Thales: Ancient Greeks built the cosmos with right triangles

The ancient Greeks were obsessed with geometry, which may have formed the basis of their philosophical cosmology.

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• Every triangle inscribed inside a circle on its diameter is a right triangle.
• Upon this discovery, Thales is said to have performed a great ritual sacrifice.
• Might Thales have believed that the entire cosmos was constructed of right triangles?

Thales is credited by the late commentator Proclus, on the authority of Aristotle's student Eudemus, with "discovering" geometrical propositions, some of them more generally and others more practically. Consider some of the diagrams expressing practical examples of right-angled triangles.

From left to right, we have Thales' measurement of (i) the height of a pyramid when its shadow is equal to its height; (ii) the height of a pyramid when its shadow is unequal but proportional to its height; (iii) the distance to a ship at sea from the shoreline; and (iv) the distance to a ship at sea from a tower. Note that, when rotated, they are all the same diagram!

The more general propositions also seem to be relevant to practical geometry:

We have a report about a special accomplishment of Thales. Originating with Diogenes Laertius of the 3rd century BCE on the authority of the mathematician Pamphila, it says that Thales made a splendid ritual sacrifice upon inscribing a right triangle in a circle. Obviously, he thought this was a pretty big deal. More on that a bit later.

The first thing Thales had to know is that the angles of every triangle sum to two right angles. (The angles inside every triangle sum to 180°. Two right angles, each of which is 90°, also sum to 180°.) We have an ancient report that credits Thales' generation of geometers with having grasped this fact in all species of triangles — equilateral, isosceles, and scalene. How might Thales and his geometers have done it? Consider the following diagrams:

By dropping a perpendicular from a vertex to the opposite side in each species of triangle, and then completing the two rectangles formed, one can see immediately that each rectangle (containing four right angles) is halved by the diagonal created by each side of the triangle. Therefore, each half-triangle contains two right angles. And if the two right angles at the base are removed, leaving the three angles of one large triangle, the angles sum to two right angles.

Now, consider how Thales may have proved that every triangle inscribed inside a circle on its diameter must be a right triangle. To show this, he relied on the isosceles triangle proposition and proved that the angle at A [α + β] is right-angled.

Perhaps he did it this way: Based upon the isosceles triangle proposition, Thales knows that segments BD and AD (left diagram) are equal in length because they are both radii of the circle BAC. Thus, their opposite angles — α and α — must be equal. Since every triangle is 180° (that is, contains the equivalent of two right angles) and the angle BDA at the base is a right angle, α + α must also equal one right angle. By itself, α is half of a right angle.

Next, CD and AD are both equal in length since they, too, are both radii of the circle BAC, and so the angles opposite each must also be equal — that is, β equals β. If we acknowledge that the angle at the base ADC is a right angle, and there is the equivalent of two right angles in every triangle, then β + β must equal one right angle. By itself, β is half of a right angle.

Finally, the angle at A is divided into two equal parts, α and β. Because each is half of a right angle, together (α + β) they equal one right angle.

That explains the right angle for an isosceles triangle inscribed inside of a circle. But what about all the varieties of the scalene? More or less, it's the same argument.

Consider triangle ABC (right diagram). It is composed of two triangles ABD and ACD. In ABD, AD must be equal to BD because both are radii of the circle BAC, and so the angles opposite those sides also must be equal. The same argument applies for triangle ADC. Thus, the three angles of triangle ABC are α + β + (α + β). Since we already know that the angles of every triangle sum to 180° (that is, the equivalent of two right angles), then α + β + (α + β) equals two right angles. Thus, α + β must equal one right angle.

Perhaps these lines of proof persuaded Thales and his companions that every triangle inscribed in a circle on its diameter is right. But why the great ritual sacrifice?

The ancient traditions do not give us more insight, and we are left only to speculate. Aristotle claims that Thales posited an underlying unity, water, that alters without changing. Although things look different, water is the substrate of all appearances. Water is merely altered without changing substantially. Had Thales been looking into geometry to try to discover the underlying structure of water, perhaps he followed a similar line of thought as Plato did when he identified the four elements (fire, air, water, and earth) with geometric shapes.

