

Antisthenes is held responsible for the exile of Anytus and the execution of Meletus.  For he fell in with some youths from Pontus whom the fame of Socrates had brought to Athens, and he led them off to Anytus, whom he ironically declared to be wiser than Socrates; whereupon (it is said) those about him with much indignation drove Anytus out of the city.  (Diogenes Laertius)

According to legend, Antisthenes and Plato did not get along and often criticized each other’s philosophies.  Xenophon likewise was said to have become estranged from Plato.  Antisthenes taunted him for being arrogant, comparing him to a proud, showy horse.  It’s sometimes thought that Xenophon’s account of Socrates was more faithful, whereas Plato embellished his Socratic dialogues with his own ideas and notions derived from Pythagoreanism.

They say that, on hearing Plato read the Lysis, Socrates exclaimed, “By Heracles, what a number of lies this young man is telling about me!”  For he has included in the dialogue much that Socrates never said.

In addition to being a soldier it’s implied by Diogenes Laertius that Antisthenes wrestled.  He was a famously tough and self-disciplined character.  For example, he would walk barefoot over five miles every day to Athens and back again, from his home in the port city of Peiraeus, just to hear Socrates speak.  (That would be a round trip of about three or four hours each day.)

Socrates did gently mock Antisthenes for a kind of inverse snobbery: taking too much pride in his own austerity.  According to Diogenes Laertius’ Life of Socrates, when Antisthenes turned his cloak so that the tear in it became visible, Socrates said “I see your vanity through the tear in your cloak.”

It seems to be implied that after the execution of Socrates, Antisthenes was sought out by young men who wanted to learn philosophy from him, one of the most highly-regarded of the Socratic inner circle.  However, he repelled students forcefully unless they were extremely persistent.  He only accepted a handful.

To the question why he had but few disciples he replied, “Because I use a silver rod to eject them.” When he was asked why he was so bitter in reproving his pupils he replied, “Physicians are just the same with their patients.” (Diogenes Laertius)

He’s sometimes described as carrying a bakteria, the wooden rod or narrow staff used by Spartan officers to beat helot slaves and discipline subordinates.

The Cynics

One day an Athenian man was making a sacrifice to the gods when a small white dog dashed up and snatched away his offering. He chased the dog and it finally dropped the meat at a spot just outside the city gates of Athens. The man was alarmed but received an Oracle telling him to set up a temple to the god Hercules in the precise location where the dog had dropped the offering. He did so and the area, dedicated to Hercules, became known as the Cynosarges, or “White Dog”. Later a gymnasium was built there and that was where Antisthenes would teach philosophy. He too was reputedly nicknamed Haplokuon, the “Absolute Dog”, and some ancient sources claim that he was ultimately the founder of the Cynic (“Dog”) tradition, made famous by Diogenes of Sinope. Antisthenes wrote at least three books about Hercules, and it’s tempting to see his fascination with the figure of Hercules as inspired by the history of the area in which he taught.

Some ancient authors, such as Diogenes Laertius, considered Antisthenes actually to be the founder of the Cynic tradition.  Some even claimed that he taught Diogenes.  However, most modern scholars believe that it’s impossible they could have met.  Nevertheless, it’s almost certain that Diogenes would have heard of Antisthenes and would have been exposed to his philosophy.  So it’s possible that he was the main precursor of the Cynic tradition and that his lifestyle and his writings, well-known at the time, influenced Diogenes the Cynic.   Diogenes Laertius, for example, says:

From Socrates he learned patient endurance, emulating his attitude of  indifference [apatheia], and so became the founder of the Cynic way of life. He demonstrated that pain is a good thing by instancing the great Heracles and Cyrus, drawing the one example from the Greek world and the other from the barbarians.

Diogenes Laertius portrays Antisthenes, the Cynics, and the Stoics as sharing much in common.  In addition to sharing the attitude of philosophical apatheia (indifference, or detachment) they also agreed that the fundamental goal of life was virtue:

They [the Cynics] hold further that “Life according to Virtue” is the Goal to be sought, as Antisthenes says in his Heracles: exactly like the Stoics. For indeed there is a certain close relationship between the two schools. Hence it has been said that Cynicism is a shortcut to virtue ; and after the same pattern did Zeno of Citium live his life.

They also hold that we should live frugally, eating food for nourishment only and wearing a single garment. Wealth and fame and high birth they despise. Some at all events are vegetarians and drink cold water only and are content with any kind of shelter or tubs, like Diogenes, who used to say that it was the privilege of the gods to need nothing and of god-like men to want but little.

