Preferred Citation: Krueger, Derek. Symeon the Holy Fool: Leontius's Life and the Late Antique City. Berkeley:  University of California Press,  c1996 1996.

Symeon and the Cynics

6. Symeon and the Cynics

When Symeon first arrived in Emesa, he discovered a dead dog lying on a dunghill just outside the city. He tied the dog’s leg to his belt and then entered the city gate, dragging the dog behind him (p. 145). Symeon’s entry into Emesa is his first act as a salos, the first time he plays the fool. The placement of this event within the course of the narrative is significant. It sets up all the antics to come. This act is outrageous, a madcap, crazy thing to do. More significantly, the dog, proverbial for its tendency toward indecent activity, becomes a symbol of Symeon’s own shamelessness. This event marks the transition in Symeon’s life from desert to city, from proper ascetic comportment to antiascetic insanity. As Symeon enters the city gate, he crosses the border beyond civil behavior. Symeon enters where he does not belong. A holy man in the city? Shamelessness in the ascetic life? The dead, rotting, dung-encrusted dog represents the crossing of boundaries—impurity, defilement, matter out of place. The dog is also a pun.

Writing on the eve of the Second World War, Ernst Benz suggested that there was a connection between the Byzantine fools’ lives and “the tradition of wandering Cynic preachers.” Benz considered it significant that Symeon began his activity in Emesa with a dead dog, a figure for the Cynics.[1] Benz’s suggestion has not found favor with more recent scholars and has never been tested either for its validity or considered for its implications. The previous discussion of Diogenes invites us to examine Benz’s suggestion anew.

In his introduction to the first modern edition of the Life of Symeon, Rydén dismisses any Cynic influence on the Life. He writes, “It seems clear that we encounter here an un-Greek ascetic type, who, despite certain external similarities, has nothing to do with the Cynics.”[2] In his commentary on the text, Rydén has written that

the connection between the Life of Antony and the lives of philosophers, which [others] have already proven, has, as far as the Life of Symeon is concerned, of course, no parallel. I admit that Symeon’s seemingly ridiculous appearance in Emesa occasionally recalls the conventional disdain of the Cynics; in fact, however, this might be treated as a parallel phenomenon.[3]

Thus Rydén rules out the possibility of direct influence of Cynic lives on the Life of Symeon the Fool.

A cross-cultural approach to the similarities between Symeon and the Cynics might, of course, prove fruitful. Alexander Syrkin, for instance, sought to understand the phenomenon of the “fool for Christ’s sake” in the Eastern Orthodox tradition by comparing Symeon with similar figures in later Orthodox as well as Hindu traditions. Syrkin described holy folly as “a peculiar kind of religious practice . . . that is characterized by eccentric acts which violate moral precepts and etiquette and are often accompanied by comic effects.”[4] Diogenes of Sinope could no doubt be shown to adhere to the same pattern. But comparing Symeon’s behavior to Diogenes’ apart from their discrete historical contexts is problematic. Such an approach attempts to consider “historical figures” for which we have little reliable “historical” evidence, or else it treats the evidence we have for these figures as popular folklore, rather than as literary texts.

A brief description of a monk named Symeon who feigned madness, presumably the same as the subject of Leontius’s narrative, appears in Evagrius Scholasticus’s Ecclesiastical History. However, there is nothing in Evagrius’s account of Symeon of Emesa which draws parallels between Symeon and the Cynics.[5] Moreover, this chapter does not suggest that the behavior of a sixth-century saint was motivated or influenced by Cynics or Cynicism. Instead, it is a comparison of texts, which explores a literary relationship between Leontius of Neapolis’s Life of Symeon the Fool and literary traditions about Diogenes of Sinope, the Cynic philosopher, a relationship which has serious implications for our understanding of Symeon’s behavior—both his shamelessness and his asceticism—as well as Leontius’s conception of folly for the sake of Christ.