Thales may have identified the right triangle as the fundamental structure of water. Moreover, he now had a way to produce an unlimited number of them for further investigation simply by making a circle, drawing its diameter, and inscribing a triangle inside it.

But there is perhaps another reason for his splendid sacrifice, seen in this metaphysical light. I can imagine one of his compatriots objecting, upon hearing Thales' idea that water was the underlying nature or unity of all things and that the right triangle was its structure. The objection may have gone like this: right triangles may form the basis of every rectilinear figure, but they certainly don't form the basis of the circle. The circle is not constructed out of right triangles, is it? Thus, the right triangle is not the fundamental figure of all appearances.

Thales' reply must have been as astonishing to his compatriots as it is to many of us today. Indeed, the circle too is built out of right triangles! If we plot on the circle's diameter all the possible triangles inscribable inside a circle — starting from one end of the diameter, touching the circle, and then finishing at the other end of the diameter — we produce what modern mathematicians call a "geometrical loci." The circle itself is constructed out of right triangles!

Prof. Robert Hahn has broad interests in the history of ancient and modern astronomy and physics, ancient technologies, the contributions of ancient Egypt and monumental architecture to early Greek philosophy and cosmology, and ancient mathematics and geometry of Egypt and Greece. Every year, he gives "Ancient Legacies" traveling seminars to Greece, Turkey, and Egypt. His latest book is The Metaphysics of the Pythagorean Theorem.

Pyrrho and the Skeptical way of life: ignorance is bliss

Why saying, "I don't know," might be the best thing you can do.

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• Skepticism is the philosophy that there's very little that we can actually know with any certainty.
• Pyrrho is considered the father of Skepticism, and he believed we ought to suspend our judgment on all those things to which we can never find an answer.
• By giving up the dogmatic pursuit of some kind of resolution, we can be at peace with ourselves and stop getting wound up so easily.

There's always someone, somewhere, who will disagree with you. There will always be a second opinion, a different perspective, or the sliver of a doubt. Sam thinks the war's right, Joe thinks it's wrong. Ella thinks it's warm in here, Toby thinks it's cold. Bob thinks all humans are equal, AJ thinks some are better than others.

There's two sides to everything, and life has no easy answers.

This is the central belief of Skepticism, and two of its greatest thinkers — the Greek, Pyrrho of Elis, and the Roman, Sextus Empiricus — believed that recognizing this is one of the best things that philosophy can give us.

As we've seen with Cynicism, Stoicism, and Epicureanism, Greek philosophy can all too often be misrepresented. Words like "cynical" and "skeptic" have mutated over the years to become entirely new beasts. To be skeptical, today, means to be doubtful. It's to question, challenge, and be somewhat disbelieving of an idea or person. Yet in the ancient world, Skepticism was much more extreme.

According to Pyrrhonism, we waste so much time and effort seeking and demanding answers or resolution where there's only doubt and ambiguity, that we're destined to be unhappy.

Pyrrho is considered to be the first Skeptic philosopher. He began with the simple observation that there are two sides to everything and that we are all invariably bound to our own opinions and thoughts. Thus, we will always see the world differently than others.

It's highly likely that Pyrrho witnessed first hand, or at least had heard of, the Eastern religions that repeatedly made the claim that the world is illusory, knowledge is limited, and human intellect is an infantile, narrow thing. Pyrrho agreed. For him, there's no possible way to determine what's true or "actual."

And yet, we all stubbornly, angrily, and even violently insist that others are wrong and that we are right. According to Pyrrhonism, we waste so much time and effort seeking and demanding answers or resolution where there's only doubt and ambiguity, that we're destined to be unhappy. The key to living a fulfilled, happy, and flourishing life (which is called eudaimonia in Greek and was the end goal, too, of Cynicism, Epicureanism, and Stoicism) is simply to stop the pointless pursuit of resolution. Instead, we ought to adopt a position called epoché, which means "suspended judgment."

