Socrates & Diogenes
According to Plato, the Delphic oracle once said that no one is wiser than Socrates, even though he did not think himself wise. Socrates never called into question the truth of either the oracle’s pronouncements or his self-perception. It was his responsibility to figure out how both of these things could be consistent with each other. To do so, Socrates talked to various groups of experts in Athens. In the course of recounting his conversations with others, Socrates said something enigmatic: “About myself, I knew that I know nothing”. As it turned out, all of his interlocutors thought that they knew something about important things, but in fact, it seemed clear to him that they did not.
When asked to do so they simply could not, in any way, provide sufficient reasons for believing the things that they claimed to know. That is at least none that were rationally satisfactory. The point is that Socrates already knew that he did not know certain things about important matters, but his interlocutors did not. This is part of what is now known as Socratic irony. The technique is simple enough. The Socratic method is a way of feigning ignorance, thereby forcing someone to try and fully explain something, only to discover that they can’t.
Socrates’ commitment to reason, not only inspired the skepticism of the Hellenistic Academy, but also that of cynicism. Either way, the basic premise in all of this is that one should lead one’s life based on one’s beliefs. Therefore, one ought to examine one’s beliefs, embracing those that one finds to be true, and rejecting those that one finds to be false. Thus, Socrates’ questioning was rooted in a concern with what is called “the good life”. This was also true of Diogenes but in very different ways. The most important distinction in all of this is that Socrates was a very ironic man, whereas Diogenes was incredibly sarcastic.
These men made Athens a rather difficult place for people to live, to say the least. They both challenged the status quo, but in radically different ways. Diogenes was well known for wandering through the streets in broad daylight with a lit lamp, and when asked what he was doing, he would answer, “I am just looking for an honest man.” He was trying to prove that everyone was evil, claiming that each and every statesman and craftsman was corrupt. Basically, Diogenes was just mocking society to be mean and harmful, while Socrates was doing it to be nice and helpful. This is why Plato called Diogenes “a Socrates gone mad”.
In the end, Socrates thought that there was hope for some people, but Diogenes did not. So, if history has taught us anything, it would have to be that being skeptical is pretty smart, but being cynical is really fucking stupid. I mean, it’s great to doubt things, especially without any proof, but nothing good will ever come from a total contempt of humanity. It’s one thing to not let yourself be easily convinced, but it’s something altogether different to think that nothing good will ever happen. Good people are few and far between but they do exist. So, it’s not fair to be distrustful of absolutely everyone’s sincerity and integrity outright. Simply put, you should always be skeptical but never be cynical. Ultimately, the moral of the story is for you to be like Socrates, not Diogenes.