Symeon and the Cynics

In the last chapter we saw that in Late Antiquity educated Christians were introduced to the figure of Diogenes through their school training, which made extensive use of Diogenes chreiai in grammatical and rhetorical exercises, and that Christian writers were particularly interested in Diogenes, especially because he presented a pagan model of the ascetic life. These Christians also tended to be concerned about Diogenes’ shamelessness. The evidence which follows confirms that Leontius also was familiar with Diogenes. While it is possible that Leontius’s familiarity with the Cynic hero derived solely from the assimilation of Cynic material into Christian popular culture, the specificity of the allusions to Diogenes suggests otherwise. Leontius’s knowledge of Cynicism betrays exposure to chreiai he would almost certainly have encountered in the course of schooling in the standard Late Antique curriculum. That this Cypriot bishop had had such a formation is evident from his use of a studied rhetorical writing style in the first half of the Life of Symeon.

Although Leontius never refers to Diogenes or the Cynics by name, he does allude to Diogenes’ characteristic behavior in several places. Of particular relevance are the passages in which Symeon defecates in public, eats lupines, eats raw meat, and arrives in Emesa, dragging a dead dog.

Defecation in Public

Leontius relates that Symeon regularly defecated in public. This activity gives physical (and even graphic) proof that Symeon had not been fasting, that Symeon violated ascetic norms for food consumption.[6] Leontius informs his reader that Symeon defecates in public in an explanatory aside, placed after a raucous anecdote in which Symeon pretends that he will rape the tavern keeper’s wife. As such, the aside breaks the general pattern of this portion of the Life which flows from episode to episode, each of which narrates a single unseemly occurrence. Presumably the aside is presented as an explanation for the troubling incident which precedes it, intended to allay the audience’s fears about Symeon’s behavior. Lest Leontius’s reader be concerned that Symeon capitulated to carnal desires, he explains that Symeon had none, and furthermore, that Symeon had no regard for social conventions regarding basic bodily functions. Leontius writes:

It was entirely as if Symeon had no body, and he paid no attention to what might be judged disgraceful conduct either by humans or by nature. Often, indeed, when his belly sought to do its private function, immediately, and without blushing, he squatted [ἐκαθéζετο] in the market place, wherever he found himself, in front of everyone, wishing to persuade [others] by this, that he did this because he had lost his natural [κατὰ φύσιν] sense. (p. 148)

By performing a private deed in public, Symeon challenges the boundary between public and private, perhaps the most prominent division in the Late Antique city. Two features of this passage merit attention here: the act of defecating in public and the assertion that this was done in order to appear as if he had lost his natural sense, literally, “the sense in accord with nature.”

Diogenes the Cynic also was said to have defecated in public. In the Eighth Discourse of Dio Chrysostom, a sophistic orator of the late first and early second centuries CE who often composed speeches set in the mouths of figures from the past,[7] Diogenes praises the virtues of Herakles before a crowd. Referring to the labor in which Herakles cleaned away the dung in the Augean stable, an unsavory task which had not been performed for thirty years, Dio’s Diogenes claims Herakles did this “because he believed that he should fight hard no less in the battle against common opinion [δόξα] than against wild beasts and the evil deeds of humanity.”[8] Diogenes’ point was that mucking the stalls was unpleasant only because people held it to be so. The crowd was pleased with Diogenes’ oration; whereupon, Dio continues, “thinking of the deeds of Herakles, and having finished his speech, he squatted [καθεζόμενος] on the ground and did something indecent [τί τῶν ἀδόξων]. At this point the crowd scorned him and called him crazy.”[9] Dio Chrysostom writes that Diogenes had done “something indecent” (τί τῶν ἀδόξων), literally “something not doxa,” against common opinion.[10] Defecation in itself, of course, is not remarkable; what makes this act indecent is that it is done in public. As in the Life of Symeon, Dio uses the euphemism καθέζω, “to squat.” Before Diogenes performs this deed, the crowd’s opinion of him is favorable. His action effects a complete change in the audience. He even is accused of being crazy (μαίνεσθαι). So also in the passage from the Life of Symeon, the assumption is that each time Symeon defecates in public, he changes what people think of him. He persuades them that he is behaving as if he had lost his senses (φρενῶν ἐξεστηκώς).