They hold, further, that virtue can be taught, as Antisthenes maintains in his Heracles, and when once acquired cannot be lost; and that the wise man is worthy to be loved, impeccable, and a friend to his like; and that we should entrust nothing to fortune. Whatever is intermediate between Virtue and Vice they, in agreement with Ariston of Chios, account indifferent.

Antisthenes made several witty and curt remarks, which could be interpreted as exhibiting as a form of the famous Cynic parrhesia, or frankness of speech.

When he was being initiated into the Orphic mysteries, the priest said that those admitted into these rites would be partakers of many good things in Hades. “Why then,” said he, “don’t you die?”

He walked barefoot and dressed in a single cloak, like the Cynics after him.  Although, as we’ve seen, it’s unlikely to be true that they actually met, according to one legend, when Diogenes asked Antisthenes for a coat to keep out the cold, he taught him to fold his cloak around him double, so that he would only need one garment for both winter and summer.

However, we also have the following anecdotes in Dio Chrysotom:

It was not long before [Diogenes] despised [all the philosophers at Athens] save Antisthenes, whom he cultivated, not so much from approval of the man himself as of the words he spoke, which he felt to be alone true and best adapted to help mankind. For when he contrasted the man Antisthenes with his words, he sometimes made this criticism, that the man himself was much weaker; and so in reproach he would call him a trumpet because he could not hear his own self, no matter how much noise he made. Antisthenes tolerated this banter of his since he greatly admired the man’s character; and so, in requital for being called a trumpet, he used to say that Diogenes was like the wasps, the buzz of whose wings is slight but the sting very sharp. (On Virtue)


Diogenes Laertius wrote “Epicurus thought pleasure good and Antisthenes thought it bad”.  Indeed, he seems to have been well-known for teaching that pleasure was bad.  He famously said “I’d rather be mad than feel pleasure”.  The Stoics differed from this in teaching that both pleasure and pain were merely indifferent, neither good nor bad.  He also advocated a simple life.  By seeking things that are easy to obtain we’re more likely to achieve contentment.  He jokingly said, “We ought to make love to such women as will feel a proper gratitude”.

He practised indifference to the opinion of others.  When told that Plato was criticizing him, he replied “It is a royal privilege to do good and be ill spoken of”.  Marcus Aurelius quotes this saying in The Meditations (7.36).  He advised that when men are slandered, they should endure it more courageously than if they were pelted with stones.  (Which will perhaps remind us of the phrase “Sticks and stones may break my bones but words can never hurt me.”)  Likewise, that “it is better to fall in with crows than with flatterers; for in the one case you are devoured when dead, in the other case while alive.”  When someone said to him “Many men praise you”, he replied, “Why, what have I done wrong?” (He made a similar quip when praised by some men he considered scoundrels.)  This appears to be an allusion to a theme in Socratic philosophy that says that praise is worthless, and maybe even pernicious, unless it comes from the wise and virtuous.

Diogenes Laertius summarized the main arguments of his philosophy as follows:

  • That virtue can be taught.
  • That only the virtuous are noble.
  • That virtue by itself is sufficient for happiness, since it needed nothing else except “the strength of a Socrates.”
  • That virtue is about action and does not require much eloquence or learning.
  • That the wise man is self-sufficient, for all the goods of others are his.
  • That, paradoxically, ill-repute and pain are good things because they provide us with the opportunity to strengthen our wisdom and virtue.
  • That the wise man is not guided by the established laws in his social conduct but by the law of virtue.
  • That the wise will marry in order to have children with suitable women.
  • That the wise man will not disdain to love, for only he knows who are worthy to be loved.

If this is accurate, it does seem virtually identical to the Cynic philosophy, at least in terms of these key points.  It’s also very similar to Stoicism, except that Antisthenes and the Cynics view pain, hardship and disrepute as good things, insofar as they provide us with opportunities to learn virtue, like the Labours of Hercules.  By contrast, the Stoics view these things as indifferent with regard to virtue, and not necessarily to be actively sought out in life.

Antisthenes said that “virtue is the same for women as for men.”  This was the title of a book by the Stoic Cleanthes and based on two lectures that survive by the Roman Stoic Musonius Rufus, the idea that women are as capable of learning philosophy as men was a long-standing feature of Stoicism, perhaps ultimately derived from Antisthenes.


Antisthenes was a very prolific writer.  In fact some critics attacked him for writing too much about trifling things.  His earlier training under the Sophist Gorgias seems to have taught him an elegant rhetorical style.  However, one gets the impression his arguments were considered less learned and sophisticated than Plato’s.  Diogenes Laertius says that in his day the collected writings of Antisthenes were preserved in ten volumes, each containing several texts.  In total, he names the titles of over sixty individual texts attributed to Antisthenes.