For Pyrrho, if someone asks you for your views on some controversial ethical issue, on the latest government spending bill, or what's the greatest movie of all time, you ought to simply demonstrate epoché and say, "I have only my opinion on the matter, as have you, so I shall say there is no answer." Of course, you can debate and happily chat until the cows come home, but Pyrrho's wisdom is just to recognize there will be no hope of a final, absolute, and neat end point to the discussion. Someone, somewhere will always think Dude, Where's My Car is fantastic.

Is everything ultimately an opinion?

Pyrrho himself took things a bit far. His students reportedly had to stop him from walking off deadly precipices or into busy streets because he said he couldn't entirely trust his senses. So, it took a few centuries for Skepticism to develop, and it found its voice again in the Roman, Sextus Empiricus.

Like Pyrrho, Sextus Empiricus didn't place much stock in human knowledge because he thought everything we might claim to know was always open to doubt or challenged. But, Sextus further added the idea that there could be no possible way to resolve such a challenge. For example, let's suppose there are two people who disagree about something. What justification is there for one view being better than the other? For Sextus, both are equally valid.

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We might say, "But we can give reasons for our beliefs!" However, this only begs the question: why does a particular reason make a belief stronger? If I think stealing is wrong because it harms someone, I still need to explain why "causing harm" is important.

For Sextus Empiricus, we'll always reach the point of saying, "This is just what I think." At no point is there an ultimate answer. Why, indeed, is causing harm bad?

Into this world of murky ambiguity, Sextus' Skepticism argued that we should live only according to how things seem. This isn't the same as trusting our senses, since even these are open to disagreement. (However, there are no stories of him nearly falling from cliffs.) Some animals can see ultraviolet light, some people hear Laurel and others hear Yanny, and there are psychedelic drugs that can make us see anything at all.

We only have how things appear.

The consolation of Skepticism

For Sextus and Pyhrro, recognizing the very clear limits to our understanding brings great benefit. With the revelation that there are some things — well, maybe a lot of things — that we can never know is deeply comforting. We can give up trying to dogmatically defend views that we have no way to know for sure are correct. We can stop getting so heated in debates where neither party can possibly come to a resolution.

But, this is not to give up trying. "Skeptic" literally translates as "enquirer," and we can still aim for something, while also accepting we may never succeed. To be a Skeptic is to say, "I'll probably never know the answer to this, but I'll try to find out anyway." It's to give up the false hope for easy answers and to find peace in our own experiences, alone.

So, why not try Skepticism? All you've got to do is let out a deep breath, give your best Gallic shrug, and be at peace with how little you really know.

Jonny Thomson teaches philosophy in Oxford. He runs a popular Instagram account called Mini Philosophy (@philosophyminis). His first book is Mini Philosophy: A Small Book of Big Ideas.

Hidden philosophy of the Pythagorean theorem

Pythagoras may have believed that the entire cosmos was constructed out of right triangles.

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• Ancient Greeks believed that fire, air, water, and earth were the four elements of the universe.
• Plato associated these four elements with 3D geometrical solids.
• Pythagoras may have believed that the right triangle formed the basis of all reality.

In Plato's dialogue, the Timaeus, we are presented with the theory that the cosmos is constructed out of right triangles.

This proposal Timaeus makes after reminding his audience [49Bff] that earlier theories that posited "water" (proposed by Thales), or "air" (proposed by Anaximenes), or "fire" (proposed by Heraclitus) as the original stuff from which the whole cosmos was created ran into an objection: if our world is full of these divergent appearances, how could we identify any one of these candidates as the basic stuff? For if there is fire at the stove, liquid in my cup, breathable invisible air, and temples made of hard stone — and they are all basically only one fundamental stuff — how are we to decide among them which is most basic?