The Emperor Julian’s oration “To the Uneducated Cynics” sheds further light on this episode. For Julian, as for Dio, defecation in public was an activity strongly associated with Diogenes. Writing in 362, Julian argued that the key to understanding Diogenes was his rejection of nomos, probably best translated here as “social convention,” and his adherence to a life in accord with phusis, or “nature.”[11] Thus Julian sought to explain some of Diogenes of Sinope’s more peculiar behavior. Julian’s Diogenes claimed that the conventions by which the majority led their lives were foolish, and he felt it was his duty to refute common misconceptions about the behavior natural to humans.[12] The instruments of this refutation were the functions natural to the human body itself.

Let [Diogenes] trample on conceit; let him ridicule [καταπαιζέτω] those who although they conceal in darkness the necessary functions of our nature—I am speaking of the expulsion of excrement—yet in the center of the marketplace and of our cities carry out most violent [deeds] which are not proper to our nature: robbery of money, false accusations, unjust indictments, and the pursuit of other such vulgar business. When Diogenes farted [ἀπέπαρδεν] or went to the bathroom [ἀπεπάτησεν][13] or did other things like this in the marketplace, which they say he did, he did these things to trample on the delusion of those men and to teach them that they carried out [deeds] far more sordid and dangerous than his. For what he did was according to our common nature, while what they did was not, so to speak, in accord with everyone’s nature [πᾶσι κατὰ φύσιν], but were all carried out because of perversion.[14]

For Julian (at least for the sake of argument here), public defecation is in accord with nature (kata phusin). Leontius presents Symeon’s defecation as unnatural—behavior which is intended to demonstrate that Symeon has been abandoned by the sense which is in accord with nature. In some ways this treatment is disingenuous—intentionally contradicting popular notions about the Cynics, that is, those who defecate in public. Furthermore, as in the Life of Symeon, Diogenes’ defecation is presented as habitual.[15] Like Diogenes’, Symeon’s profaning actions in the marketplace comment on society’s hypocrisy, iniquity, and economic injustice.

That Cynicism was “the life in accord with nature” was a commonplace in the ancient sources, as is reflected in texts ranging from the pseudepigraphic Cynic epistles[16] to the writings of the late Neoplatonic philosopher Simplicius in the sixth century. According to one “Diogenes” epistle, “[C]ynicism . . . is an investigation of nature.”[17] Furthermore, this investigation was not without its spiritual significance. As another letter explains, “Nature [φύσις] is mighty and, since it has been banished from life by appearance [δόξα], it is what we restore for the salvation of mankind.”[18] Simplicius had studied Neoplatonic philosophy in Alexandria and Athens in the years just before 529. In his Commentary on the Enchiridion of Epictetus, he regards Herakles, Theseus, Diogenes, and Socrates (all traditional Cynic heroes) as men of virtue who rose above the beasts and human evils by “pushing on toward most simple heights and the life in accord with nature.”[19]

When Leontius relates that Symeon defecated in public, although he explains that, in doing so, Symeon wished to persuade people that he was behaving as if he had lost his natural (kata phusin) sense, Leontius is, in fact, associating Symeon’s behavior with the behavior of a Cynic philosopher. In doing so, Leontius calls up a number of themes associated with the figure of Diogenes. Diogenes’ public shamelessness was a bit of street theater which expressed a rejection of social conventions. The retelling of these anecdotes functioned as a form of cultural criticism. In fact, tradition held that Diogenes had performed a wide range of shameless deeds in public, including, in addition to defecating, masturbating[20] and urinating.[21] In the same vein, Leontius relates that after performing miracles, it was Symeon’s practice to go quickly to another part of town and “do something inappropriate [άκαιρον]” (p. 147). The euphemism leaves the reader to imagine the specific deed or deeds Leontius has in mind.