These include dialogue, speeches, and other texts.  The topics include rhetoric, the interpretation of poets, natural philosophy, law and economics, love and marriage, music, debate, education, knowledge, and also the virtues of courage and justice, and the nature of the good.  Notably, perhaps, he wrote at least four books on Cyrus, three on Hercules, two on death or dying, and about eight on The Odyssey or characters probably derived from it (Odysseus, Penelope, Telemachus, Circe and the Cyclops) so these were perhaps some of his favourite themes.  Two books entitled The Greater Heracles, or Of Strength, and Heracles, or Of Wisdom or Strength, may possibly have elaborated on what he meant by “Socratic strength”.

He also wrote about, or in response to, several historical and mythological figures: Cyrus, Aspasia, Satho, Theognis, Homer, Helen, Ajax, Calchas, Odysseus, Telemachus, Penelope, Athena, Circe, the Cyclops, Hercules, Proteus, Amphiaraus, Archelaus, Midas, Orestes, Lysias, Isocrates, and the Sophists in general.  He also wrote books on Menexenus, one of Socrates’ sons, and Alcibiades, his lover.  One would presume he wrote about Socrates as well, although what and how much is unclear.  His writings were popular and probably had an influence on generations of philosophers, particularly the Cynics and Stoics.

The Dog of Philosophy

Children’s story about Diogenes the Cynic.

Diogenes the Cynic Billboard.Let me tell you a story… Hundreds and hundreds of years ago, in ancient Greece, there was a very famous philosopher called Diogenes the Dog. Diogenes went about naked, slept on the streets, and begged for scraps of food. So the children used to make fun of him and they pointed at him shouting “You’re just a dirty dog!” If a crowd of people made fun of me and called me a dirty dog, I might cry, but Diogenes didn’t let things like that upset him. Nothing bothered him. My mother used to say: “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.”

Diogenes wasn’t hurt by words, even when people called him a nasty dog. He just laughed and said “You know what, you’re right, I am a dog… I’m the dog of Zeus!” Now, the god Hades had a pet dog, called Cerberus, whose job it was to guard all the dead people, the ghosts, in the Underworld. But Diogenes said he was the guard dog of Zeus, Hades’ brother, the god of the living. And his job was to guard over living people, and show them when they were doing wrong. He would bark at them like a dog, when he saw them doing silly things or misbehaving. Some people were scared of him but other people really loved him, and followed him around, hoping to learn from him and become wise.

Let me tell you three things about dogs… Number one: dogs love people who are nice to them and give them food; they lick their hands, rub up against their legs, and follow them around. Number two: dogs bark at people who have food but won’t share it with them. And number three: they sometimes get angry and bite people who upset them by trying to steal their food. (You have to be careful if you want to take a bone away from a dog.)

Diogenes said he was like a dog but instead of food he only wanted one thing: wisdom. If people had wisdom and gave it to him, he’d be their best friend for life, and follow them around. If they had wisdom but didn’t share it, he’d bark at them until they did. And if they didn’t have wisdom but were foolish and wanted to do bad things, he’d bite them, or hit them with his stick!

One day, Diogenes was captured by a gang of pirates. They chained him up, threw him on their ship, and sailed away with him. They wanted to sell him as a slave, which is a person that belongs to someone else like a pet, or like an animal that’s made to work for them. (People aren’t allowed to have slaves anymore because it’s wrong, but a long time ago there were lots of slaves.)

Diogenes wasn’t bothered. When they tried to sell him, he just rolled around on the floor laughing. A rich man was looking at him and Diogenes said “You look like you need a good boss, to tell you what to do!” So the man bought him, and instead of being his slave, Diogenes became his boss, and his teacher. The man and his sons followed Diogenes around and learned a lot of wisdom from him.

Now Dogs will eat almost anything and people say one day Diogenes ate an octopus that upset his tummy, because it hadn’t been cooked properly. That’s how he died. When he was gone, though, everyone missed him, and the people in his home town built a pillar with a statue of a white dog on top so they would always remember him and so their children would also learn about Diogenes the philosopher, the dog of Zeus.

The Myth of Hercules in Cynicism and Stoicism

Some notes on the importance of the mythical Hercules for the Cynic-Stoic tradition, and a link to the new action movie.

There’s a new action movie out about the myth of Hercules, starring Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, based on graphic novels by Steve Moore. It’s just a bit of silliness but it looks like it’s been well-made, at least in terms of the visual effects, etc.  Unlike another (not to be confused!) recent film, The Legend of Hercules, that was thoroughly panned by the critics.  Somewhat surprisingly, this one looks like it actually draws, albeit loosely, on the myth of the Twelve Labours. (Edit: Turns out that although the Labours feature in the trailer, they’re only fleetingly shown in the movie.) This myth, and legend of Hercules, was of great importance to the Stoics, who followed their predecessors the Cynics in taking the demi-god as a kind of role-model.