A cosmos of geometry

However, if the basic underlying unity out of which the cosmos is made turns out to be right triangles, then proposing this underlying structure — i.e., the structure of fire, earth, air, and water — might overcome that objection. Here is what Timaeus proposes:

"In the first place, then, it is of course obvious to anyone, that fire, earth, water, and air are bodies; and all bodies have volume. Volume, moreover, must be bounded by surface, and every surface that is rectilinear is composed of triangles. Now all triangles are derived from two [i.e., scalene and isosceles], each having one right angle and the other angles acute… This we assume as the first beginning of fire and the other bodies, following the account that combines likelihood with necessity…" [Plato. Timaeus 53Cff]

A little later in that dialogue, Timaeus proposes further that from the right triangles, scalene and isosceles, the elements are built — we might call them molecules. If we place on a flat surface equilateral triangles, equilateral rectangles (i.e., squares), equilateral pentagons, and so on, and then determine which combinations "fold-up," Plato shows us the discovery of the five regular solids — sometimes called the Platonic solids.

Three, four, and five equilateral triangles will fold up, and so will three squares and three pentagons.

If the combination of figures around a point sum to four right angles or more, they will not fold up. For the time being, I will leave off the dodecahedron (or combination of three pentagons that makes the "whole" into which the elements fit) to focus on the four elements: tetrahedron (fire), octahedron (air), icosahedron (water), and hexahedron (earth).

Everything is a right triangle

Now, to elaborate on the argument [53C], I propose to show using diagrams how the right triangle is the fundamental geometrical figure.

All figures can be dissected into triangles. (This is known to contemporary mathematicians as tessellation, or tiling, with triangles.)

Inside every species of triangle — equilateral, isosceles, scalene — there are two right triangles. We can see this by dropping a perpendicular from the vertex to the opposite side.

Inside every right triangle — if you divide from the right angle — we discover two similar right triangles, ad infinitum. Triangles are similar when they are the same shape but different size.

And thus, we arrive at Timaeus' proposal that the right triangle is the fundamental geometrical figure, in its two species, scalene and isosceles, that contain within themselves an endless dissection into similar right triangles.

Now, no one can propose that the cosmos is made out of right triangles without a proof — a compelling line of reasoning — to show that the right triangle is the fundamental geometrical figure. Timaeus comes from Locri, southern Italy, a region where Pythagoras emigrated and Empedocles and Alcmaon lived. The Pythagoreans are a likely source of inspiration in this passage but not the other two. What proof known at this time showed that it was the right triangle? Could it have been the Pythagorean theorem?

Pythagorean theorem goes beyond squares

We now know that there are more than 400 different proofs of the famous theorem. Does one of them show that the right triangle is the basic geometrical figure? Be sure, it could not be a² + b² = c² because this is algebra, and the Greeks did not have algebra! A more promising source — the proof by similar right triangles — is the proof preserved at VI.31.

Notice that there are no figures at all on the sides of the right triangle. (In the above figure, the right angle is at "A.") What the diagram shows is that inside every right triangle are two similar right triangles, forever divided.

Today, the Pythagorean theorem is taught using squares.

But, the Pythagorean theorem has nothing to do with squares! Squares are only a special case. The theorem holds for all figures similar in shape and proportionately drawn.

So, why the emphasis on squares? Because in the ancient Greek world proportional-scaling was hard to produce exactly and hard to confirm, and the confirmation had to come empirically. But squares eliminate the question of proportional scaling.

Pythagoras and the philosophy of cosmology

We have an ancient report that upon his proof, Pythagoras made a great ritual sacrifice, perhaps one hundred oxen. What precisely was his discovery that merited such an enormous gesture?

Could this review help us to begin to understand the metaphysical meaning of the hypotenuse theorem — namely, that what was being celebrated was not merely the proof that the area of the square on the hypotenuse of a right triangle was equal to the sum of the areas of the squares on the other two sides, but moreover, was the proof that the fundamental figure out of which the whole cosmos was constructed was the right triangle?

Prof. Robert Hahn has broad interests in the history of ancient and modern astronomy and physics, ancient technologies, the contributions of ancient Egypt and monumental architecture to early Greek philosophy and cosmology, and ancient mathematics and geometry of Egypt and Greece. Every year, he gives "Ancient Legacies" traveling seminars to Greece, Turkey, and Egypt. His latest book is The Metaphysics of the Pythagorean Theorem.