Leontius goes so far as to suggest that Symeon exceeded the Cynics in shamelessness. Symeon “paid no attention to what might be judged disgraceful either by humans or by nature” (p. 148). That is, not only did he violate normal human conventions for decency—in the manner of the Cynics, who rejected human conventions in favor of those determined by nature—he also violated those things held to be indecent by nature, by implication, at least, also therefore violating Cynic “standards” of decency. In part, of course, this is because Symeon behaves in accord with a divine convention.

Eating Lupines

On two occasions in the Life of Symeon, the saint eats a legume called θέρμια or “lupines.”[22] Shortly after arriving in Emesa, Symeon is offered a job by the proprietor of a soup stand in the agora. In addition to this humble fare, the proprietor also sold lupines and boiled lentils.[23]

According to God’s plan, a phouska-seller saw [Symeon not knowing] that he was playing the fool [σαλός]. And he said to him (for it seemed that he was sane), “Would you like, my Lord Abba,[24] instead of wandering about, to be set up to sell lupines [θέρμια]?” And he said, “Yes.” (p. 146)

While on the job, Symeon began to give the food away, and he himself began to eat insatiably. The proprietor’s wife observed Symeon eating a whole pot full of lupines, causing her to remark, “Where did you find us this abba? If he eats like this, it’s no use trying to sell anything!” (p. 146). In a second episode, Symeon is sought out by two monks who are debating the reason for Origen’s fall into heresy. They find Symeon in the phouska-seller’s shop “eating lupines like a bear” (p. 153).

Symeon’s robust appetite is less noteworthy in these stories than are the lupines themselves. The lupine is a legume which was known for its ability to induce flatulence.[25] Ostentatious farting was a trademark of Diogenes. Diogenes Laertius relates stories about both Diogenes and Crates which involve lupines, suggesting that lupines held a special place in Cynic lore. Consider the following anecdote about Diogenes:

A young man was delivering a set speech, when Diogenes, having filled the front fold of his dress with lupins [sic], began to eat them, standing right opposite to him. Having thus drawn off the attention of the assemblage, he said he was greatly surprised that they should desert the orator to look at himself.[26]

The significance of the ingestion of lupines as a commentary on the content of the speech in this passage is made clear by an anecdote concerning Crates, a follower of Diogenes the Cynic, related in Diogenes Laertius’s life of Metrocles.

While [Metrocles] was practicing a speech, he farted. Out of desperation, he shut himself up in his house and tried to starve himself to death. On learning of this, Crates came to visit him as he had been asked to do. After having purposely eaten lupines, Crates tried to convince Metrocles that he had done nothing wrong, for it would have been a marvel if he had not answered the winds in accord with nature [κατὰ φύσιν]. But at last Crates also farted, thus lifting Metrocles from his depression, consoled by the similarity of the deeds.[27]

From this moment Metrocles became a student of Crates and a Cynic. This remarkable tale of the conversion of Metrocles makes it clear that lupines were notorious for causing gas. In order to appreciate these stories fully we must consider lupines as the rough equivalent of our baked beans. The anecdote about Diogenes eating lupines at a public lecture depends on the audience’s expectations. In addition to breaking social codes by eating in a public place,[28] Diogenes distracted the audience because of the specific food he was eating. No doubt the audience was fixated on Diogenes, awaiting the result of his ingestion. He therefore provided not only a visual alternative to the speaker, but, in time, could be expected to provide an audible alternative as well. Thus, Diogenes is able to use his bodily functions to comment on the situation at hand. The speech to which Diogenes is listening is nothing more, if you will, than hot air.