The movie might be rubbish (we wait with baited breath!) but it’s inspired me to think again about the relevance of Hercules for the Cynic-Stoic tradition.  A lot of people are unaware of the importance placed on Hercules by the Stoics so I’ve pulled together some quotations quickly to help provide a bit of context. Apologies for just providing some rough notes at the moment. Treat this is a draft – I’ll work it into a more polished article later, time permitting.  (Hercules in Latin = Heracles in Greek, incidentally.)

Prodicus / Xenophon

Socrates reputedly admires the Sophist Prodicus, who was renowned for his inspirational lecture, which became known as The Choice of Hercules.  In his Memorabilia, Socrates’ friend and follower, the Athenian general Xenophon portrays Socrates recounting his own version of this story.  We’re told that it was reading Xenophon’s Memorabilia of Socrates, and apparently this chapter in particular, that inspired Zeno after his shipwreck to embrace the life of a philosopher and become a follower of the Cynic Crates.  Later Stoics appear to also have revered this part of the Hercules myth and perhaps saw it as important insofar as it perhaps ultimately inspired the founding of the Stoa itself.


There’s a curious legend that an Athenian was once about to make a sacrifice to the gods when a small white (or swift) dog ran up and snatched the offering from him.  The man was alarmed but received an oracle saying that he should build a temple to Hercules on the spot, just outside the city gates of Athens, where the dog finally dropped the ritual offering.  The area around the shrine became known as the Cynosarges, or White Dog, and a gymnasium was built there, which was used by illegitimate children.  Antisthenes taught there at one point, and according to Diogenes Laertius, was also nicknamed “The Absolute Dog”, and so some claim this is how the name of the Cynic school originated.

Diogenes Laertius therefore says that Antisthenes was the original founder of Cynicism and that “he argued that hardship is a good thing” and pointed to Hercules as an example in this regard.  We’re told he wrote several texts referring to Hercules in their title, such as Heracles, or Of Wisdom or Strength.  It’s tempting to see his interest in Hercules as somehow inspired by the temple to Hercules at the Cynosarges, where he taught.  Antisthenes was also respected by the later Stoics, and perhaps seen as a precursor of their own school.

Diogenes of Sinope

Hercules_PosterDiogenes Laertius states that Diogenes of Sinope, the Cynic, wrote a dialogue entitled Hercules.  If that’s true, it’s possible this may have been a response to the writings of the same name by his alleged teacher, or at least his inspiration, Antisthenes.

Diogenes was generally associated with the myth of Hercules and is even portrayed as explicitly modelling himself on the mythic hero.  For example, Diogenes is on sale at the slave market…

Buyer: Where are you from?
Diogenes: Everywhere.
Buyer: What do you mean?
Diogenes: You’re looking at a citizen of the world!.
Buyer: Is there anyone whom you strive to emulate?
Diogenes: Yes, Hercules.
Buyer: Then why aren’t you wearing a lion-skin? Though I’ll admit that your club looks like his.
Diogenes: Why, this old cloak is my lion skin, and like him I’m fighting a campaign against pleasure, not at anyone else’s bidding, but of my own free will, since I’ve made it my purpose to clean up human life. (Lucian, Philosophies for Sale)

This passage makes it crystal clear that the Cynics sought to emulate Hercules.

Diogenes Laertius says of Diogenes the Cynic that “he maintained that his life was of the same stamp as that of Hercules, in so far as he set freedom above all else.”

But you for your part should regard your rough cloak as a lion’s skin, and your stick as a club, and your knapsack as being the land and sea from which you gain your sustenance; for in that way the spirit of Hercules should rise up within you, giving you the power to rise above every adversity.  (Letter from Diogenes to Crates)

Diogenes tells Metrocles that he should have no shame about begging for food because even Hercules did so.