Electric eels and gladiator blood: the curious beginnings of modern medicine

Hippocrates overturned conventional wisdom and invented modern medicine.

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• Ancient "medicine" once consisted of sacrificial offerings and divine petition. Disease was a supernatural infliction; health was a gift.
• Hippocrates invented medical science, and his theory of the humors and holistic health dominated Western medical thought for more than two thousand years.
• Today, medicine is much more disease centred, and perhaps something has been lost from the Hippocratic doctor-patient relationship.

You're feeling sick — so sick you can barely walk — and so you visit a professional. You wait outside, feverish and exhausted, hoping they can help. Your name is called. You start to explain your symptoms but are interrupted before you can get going.

"Let me stop you there", he says, "it's obvious what's happened. You've been cursed by the god Hermes. You must sacrifice two young goats and pray to him every day. I hope he takes pity on you. NEXT!"

You leave, still sick.

The doctor will see you now

This was the standard medical model of the ancient world. Priests and prayer cured diseases. That is, until Hippocrates reinvented the entire practice and defined medicine as a profession.

All we know of Hippocrates comes from a series of writings from the library at Alexandria, collected around 250 BCE. It's a mishmash of collected wisdom, case notes, and philosophy, composed by multiple authors over many years. But Hippocrates is the master and name that binds it all.

Hippocrates argued that sickness and disease can be understood by rational enquiry and had natural explanations (as opposed to gods or the supernatural). Man was just as much part of nature as chickens or cows and could be treated or cured in much the same way.

Because the Greeks had strict rules against dissecting or cutting a dead body, Hippocrates and the early physicians knew very little about human physiology. Most anatomical learning had to come from the gruesome mess of the battlefield — people (literally) carrying their arms or returning with gaping puncture wounds in their stomach. The only other way was by drawing parallels with the animal world. For instance, the Hippocratics believed human pregnancy was similar to how a hen nurtured her eggs.

Man was just as much part of nature as chickens or cows and could be treated or cured in much the same way.

Without microscopes or medical experimentation, Greek physicians were much more limited and took a holistic view of the body. Today, medicine is pretty heavily disease centered, in that it focuses on pathology, such as dysfunctional organs or microbial infections. For Hippocrates, sickness was a whole body thing — caused only when the natural balance and equilibrium of the body was disturbed.

A sense of humor

The humors blood (red) and phlegm (blue) are depicted in this document at Raeapteek pharmacy in Tallinn, Estonia.Credit: Alex Berezow

Hippocrates believed that the body was made up of various fluids, called humors, and different organs were responsible for their creation and regulation.

There were four humors: blood, phlegm, yellow bile, and black bile. These all existed in the body, and when present in moderation or in balance with the other humors, a person was considered healthy. (It should be noted that black bile was often seen as being uniformly negative). It was believed disease resulted when one or more of the humors was overproduced or located in an incorrect part of the body. So, if you have too much phlegm, you will get a cough. Too much blood, and you would vomit. Too much black bile, and you would become depressed.

While we might find this ridiculous, you can see why the Hippocratics thought this way. Even today, we're often guilty of confusing symptoms with causes, and it's completely logical for someone to think that since the body is expelling phlegm during a cold, that must be the cause of the disease. Or how a nosebleed is caused by excessive blood. Or how diarrhea looks like yellow bile.

Of course, this sometimes meant that Hippocratic medicine offered some absurd treatments. It was thought, for instance, that epilepsy was caused by phlegm blocking the airways — the convulsing was an effort to open them — so warm dry climates were recommended. A regular prescription was for a patient being told to drink Gladiator blood for its potency. If you had a headache, it was suggested that you hold an electric eel to your head to force out the unwanted humors.

It's hard to understate just how sick or infirm people would have been in ancient Greece. Thanks to modern medicine and public health, we're very rarely sick, and when we are, medicine is usually effective and easy to get. Antiquity, though, was a world of fever, food poisoning, water-borne infection, animal bites, and frequent, brutal warfare (and the ensuing infections). Today, being healthy is the norm. Back then, it was being sick.