Although in these stories about Diogenes and Crates flatulence is intentionally induced, the act of farting is regarded in the passage concerning Crates as completely natural. It is only on account of social convention that one is embarrassed by such natural acts. Farting in public is one of the shameless activities associated with Diogenes the Cynic elsewhere. Julian mentions farting along with defecating as activities which Diogenes performed in the market place.[29] And Diogenes Laertius even attributes to Diogenes a treatise with the title Pordalos, derived from the word πορδή, “a fart.”[30] Epictetus complained that the second-rate Cynics of his day imitated their predecessors in nothing other than producing farts.[31] Thus when Leontius portrayed Symeon as an avid eater of lupines, he was once again drawing a connection between Symeon and Diogenes. Eating legumes which cause one to fart, it should be noted, was a particularly unphilosophical thing to do. Pythagoras is said to have forbidden his followers to eat broad beans (κυάμος), another legume, because they caused gas and interfered with proper breathing.[32] Thus in eating lupines, Diogenes contradicts the practice of more respectable philosophers,[33] and Symeon contradicts the behavior of a good ascetic in that he gorges himself when he should probably be fasting.[34]

Eating Raw Meat

Another element of Symeon’s diet, raw meat, should be counted among Leontius’s allusions to Diogenes of Sinope.

Once [Symeon’s] friend, Deacon John, invited him to lunch, and they were hanging salted meats there. So Abba Symeon began to knock down the raw meat and eat it. The all-wise John, not wanting to say anything to him with a loud voice, drew near his ear and said to him, “You really don’t scandalize me, [even] if you eat raw camel. Do whatever you’d like with the rest.” (p. 158)[35]

Traditions about Diogenes eating raw meat are widely attested.[36] Diogenes Laertius reports that Diogenes “attempted to eat raw meat, but he could not digest it.”[37] Laertius includes the eating of raw octopus among the several differing accounts of Diogenes’ death. “He was seized with colic [or perhaps ‘cholera’] after eating an octopus raw and so met his end.”[38] Controversy over the merits of such action served as the focal point for Julian’s defense of Diogenes, referred to earlier. Julian argues at great length that in eating raw octopus, Diogenes was behaving in accord with nature, following the same pattern assigned to all the other animals.[39] According to Julian, Diogenes had reasoned further that if raw foods alone caused him nausea, it was because he was enslaved to vain opinion (doxa kenē) rather than reason (logos). This act of eating raw flesh articulates what Julian considered to be the core of Cynic philosophy, namely the life in accord with nature, and Leontius’s inclusion of an episode in which Symeon eats raw flesh must allude to Cynicism. Thus Leontius harnesses Diogenes’ significance as a critic of social convention.

A Saint and His Dog

All of this brings us to Symeon’s dog. Symeon’s tying of a dead dog to his belt in order to enter the city is perhaps the most emblematic episode in Symeon’s career as a fool. While the anecdote contains elements of the burlesque, it also has deeper meaning. Ewald Kislinger has attempted to explain Symeon’s dog as a figure for Cerberus, the watchdog of Hades, or for Charon, who ferried the dead souls to the underworld.[40] Charon, it seems, was originally portrayed as a dog. Kislinger also invokes Anubis, the jackal-headed Egyptian deity with a similar role. Kislinger sees the dog as “a symbol of the passage from this world to the other.”[41] The entry into Emesa is, in Kislinger’s reading, a parody of the soul’s entry into Hades. Instead of the dog conveying the dead soul, here we have the saint conveying the dead dog. Kislinger expresses wonder that the pagan religious symbolism on which his reading depends was accessible in the seventh (or sixth) century, but offers no proof of the relevance of such a myth in the culture of the period. Kislinger’s thesis is too far removed from the Life of Symeon. Without allusions to pagan myths, Leontius’s text does not support such an allegorical reading. For all its failings, the city of Emesa is never portrayed as a city of the dead, or as a cipher for Hades.

One need look no farther than the elements of pagan philosophy preserved in the school tradition. In specifying a dog, I suggest, Leontius is referring to the Cynic tradition. The use of the word kuōn (κύων, genitive κυνός), “dog,” to describe a Cynic is a commonplace in writing concerning the Cynics throughout Late Antiquity.[42] The usage depends on a pun grounded in a popular etymology for the word kunikos (κυνικός), “Cynic,” which claimed that the term was derived from the word kuōn. Cynics were so named because they behaved like dogs.[43] They urinated and defecated, ate, masturbated, and copulated in public. Moreover, the usage of kuōn to describe Cynics was not exclusively negative, and the two terms kuōn and kunikos, “dog” and “Cynic,” were used interchangeably when referring to Cynics.