Now it is not for mere charity that you are begging, or to be given something in exchange for something of lesser value; no, for the salvation of all, you are asking for what nature requires, to enable you to do the same things as Hercules, son of Zeus, and so give back in exchange something much more valuable than what you receive.  (Letter from Diogenes to Metrocles)

In the late first century AD, Dio Chrysostom, an author influenced by Cynicism and Stoicism, puts the following interpretation of Hercules in the mouth of Diogenes the Cynic:

In the mean time, the relaters of these marvellous properties [who idolise famous athletes and the rich] compassionated Hercules for the difficulties and dangers, with which he was contending; and styled him the most wretched of mankind. From the influence of this false conception, his toils and his achievements were denominated miseries; as a life of labour is vulgarly called a miserable life: now he is dead, however, they honour him above all his species, they regard him as a Divinity, and assign the blooming Goddess of Youth [Hebe] for the hero’s bride; nay, what is strange, they universally address their supplications to one, so completely wretched to defend them from that wretchedness, which achieved his immortality! Eurystheus, moreover, a man of no value in their account, they make the master and controller of that hero: though not an individual on earth ever offered prayers, or performed a sacrifice, to this Eurystheus. Hercules, however, perambulated Europe, and the whole continent of Asia, with views and dispositions nothing similar to the competitors in these [athletic] Games. For could he have penetrated to the extremities of the globe with such a load of flesh upon him, with such a necessity of excessive food, such an addiction to profound and continued sleep? Watchful was he, spare and unsuperfluous of flesh, like lions; sharp-sighted, quick of hearing, regardless alike of cold and heat, wanting no coverlets, no delicate cloaks, no purple carpets, for luxurious enjoyments: with an undressed skin about his shoulders, and a craving stomach; succouring the virtuous, and chastising the depraved.

Thus Diomed the Thracian, because he was arrayed in gorgeous apparel, and sat upon his throne, drinking and revelling through the day; and insolently exposed both strangers and his own subjects to carnivorous horses; Hercules dashed to pieces with his club; as you would break up an old and rotten cask. Geryon also, the lord of innumerable oxen, and the most opulent and haughty of all the monarchs in the West, he slew, together with his brethren; and drove away their cattle.

Again, Busiris, whom he found most devotedly engaged in gymnastic exercises, and intemperately eating all day long, and priding himself excessively on his skill in wrestling, he fractured in every limb by violent contusion on, the ground; as a wallet full-crammed is ruptured with it’s fall. The Amazonian queen, though she assailed him with her captivating charms, and expected to seduce his affections by her beauty, he despoiled of her girdle; demonstrating by this rencounter the superiority of his soul to the influence of female- loveliness, and evincing a conscious preference of his own proper accomplishments to all the winning graces of the sex.

Moreover, having discovered in Prometheus, according to my conception of the fable, an arrant sophist, a martyr to popular applause, with a liver swelling and growing from the breath of praise, and wasting again beneath the blast of censure; Hercules, actuated by a commiseration of his condition, with an intermixture of menacing reproof, delivered the man from his stupefying vanity and perverse contentiousness; nor departed, till he had restored him to sanity and sober-mindedness. These achievements he performed voluntarily, without any compulsion imposed upon him by Eurystheus: to whom, however, those apples, which have been deemed golden, the apples of the Hesperides, as soon as they came into his possession, he readily presented, as baubles of no value to himself, with a wish of ill fortune in their company to his tyrannic persecutor. What benefit could be expected by a man of spirit from those golden apples, which had rendered no service even to the women, their first possessors ?

At length, under the decrepitude and imbecility of declining age, fearful, that his future life might not correspond to his former glories, and afflicted, I presume, by a supervening sickness; he devised for himself the most honourable remedy ever yet applied by man; constructing on mount Oeta a funeral pile of the driest wood, and manifesting his indifference to the torment of the flames. But, previously to this transaction, that illustrious and dignified exploits might not appear the sole objects of his benevolent ambition, he carried out, and entirely cleared off, from the stable of Augeas, an enterprise of incredible exertion! the accumulated filth of many revolving years: because he thought his duty to consist no less in a magnanimous contest with the vanities of popular opinion, than in combating the crimes of savage monsters and lawless men. (Dio Chrysostom, On Diogenes, or Virtue)

Crates of Thebes

Crates was Zeno’s teacher and a student of Diogenes.  Like Diogenes before him, Crates was compared, metaphorically, to the figure of Hercules.

The poets recount how Hercules of old, through his indomitable courage, vanquished dreadful monsters, human and animal alike, and cleared the whole world of them; and this philosophical Hercules achieved just the same in his combat against anger, envy, greed, and lust, and all other monstrous and shameful urges of the human soul.  All these plagues he [Crates] drove out of people’s minds, purifying households and taming vice, he too going half-naked and being recognizable by his club, a man who had been born, moreover, at the same Thebes in which Hercules is supposed to have entered the world. (Apuleius, Florida 22; G18)

Diogenes Laertius concludes his account of the Cynics by writing:

They hold further that “Life according to Virtue” is the End to be sought, as Antisthenes says in his Hercules: exactly like the Stoics.