It's not unfair to say that Hippocrates invented both prognosis and diagnosis. For the first time, a physician could say, "I know what's gone wrong, and I can tell you how it'll pan out."

As such, having an empirically minded (if misguided) physician class like the Hippocratics would have had huge success for the patient and physician alike. By seeing disease as an imbalance of the entire body, the Hippocratics took keen interest in their patients. They were frequently bedside and their examinations incredibly thorough. For instance, they would often taste urine or ear wax to check if it was okay. They would eat leg hair and sniff patient's stools. It's not unfair to say that Hippocrates invented both prognosis and diagnosis. For the first time, a physician could say, "I know what's gone wrong, and I can tell you how it'll pan out."

These physicians did not recommend drastic or intense interventions like surgery (not least because anything short of amputation would be fatal, anyway). They would prescribe lifestyle changes such as diet, exercise, hot baths, and sex (which was especially important for older patients). They would constantly ask how patients are doing. They would check that they were taking their medicine.

Though practically none of the Hippocratics' medicine was anywhere near accurate, their bedside manner was quite different from the modern doctor's: "What's wrong with you? Right, here are your drugs. Good luck. So long." Hippocratic medicine used every trick necessary to re-establish harmony to the whole body. The doctor-patient relationship was just that — a relationship, not a transaction.

Hippocrates' legacy

Credit: Anne-Louis Girodet de Roussy-Trioson via Wikipedia / Public domain

Hippocrates gave us two great gifts. First, he made medicine a scientific discipline in its own right. Second, he showed us how important it is to pay attention to the whole patient and respond to the totality of their sickness, including their mental state. Medical professionals worldwide still have to swear by the "Hippocratic Oath," which, among many other things, obliges doctors to "remember that I do not treat a fever chart, a cancerous growth, but a sick human being, whose illness may affect the person's family and economic stability."

Voltaire once said, "The art of medicine consists in amusing the patient, while nature cures the disease." This was no doubt true of Hippocrates. Surely, many of his patients recovered, but most often it was likely due less to his medical prowess and more to his patients enjoying a month-long spa with great food and lots of sleep.

Jonny Thomson teaches philosophy in Oxford. He runs a popular Instagram account called Mini Philosophy (@philosophyminis). His first book is Mini Philosophy: A Small Book of Big Ideas.

Twisted humor and life advice from Diogenes the Cynic

Diogenes was no doubt odd, but Cynicism might just help our overcrowded lives.

Credit: Wikipedia / Public domain
• The Cynics were an ancient Greek school who believed that society suppressed, corrupted, and buried the human spirit.
• Diogenes of Sinope was the best known Cynic, and he resorted to some incredible shock tactics to jolt people from their societal stupor.
• Today, we're swamped and overwhelmed by the sheer scale of everything, and there are lessons to be found in Cynicism.

Have you ever wasted an hour flicking through your phone and felt… hollow afterward? Have you had days when you're so overworked that you feel you've ignored everyone and everything around you? Do you spend so much time worrying about getting that thing, or doing that job, that you feel detached from yourself?

We've built the world in such a way that there's just so much to do. So many distractions and preoccupations. So many tasks and jobs. Life has become so complicated — we've got work to do, relationships to navigate, homes to manage, bills to pay, and families to care for. Technology was supposed to make all this easier, but it only seems to have added to our burden.

Have you ever stopped to wonder if something has been lost amongst all this? Have we buried something key to being human?

Cynicism doesn't mean what you think

This is what the ancient Cynics believed. Cynicism as a philosophy bears only passing resemblance to how we use the term nowadays. Today, the word has come to mean someone who's pessimistic and always sees or expects the worst in things, especially of people. We can see where this idea came from, but it's a far cry from what the original Cynics believed.

Cynicism is most associated with a man called Diogenes of Sinope (but this comes only second-hand from Plato and Aristotle, because Diogenes' own work largely has been lost). Cynics argued that the artificial trappings of civilization repressed, enslaved, and debased the human spirit. They despised all the abstracted philosophizing of the likes of Plato and his school, The Academy, thinking they were both pretentious and pointless. Instead, we should return to nature as much as possible, fulfilling only our basic needs. In fact, Diogenes was nicknamed "the dog" for his vagrant, sparse, and basic living conditions.