The fact that “dog” could mean “Cynic” became a trope in Late Antique discussions of rhetoric, even among Jewish and Christian writers, and is well attested in grammar books, lexica, and in the writings of the church fathers. In the treatise Noah’s Work as a Planter, Philo discusses the difference between synonymy, where many words refer to the same thing, and homonymy, where the same word means a variety of things. His first example of homonymy is the word “dog” (kuōn). On land a “dog” is a barking animal, in the sea it is a monster, and in the heavens it is a star. He continues, “The name ‘dog’ . . . moreover [signifies] a philosopher who proceeds from the Cynic sect, Aristippus, Diogenes, and countless others who thought it fit to practice these things.”[44] In book 8 of the Stromata, Clement presents basic elements of rhetoric which are necessary for Christians to be able to debate pagans. He stresses the importance of clear definitions of words. He considers the confusion which might arise with the question “Whether a dog were an animal?” “For I shall speak of the land dog and the sea dog, and the constellation in heaven, and of Diogenes too, and all the other dogs in order.”[45]

In fact, the multiple meanings of the word “dog” have a very long history in the educational tradition, as evidenced by the lexica which reflect the vocabulary taught by the grammar teachers.[46] Byzantine grammatikoi instructed by having their students give all the possible definitions of words which occurred in Homer and other school texts. Hesychius, a Christian and a grammatikos teaching in Alexandria in the late fifth or early sixth century, compiled a lexicon of these words which remained in use for some time. His list included under kuōn, among other things, “clearly then: the male member, and the barking animal, and the shameless one, and the star, and the sea animal.”[47] That dogs were shameless animals was also a commonplace. John Chrysostom, for instance, in a list in the Homilies Concerning the Statues of the characters of various animals, tells us, “The dog is shameless [ἀναίσχυντος].”[48] But Hesychius clearly has something other than “the barking animal” in mind when he lists “the shameless one [ἀναιδής]” after the common definition of “dog.” A later lexicon, known as the Etymologikon Mega, includes under kuōn: “Dog [is said] for the philosopher who does the same as dogs do.”[49] “Shameless ones” is also offered as a definition here.[50] Manuel Moschopoulos’s fourteenth-century compilation of earlier works, commonly known as the Peri Schedōn, defines kuōn thus:

Animal barking, and of the sea, and a star in the heaven, from the dog who barks. Dogs, a class [γένος, perhaps “breed”] of philosophers, who have also been [called] “Cynics,” on account of their jesting, and their biting just as if they were dogs.[51]

Throughout Late Antiquity, then (and beyond), “dog” meant, among other things, “Cynic philosopher.”

In addition, many Christian writers in Late Antiquity found the ties between “dog” and “Cynic” irresistible. Gregory of Nazianzus provides us with some particularly rich puns. When Gregory praised Maximus the Cynic he called him a “dog” and cited his “barking,” “keeping watch,” and “wagging [his] tail.”[52] When he later condemned Maximus in his autobiographical De vita sua, Gregory described him as “a raging evil, a dog, a whelp [κυνίσκος], loitering on the streets.”[53] Gregory puns on kuōn and kunikos throughout the section of the poem concerned with Maximus. He ridicules “our modern dogs” who do not compare with the great Cynics of the past, Diogenes, Antisthenes, and Crates.[54] In another poem he asks, “Who has not heard of the Sinopean dog?”[55] And Augustine, writing in Latin, referred to the Cynics as “canine philosophers” (canini philosophi).[56] The dog metaphors could be either positive or negative, a writer calling either on the watchdog’s barking and biting to praise the Cynic’s vigilant social criticism or on the canine’s baser ways to attack a Cynic’s inappropriate behavior.

In attaching Symeon to the dog, Leontius attaches Symeon to the Cynic tradition, both linguistically and metaphorically. Symeon brings this tradition back into the city, where he proceeds to imitate Diogenes, eating lupines, eating raw meat, and defecating in public.