He then describes the Cynic doctrine in a way that may be a continuation of this allusion to Antisthenes’ Hercules:

They also hold that we should live frugally, eating food for nourishment only and wearing a single garment. Wealth and fame and high birth they despise. Some at all events are vegetarians and drink cold water only and are content with any kind of shelter or tubs, like Diogenes, who used to say that it was the privilege of the gods to need nothing and of god-like men to want but little.

They hold, further, that virtue can be taught, as Antisthenes maintains in his Hercules, and when once acquired cannot be lost; and that the wise man is worthy to be loved, impeccable, and a friend to his like; and that we should entrust nothing to fortune. Whatever is intermediate between virtue and vice they, in agreement with Ariston of Chios, account indifferent.


Diogenes Laertius says that Cleanthes was called “a second Hercules” and he says that after being insulted by a poet who mocked him, Cleanthes accepted his apology graciously.  He explained that as Hercules was ridiculed by the poets without being moved to anger, it would be absurd for him to be upset by verbal abuse.


Lucan, the Stoic nephew of Seneca, recounts the myth of Hercules in his epic poem, The Civil War, which portrays Cato of Utica as a kind of Stoic superman, and appears to juxtapose his heroism in Africa (“Libya”) with that of the legendary Hercules.


There are several intriguing references to the myth of Hercules in the surviving Discourses of Epictetus.

What do you think that Hercules would have been if there had not been such a lion, and hydra, and stag, and boar, and certain unjust and bestial men, whom Hercules used to drive away and clear out? And what would he have been doing if there had been nothing of the kind? Is it not plain that he would have wrapped himself up and have slept? In the first place then he would not have been a Hercules, when he was dreaming away all his life in such luxury and ease; and even if he had been one, what would have been the use of him? and what the use of his arms, and of the strength of the other parts of his body, and his endurance and noble spirit, if such circumstances and occasions had not roused and exercised him? Well then must a man provide for himself such means of exercise, and seek to introduce a lion from some place into his country, and a boar, and a hydra? This would be folly and madness: but as they did exist, and were found, they were useful for showing what Hercules was and for exercising him. Come then do you also having observed these things look to the faculties which you have, and when you have looked at them, say: Bring now, 0 Zeus, any difficulty that thou pleasest, for I have means given to me by thee and powers for honouring myself through the things which happen. (Discourses, 1.16)

Who would Hercules have been, if he had sat at home? He would have been Eurystheus and not Hercules. Well, and in his travels through the world how many intimates and how many friends had he? But nothing more dear to him than God. For this reason it was believed that he was the son of God, and he was. In obedience to God then he went about purging away injustice and lawlessness. But you are not Hercules and you are not able to purge away the wickedness of others; nor yet are you Theseus, able to purge away the evil things of Attica Clear away your own. (Discourses, 2.16)

Hercules when he was exercised by Eurystheus did not think that he was wretched, but without hesitation he attempted to execute all that he had in hand. And is he who is trained to the contest and exercised by Zeus going to call out and to be vexed, he who is worthy to bear the sceptre of Diogenes? (Discourses, 3.22, On Cynicism)

It was the fortune of Hercules to visit all the inhabited world.  Seeing men’s lawless deeds and their good rules of law casting out and clearing away their lawlessness and introducing in their place good rules of law. And yet how many friends do you think that he had in Thebes, bow many in Argos, how many in Athens? and how many do you think that he gained by going about? And he married also, when it seemed to him a proper occasion, and begot children, and left them without lamenting or regretting or leaving them as orphans; for he knew that no man is an orphan; but it is the father who takes care of all men always and continuously. For it was not as mere report that he had heard that Zeus is the father of men, for he thought that Zeus was his own father, and he called him so, and to him he looked when he was doing what he did. Therefore he was enabled to live happily in all places. And it is never possible for happiness and desire of what is not present to come together. For that which is happy must have all that it desires, must resemble a person who is filled with food, and must have neither thirst nor hunger. (Discourses, 3.24)

He [Zeus] does not supply me with many things, nor with abundance, he does not will me to live luxuriously; for neither did he supply Hercules who was his own son; but another (Eurystheus) was king of Argos and Mycenae, and Hercules obeyed orders, and laboured, and was exercised. And Eurystheus was what he was, neither king of Argos nor of Mycenae, for he was not even king of himself; but Hercules was ruler and leader of the whole earth and sea, who purged away lawlessness, and introduced justice and holiness; and he did these things both naked and alone. (Discourses, 3.26)

What would Hercules have been if he said, How shall a great lion not appear to me, or a great boar, or savage men? And what do you care for that? If a great boar appear, you will fight a greater fight: if bad men appear, you will relieve the earth of the bad. Suppose then that I lose my life in this way. You will die a good man, doing a noble act. (Discourses, 4.10)


Cornutus’ book focuses on symbolic interpretation of Greek myths, informed by (dubious) speculations about the etymology of words, particularly the gods’ names.

