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Diogenes the Cynic (On Detachment)

Empty yourself, so that you may be filled.
Learn not to love, so that you may learn to love.
Draw back, so that you may be approached.

Diogenes the Cynic, an ancient Greek philosopher, lived in a barrel like a dog. And like a dog, it was reported that he would defecate anywhere he wanted to, masturbate in the public market and urinate at those who insulted him. He believed that men are like dogs--that all public norms, conventions and property are but inventions that have no relation to the real inclinations of men.

Legend has it that one day Alexander the Great saw Diogenes in his barrel and offered that he would grant any wish the dog had. Diogenes then gave his wish: he asked Alexander to step out his light.

Meister Eckhart interprets this encounter as thus:
That is why the man who sat naked in the barrel said to the great Alexander, who had all the world subject to him: "I am a far greater lord that you, for I have despised more than you have possessed. All the things that you thought so great that you wanted them were too little for me to dispose."
In short, the Conqueror of the known world could not conquer the dog's barrel.


Meister Eckhart uses the word abgescheidenheit for his doctrine of "detachment."

It is usually understood by many as a privative form of eigenschaft which in turn means "ownership," thus making detachment the dispossession of property. But by itself, abgescheiden comes from abscheiden which means to be "solitary" or "secluded"; and to be abgescheidenheit is to be in seclusion, that is, to be alone. Scheiden further demonstrates this in its common meaning as "divorce" or "separate," as in a breaking of the bonds of marriage. Interestingly, one of the meanings of abscheiden is to be "deceased."

All these meanings apply to Diogenes the Cynic: 1) he did not possess anything and lived not in a house but in a disused barrel; 2) naturally, he was alone and secluded in his barrel; 3) he was seen to be an out-cast, in-sane and ab-normal; 4) and finally, he would have been as good as dead to everyone.

Yet Meister Eckhart says that one must pass through abgescheidenheit if one is to please God and not some ruler of the world or passerby. This is the ultimate difficulty of detachment: you must die to the world and to yourself.

Meister Eckhart says:
Truly, if a man renounced a kingdom or the whole world but held on to himself, he would not have renounced anything.

Renouncing the world is easy. The world will always give you enough sorrow and reason to want to dispose of it. But how to renounce this self which already has nothing?


Another way that Eckhart uses to describe abgescheidenheit is the act of emptying. Not purification or distillation but pure unbounded emptying.

Meister Eckhart uses the image of a cask of water or wine. He says, that "No cask can hold two different kinds of drink." If the cask holds water and is to be filled with wine, "then they must of necessity pour the water out."

Water mixed with wine produces neither good water nor good wine.

To receive beautiful wine, "the cask must become empty and free."


Yet the problem is there is still a cask even if it has become empty. As long as the cask stands, as long as the "I" remains, attachment (to itself) remains. Again, how to detach from that which has become detached?

Meister Eckhart gives the answer: "If you want to get the kernel, you have to break the shell!" Break the barrel, break the cask.

What of the kernel, then? The kernel is nothing. Like death.


A consolation from Eckhart:
Whatever is to be received must be received by something; but detachment is so close to nothingness that there is nothing so subtle that it can be apprehended by detachment, except God alone. He is so simple and so subtle that it can indeed be apprehended in a detached heart. And so detachment can apprehend nothing except God.
You see, God Himself is Absolute Detachment.


  1. Anonymous5/31/2010

    It gets far too cold in Melbourne to follow this guy's lead.

  2. A flamboyant French poststructuralist - instead of understanding Diogenes as one whose deeds "renounce the world and the self" (similar to the perennial philosophers of Ancient India) - argues that the life of this Cynic actually takes on a heavily social character. Foucault interprets his antics as a rebellion against the artificial split and rectification of the public-private activities of men, as evident in the norms and convention in Greek society:

    "The scandalous gesture of Diogenes is well known: when he needed to satisfy his sexual appetite, he would relieve himself in the marketplace. Like many of the Cynics' provocations, this one had a double meaning. It owed its impact to the public character of the act, of course, which went against every convention in Greece; it was customary to assert the need for privacy as a reason for making love only at night, and the care one took not to let oneself be seen engaging in this kind of activity was regarded as a sign that the practice of aphrodisia was not something that honored the most noble qualities of mankind. It was against this rule of privacy that Diogenes directed his "performance" criticism. Diogenes Laertius reports that in fact he was in the habit of "doing everything in public, the works of Demeter and Aphrodite alike," reasoning as follows: "If breakfast be not absurd, neither is it absurd to breakfast in the market-place." But this parallel with food gave Diogenes' action an additional meaning: the practice of the aphrodisia, which could not be shameful since it was natural, was nothing more or less than the satisfaction of a need; and just as the Cynic looked for the simplest food that might gratify his stomach (it seems that he tried eating raw meat), he likewise found in masturbation the most direct means of appeasing his sexual appetite. He even regretted that it was not possible to satisfy hunger and thirst in so simple a manner: "Would to heaven that it were enough to rub one's stomach in order to allay one's hunger."" - M. Foucault, 'Part I: The Moral Problematization of Pleasures' in The History of Sexuality, Vol. 2: The Use of Pleasure, 54-55.

    But then, of course, Eckhart's a mystic and Foucault a cultural theorist so that explains the difference. Just posting this because I came across the text recently, and I find it interesting how two thinkers from different traditions could interpret their encounter with a seemingly mad Pre-Socratic character both "spiritually" and "politically."


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