Cynics and Madness

Each of these shameless activities is an example of Symeon’s apparent madness, perhaps his most defining attribute. The accusation of madness also has parallels in anecdotes about Diogenes and in popular conceptions of Cynicism. Leontius explains that Symeon defecated in the agora, “wishing to persuade [others] by this that he did this because he had lost his natural sense” (p. 148). The phrase “having lost his natural sense” (or “having lost the sense in accord with nature”) refers only secondarily to Symeon’s feigned madness; it is primarily meant as a description of the sort of person who would defecate in public and claim to be living “in accord with nature,” namely a Cynic.[57]

It was a common notion that the Cynics, who behaved so strangely, were crazy. Diogenes Laertius’s Lives of the Philosophers includes the following chreia: “When [Plato] was asked by someone, ‘What sort of person does Diogenes seem to you to be?’ ‘A Socrates gone mad [μαινόμενος],’ he answered.”[58] The accusation that Diogenes was crazy also appears in John of Stobi’s fifth-century Florilegium: “Someone said that Diogenes was out of his mind [ἀνόητος]. ‘I’m not out of my mind,’ he replied, ‘but I don’t have your mind [νοῦς].’ ”[59] The Hebrew word kinukos (sic)[60] appears in two passages in the Palestinian Talmud (yGittin 38a; yTerumoth 2a) in reference to “the signs of a madman.”[61] Aëtius of Amida, physician to the Emperor Justinian, describes a form of madness known as kunanthrōpia.[62] And accounts of the “plague of madness” which fell upon Amida in 560 include descriptions of people barking like dogs.[63]

Symeon’s social transgressions invited the accusation of madness. After Symeon entered the city gate with the dead dog, he passed a school full of children. Leontius writes, “When the children saw him, they began to cry, ‘Hey, a crazy abba!’ And they set about to run after him and box him on the ears” (p. 145). The cry “abbas mōros” recalls the statement attributed to Plato concerning Diogenes of Sinope. Like Diogenes, Symeon is accused incorrectly, but nevertheless understandably, of being mad. Diogenes had overstepped the boundaries of behavior appropriate to a philosopher into what appeared to be madness, while Symeon, in his pretense of madness, had overstepped the boundaries of behavior appropriate to the Christian religious (or anyone, for that matter) and appeared to be a mad monk.

Evaluating the Cynics

Here we have focused attention on individual instances of allusion to traditions about Cynics and Cynicism in the Life of Symeon the Fool. But the connection between Symeon and Diogenes is not merely embedded in individual episodes; rather, because of these allusions, Leontius sets up a parallel between Symeon and Diogenes which pervades the entire text. Despite denying a historical link between Symeon and the Cynics, Rydén and others have acknowledged that Symeon and the Cynics appear to be parallel phenomena. In light of the discussion here, we must concur that there indeed are cross-cultural parallels between Diogenes and Symeon, but this is because Leontius constructs Symeon and Diogenes as parallel phenomena. In short, Leontius portrays Symeon as a latter-day Cynic. Like Diogenes, Symeon comes to the city as an outsider. Once in town, Symeon wreaks havoc on the social order by challenging conventions, much as Diogenes does. He offends notions of common decency through obscene behavior. Like Diogenes, Symeon disrupts assemblies by eating in public.[64] Symeon disrupts a church service by throwing nuts at the women parishioners (pp. 145–46) and stops a theater performance by throwing a stone at a juggler (p. 150). Furthermore, just as Diogenes’ apologists explain about him, Leontius argues that Symeon’s behavior is calculated to instruct, although obscurely. It is claimed of both figures that they act in the name of an authority higher than human opinion.