‘Heracles’ is universal reason considered as that which makes nature strong and mighty [[being indomitable as well]]: giver of strength and might to its various parts as well.  The name comes, perhaps from the fact that it extends to heroes, and is what makes the wellborn famous. For the ancients called heroes those who were so strong in body and soul that they seemed to have some relation to the gods.

The Sale of Diogenes the Cynic by Pirates

The ancient story of Diogenes the Cynic’s capture by pirates and auction as a slave.

The Sale of Diogenes the Cynic by Pirates

Diogenes-the-Cynic-BillboardDiogenes of Sinope, the founder of Cynicism was greatly admired by the Stoics as a near-sage. The two schools were sometimes even considered part of a single “Cynic-Stoic” tradition. Diogenes became a legendary character and many stories and anecdotes circulated about him in the ancient world, contributing to his status as a Stoic role-model. According to Epictetus, “Diogenes was set free by Antisthenes, and said that from that point forward he could never be enslaved by anyone again” (Discourses, 4.1).  He meant that, although the two men perhaps never met in person, Diogenes was set free by the philosophical teachings of Antisthenes, one of Socrates’ circle of friends who founded his own Socratic sect, credited as the main forerunner or sometimes even the founder of Greek Cynicism.

Epictetus goes on to discuss the particularly well-known, although probably fictitious, story about Diogenes being captured by pirates, which apparently came from a book called The Sale of Diogenes by the 3rd century BC Cynic philosopher and satirist Menippus. The story goes that Diogenes was captured by the notorious pirate captain Skirpalos and his crew, while sailing to the island of Aegina. His captors were initially quite brutal to Diogenes and the other captives, giving them barely enough food to survive but he bore his misfortune well, rising above their maltreatment with greatness of spirit. Unintimidated as always, he rebuked the pirates saying that if one has pigs or sheep to sell, one fattens them up and keeps them healthy, yet they kept the finest of animals, human beings, on sparse food, until they were reduced to skeletons and worthless to sell. Listening to reason, the pirates began to feed all their prisoners better.

They took him to Crete where he was put up for auction as a slave. Just before the sale began he sat down to share some bread with the other prisoners, who were weeping at their misfortune. Seeing one man was too upset to eat, Diogenes reassured him, urging him to have some food, and telling him to stop worrying and just take the moment as it comes. Such auctions typically began by asking where the slave was from to which Diogenes gave his standard reply, that he was from “everywhere”, being a citizen of the world, the original meaning of “cosmopolitan. After making fun of the auctioneer by laying down and pretending to be a fish, in typical Diogenes style, he then berated the audience, giving them a lecture on how to go about buying men. He said that if they are buying a pot or plate, or presumably a fish, they test first that it is good quality but when buying men they merely look them over rather than testing their character properly. When the auctioneer asked him what he was skilled at, Diogenes replied “Governing men”, much to everyone’s amusement. Diogenes then pointed out a wealthy Corinthian man in the audience, called Xeniades, who was dressed in rather ornate robes, saying “Sell me to that man, he could do with a master!” Somehow, Diogenes had managed to invert the whole situation by acting as if he were the one shopping for a “slave” to govern.

Perhaps surprisingly, Diogenes was purchased by Xeniades who took him back to Corinth and put him in charge of his children and indeed his whole household.  Diogenes immediately set about telling them how to run their lives, what clothes to wear, etc., and overseeing the athletic training of Xeniades’ sons. Although he trained them to live simply and to endure hardship, the boys apparently loved their teacher. He reputedly turned down the opportunity to be ransomed by his friends. Diogenes did such a good job that Xeniades said it was as if his house had been blessed with a good “guardian-spirit” and the philosopher stayed on there until his death. Xeniades sometimes complained that by being bossed around by his own slave things had become somewhat back-to-front, as if Diogenes had become the master and Xeniades his slave. Diogenes gave the philosophical reply that Xeniades should obey his instructions, based on his expertise in the art of living, just as even if a doctor or a navigator were a slave, their advice would still be followed.

The point of the story seems to be that Diogenes’ wisdom and virtue made him a natural ruler, a true king, whatever his unfortunate external circumstances, and this was bound to shine through. Where someone has expertise we should listen to them, regardless of their status, and Diogenes had expertise in the art of living.

Verses from the Cynic Philosopher Crates of Thebes

Some fragmentary verses concerning Cynic philosophy attribtued to Crates of Thebes.

Verses from the Cynic Crates


We have several fragments of poetry attributed to Crates of Thebes, the Cynic philosopher who followed Diogenes of Sinope and was the first teacher of Zeno of Citium, the founder of Stoicism.