Cynics argued that we must abandon possessions and traditions and be more like animals, that is, by following base biological needs over everything else. Nature had made us just as we were designed to be, so why change that? Even what we might call negative things — like disease, pain or death — have their role to play, and we ought to live by nature's way. To die and suffer is, after all, quite natural.

Cynicism as a philosophy bears only passing resemblance to how we use the term nowadays.

Cynicism is much more than having "no phone Sundays" or eating only soup for dinner. True Cynicism is far from easy. It is about "self-mastery," and this took substantial practice, effort, and time. It means enduring and accepting longing or loneliness. Cynicism means abandoning all property, possessions, relationships, and society itself to focus instead on true inner strength.

Even the master, Diogenes, was taught a lesson in self-mastery. Diogenes had lived his life carrying a wooden bowl to eat and drink from. One day, on a walk, he saw a young boy bending to drink from a river with his hands. Distraught, Diogenes smashed his bowl to pieces shouting, "A child has beaten me in the plainness of living!" He had unwittingly become absorbed by the possession of his bowl. He needed to return to the natural way of things — using the hands with which he was gifted.

Diogenes: the first shock jock

Diogenes Searching for an Honest Man, attributed to J. H. W. Tischbein (c. 1780)Credit: Wikipedia / Public domain

It was not enough to abandon society and live the hermit, ascetic life. Cynics saw themselves as being some kind of enlightened crusaders, whose duty it was to persuade others of how wrongly they were behaving. And so, they would lambast and abuse the "civilized" artifice of the Greek agora. They believed that they must aggressively take apart the soul-destroying trappings of "civilization."

As you can imagine, this was not popular. The very term "Cynic" came to be a form of abuse — they were the "dog people." Diogenes, himself, was known as "the mad Socrates" and it's not hard to see why. It is said he once wandered the streets in search of an honest man.

But that's not the only thing he did in the streets.

He once openly masturbated in the marketplace, proclaiming, "If only it were as easy to banish hunger by rubbing my belly." He spat in official's faces, threw rocks at locals, and slept in a barrel.

He quite hilariously mocked Plato's Academy. The finest mind of the school had (probably jokingly, to be fair) declared that Man could be defined as a "featherless biped." Diogenes then plucked a chicken, threw it onto the floor of the Academy, and declared, "Behold, I give you a man!" Seemingly unwilling to take a joke, the Academy added "with broad flat nails" to their definition.

One of his most famous stories involves Alexander the Great. Legend has it that Alexander was so impressed by this man called Diogenes, that he demanded to meet him. When he did, the most powerful man in the world offered Diogenes anything he wanted. Diogenes asked Alexander to move aside, because he was blocking the sun.

Alexander and Diogenes by Caspar de Crayer (c. 1650)Credit: Wikipedia / Public domain

Modern Cynics

Of course, it's hard to see how much of this we can take into everyday life. Stoicism has now become a best-selling self-help industry, and Epicureanism is enjoying a revival. What does Cynicism offer? We're hardly likely to start masturbating in the supermarket, spitting in a cop's face, or living in a barrel under a bridge.

No, the wisdom of Cynicism is found in how it reimagines our relationship with society. We can all become so immersed in life, so distracted by those "must-do" things, that our humanity becomes entombed. We all can feel like we're drowning in the very things that are supposed to make life happier or easier.

If you feel like you're on a treadmill that is forever speeding up, Cynicism is the call to get off the treadmill — to say "no more" to everything and everyone that demands this or that. Cynicism is about throwing off the chains of needing pointless things.

In this way, Cynicism is a return to a simpler and more natural way of being human.

Jonny Thomson teaches philosophy in Oxford. He runs a popular Instagram account called Mini Philosophy (@philosophyminis). His first book is Mini Philosophy: A Small Book of Big Ideas.