Diogenes Can Teach You How to Say No




Diogenes—rumpled, rude, sure of his convictions—was nicknamed “the Dog.” The Greek word for dog was “cynic,” which gives his philosophy, Cynicism, a ludicrous etymology, given dogs’ willingness to trust anything we say or do.

Diogenes would have welcomed the adjective “ludicrous,” though; it is rooted in the Latin term for a playful jest. He farted and even shat in public, and he regularly jacked off in the agora, saying, “If only hunger were relieved by stroking one’s stomach!” Was he barking mad? Plato thought so. Asked for his assessment of Diogenes, he tossed back, “Socrates gone insane.”

Diogenes had the last word. After Plato defined a human being as “a featherless biped,” Diogenes plucked a chicken and carried it into the lecture hall. “Behold,” he intoned, “Plato’s human.”

His genius was to take life lightly, live simply, ignore convention, and blow away pretentiousness. I find myself grinning in sympathy as I read How to Say No: An Ancient Guide to the Art of Cynicism. What Diogenes said no to was the shallow, silly life we are urged to live, the “unthinking compliance with Custom.” This seems a far healthier version of cynicism than our time’s bitter-almond sort, which kills hope and preens about it afterward.

Besides, saying no is a skill it has taken me most of my life to learn.

M.D. Usher, who holds a distinguished professorship in classics at the University of Vermont, opens his translation of Cynic lessons with a quote from a likeminded American, Ralph Waldo Emerson: “I like the sayers of No better than the sayers of Yes.” Why did that not stick? We hate “naysayers.” People in the U.S., where resources are still ample and war does not rage, tape up posters about “saying yes to life.”

I tried. I agreed to everything that was asked of me, whether I had time or not. Finally it dawned on me that I was doing no one a favor by doing a halfassed, resentful job of it, overwhelmed and cranky and sometimes out of my depth. Why was I so compliant? Because I was told to be? Because it felt safer? Because I wanted to be loved? Or was afraid of missing out? Or believed it was my duty?

Diogenes would have rolled his eyes, then informed me that in life, “one must either use one’s noodle or a noose.”

He trusted Nature, not humanity. And as Usher points out, the core values of his Cynicism “speak with some urgency to our current predicaments involving climate change, socioeconomic uncertainty, and psychic malaise.” His insistence on simplicity foreshadowed minimalism and Marie Kondo. He was skilled at detangling needs from wants, an art we have not practiced since the Depression.

Diogenes was not born to austerity, but he was observant. “It was by watching a mouse scurrying about—not anxious for a place to sleep, not afraid of the dark, nor pining away for any of the so-called pleasures—that he discovered the resourcefulness needed to handle tough situations,” Usher writes in his tight, smart introduction.

I could have watched the same mouse, then resumed fretting about jeopardizing my job. I like security, preparation, comfort. Diogenes watched a child drink from his hands and tossed away his own cup, saying, “A child has vanquished me in simplicity!” I would have handed the kid a cup. And wear only one cloak? If you saw my closet, you would snort.

I was not influenced by Diogenes, because I knew him only as an old guy with a lantern, searching for an honest man. Quixotic and futile, reminiscent of the old joke about the drunk looking for his keys under the lamppost not because he lost them there but because the light was better. Now I learn that the search for an honest man is a corruption. Diogenes was searching merely for a man, and finding only hollow approximations.

To the Cynics, the goal of life was, in literal translation, freedom from smoke—meaning false beliefs, pretense, and shallow lures. When Alexander the Great came to Diogenes, who was sunbathing, and said, “Ask me for whatever you want,” Diogenes looked up, squinted, and asked that Alexander move a little to the side so he was not blocking the sunshine.

I had begun reading hoping for self-help tips, ways and reasons to say no. Diogenes was far too crafty for such kitsch. He used to attend feasts and festivals not for the spectacle but as a spectator of the people, who were more relaxed and therefore more thoroughly themselves on such occasions. Once, at the Isthmian Games, he dared to place the victory crown of pine boughs on his own head. The Corinthian delegation demanded that he remove it. Why could some wear the crown yet he could not, he asked.

“Because, Diogenes, you have not won a victory.”

“In fact,” he replied, “I have defeated…adversaries far more formidable in every way—poverty and exile and disrepute; and more formidable still—anger and pain and desire and fear; and, the most difficult monster of all to handle—soft to the touch and festering inside—pleasure—which no Greek or barbarian can claim to have bested by strength of soul.”

This might be my problem. I crave pleasure, and being thanked or patted on the head is pleasurable. But it grows less so, now that my energy is no longer infinitely renewable. When I can get past the need, and the fear of displeasing, I can say no. I can be, in other words, honest.

Crazy, that this has been so hard. That every favor, contact, social occasion, or emotional need that confronts me still requires a silent argument with myself and, when I do say no, a silent defense against my own reproach. I blame society but should perhaps blame my own genes: people-pleasing is a hard-wired trait, more common in women. We were ripe for brainwashing.

Society continues to reward yes and shun no. When I freelanced for national women’s magazines, I learned that if you say no to even one assignment, you drop to the bottom of the rotation. No is inconvenient. Affirmations are our touchstones; cynics amuse us but leave us wary; “negative Nancys”—the very phrase makes one shudder. We ought to describe compulsively honest, blunt, impervious and authentic people as Diogenian; instead, we chose his name for a mental disorder, Diogenes Syndrome, characterized by living in squalor.

It is politically expedient to have an agreeable populace. It is financially advantageous to have people eager to buy more and do whatever they are told to do. And it is easier to keep a friendship running smoothly if you never set limits, decline invitations, or refuse favors. Diogenes did the hard work, as one of his fans, Julian, emperor of Rome, pointed out. Diogenes made fun of “people who hide under cover of darkness what are necessary, natural functions…and yet those same people busy themselves in the middle of our marketplaces and cities with the most outrageous behavior, inappropriate to our nature: stealing money, sycophantic, conniving, unjust lawsuits, and the pursuit of other rubbish of this sort.” When Diogenes shocked a crowd with his erections or intestinal explosions, “his actions were aimed at trampling on the pretense of those people, to teach them that they were engaged in business much more sordid and problematic than his.”

They missed the lesson. Twenty-five centuries later, people are still missing the lesson, because saying no to Custom takes a raw courage that is hard to summon.

But it is honest.


Read more by Jeannette Cooperman here.