The first fragment, cited by Diogenes Laertius, treats their characteristic knapsack (pera) as a metonym for the Cynic life, portraying it as an ideal city, perhaps comparable to the ideal Republic postulated by philosophers of different schools.  It is surrounded by an ocean of folly, or vapour (tuphos), the Cynic’s favourite word for the illusion of conventional values, the view of the majority that prizes “external goods” such as material wealth and public acclaim, etc.  However, because this city is populated by people who live  simple and wise life, with only the most basic possessions, ironically, they do not attract foolish or lewd citizens and their poverty means there is no reason for anyone to invade them.  By “fair and fat”, he means beautiful and wealthy, in its own paradoxical way.  The word for thyme is virtually identical to the word for courage or being highly “spirited” (thumos), which is apparently a play on words: the reader is to take it that the realm of the Cynic knapsack, by consisting of simple living, is characterised by the virtue of bravery.

There is a city, Pera in the wine-dark sea of folly,

Fair and fat, though filthy, with nothing much inside.

Never does there sail to it any foolish stranger,

Or lewd fellow who takes delight in the rumps of whores,

But it merely carries thyme and garlic, figs and loaves,

Things over which people do not fight or go to war,

Nor stand they to arms for small change or glory.

Again, from Diogenes Laertius, these lines express the Cynic notion of being a citizen of the world:

Not one tower does my country have, not one roof,

But for home and city, the entire earth lies

At my disposition for a dwelling.

Crates reputedly came from a wealthy family but disposed of all his money on becoming a Cynic.  Here he refers to his former wealth as vapour (tuphos) again, implying its insubstantial and ephemeral nature.  According to Diogenes Laertius, elsewhere he wrote:

This I own, what I have learned and thought, and the Muses’

Solemn precepts; but all my riches are gone like empty smoke.

The Greek Anthology includes the following lines of his Hymn to Frugality, which describes it as a species of temperance:

Hail, Goddess and Queen, beloved of the wise,

Frugality, worthy offspring of glorious Temperance,

Your virtues are honoured by all who practise righteousness.

Plutarch, in Rules for the Preservation of Health, cites these lines, commenting that Crates “believed that civil strife and despotism were brought about in the main by luxury and extravagance”.  Lentil soup was a cheap and simple meal traditionally associated with the Cynic way of life:

Do not throw us into strife

By preferring fine dishes to lentil soup.

Teles of Megara quotes these lines, referring again to the characteristic knapsack of the Cynic, and to lupin seeds, another typically cheap meal associated with them:

You have no idea what power a knapsack holds,

And a quart of lupins, and freedom from care.

Apparently, the meals emblematic of the Cynic way of life, lupins and lentil soup, are particularly associated with flatulence, and this happens to be a topic the Cynics also liked to mention.  For example, the following anecdote is recounted by Montaigne:

In the midst of a discussion, and in the presence of his followers, Metrocles let off a fart.  To hide his embarrassment he stayed at home until, eventually, Crates came to pay him a visit; to his consolations and arguments Crates added the example of his own licence: he began a farting match with him, thereby removing his scruples and, into the bargain, converting him to the freer stoic school from the more socially oriented Peripatetics whom he had formerly followed.

The Cynic Prayer of Crates

The Cynic prayer attributed to the philosopher Crates of Thebes, student of Diogenes of Sinope.

The Cynic Prayer of Crates

Crates-in-BookCrates of Thebes was Diogenes the Cynic’s most famous pupil and the main teacher of Zeno of Citium, the founder of Stoicism.

Glorious children of Mnemosyne and Olympian Zeus,

Pierian Muses, hearken to my prayer!

Grant me food without fail for my belly,

Which has ever made my life simple and unenslaved…

Make me useful rather than sweet to my friends.

Glorious goods I do not wish to gather, as one

Who yearns for the wealth of a beetle or riches of an ant;

No, I wish to possess righteousness and collect riches

Which are easily borne, easily gained, and conducive to virtue.

If these I win, I will propitiate Hermes and the holy Muses

Not with costly offering but with pious virtues.

From the Emperor Julian, the Apostate’s Orations.  This is a Cynic appropriation of a famous verse-prayer by Solon, the Athenian sage and statesman.  Solon prayed for prosperity and reputation, and to be sweet (pleasing) to his friends.  Crates, makes a pointed contrast by praying instead for just enough food as the body naturally requires, enough “riches” to survive and live simply, and he seeks to be useful rather than pleasant to his friends, by helping to make them better (more virtuous) people, even if that sometimes requires harsh words or actions.  Virtue replaces wealth, throughout, as the chief good in human life, being likewise what the gods value.