Somehow, allusions to Diogenes render Symeon’s behavior comprehensible. The precedent for tales of socially deviant behavior justifies Symeon, since as literary types, Cynics, namely Diogenes, were both intellectually and morally acceptable to educated Christians. Left with the problem of presenting the controversial subject matter which he desired, Leontius drew on Diogenes in order to legitimate Symeon. To the modern reader, it might seem that when Leontius alludes to Diogenes—that is, when Symeon seems most scandalous to us—Leontius most challenges his audience to condemn the saint. Ironically, what prevents the ancient reader from doing so, however, is the force of tradition. Diogenes, for all his profanity, was a familiar entity and was widely regarded as a figure worthy of praise. When Leontius informed his readers that Symeon defecated in public and ate lupines, he was placing Symeon on familiar ground. Like those who transmitted the anecdotes about the Cynics, Leontius used obscene tales for moral instruction. Like Diogenes, the fool for Christ’s sake was an instrument of cultural criticism. Through Symeon, Leontius was able to point out the hypocrisy and, therefore, the sinfulness of everyday urban life.

On the other hand, Leontius’s employment of Cynic tropes is more complex than it might at first appear. Leontius’s goals differed from those of the Cynic anecdotes, and his treatment is nuanced. In addition to the dog which Symeon drags through the gates of Emesa, there are two other dogs in the Life of Symeon. While these dogs do not suggest themselves as figures for Cynicism, they do expand an understanding of the cultural attitudes toward dogs in Leontius’s world. These dogs represent the demonic. After Symeon exorcizes John the deacon’s son of the demon who has caused him to fornicate with a married woman, the youth sees Symeon chasing a black dog, beating it with a wooden cross (p. 150). Elsewhere in the Life of Symeon, when a demon is haunting the market, Symeon throws stones in all directions to turn people back. When a dog passes by, the demon strikes it, causing it to foam (p. 157).[65] The association of dogs with demons was apparently commonplace, as was the association of dogs with madness.[66] Madness, moreover, was commonly regarded as a form of demonic possession, and Symeon, himself, pretends to be possessed by demons as part of his folly (p. 162; cf. p. 156).[67] While I believe we overread the text to assume that Leontius regarded the Cynics as demonic—not all dogs are demons—the generally negative attitude toward dogs betrays an ambivalence on Leontius’s part toward Diogenes similar to that found in the writings of other Christians discussed in the previous chapter. By giving Symeon a dead dog, Leontius implies that Cynicism in itself is spiritually bankrupt.

For all the allusions and parallels to Diogenes, Leontius does not stop at showing Symeon to be like a Cynic; he goes on to show how Symeon surpasses the Cynics—but not merely in his capacity to violate human (and “natural”) conventions. The church fathers were understandably concerned about Cynic obscenity. Leontius seems to have feared that his audience would have a similarly ambivalent attitude toward Symeon, and this explains Leontius’s apologetics on Symeon’s behalf. Leontius admits that there is some risk that Symeon’s behavior could corrupt him, and so he explains that Symeon remained undefiled (pp. 148–49). Diogenes, as was well known, still had a sexual appetite. Once after masturbating in public he said, “Would that one could satisfy hunger by rubbing the belly.”[68] Symeon, by contrast, had had a vision in which his genitals were sprinkled with holy water, thus purifying him and making him free of all sexual desire (p. 155).[69]

For Diogenes, the “life in accord with nature” was a life which indulged the body’s basic needs, whether for food, sex, or relief of the bowels; Symeon on the other hand was, in Leontius’s words, “entirely as if he had no body” (p. 148), that is, as if he were an angel. His behavior may have appeared like a Cynic’s—in fact, Leontius suggests that Symeon wished to persuade people that he was a Cynic—but this was only a device to avoid recognition of his sanctity. He had transcended his body, and these were only appearances. Rather than living kata phusin, “in accord with nature,” Symeon lives, as Leontius says, kat’ aretēn, “in accord with virtue” (pp. 121, 127); or, even better, kata theon, “in accord with God” (pp. 128, 170). In his spiritual perfection, Symeon had transcended the very phusis to which Diogenes aspired.


1. Ernst Benz, “Heilige Narrheit,” Kyrios 3 (1938): 18.

2. Rydén, Das Leben des heiligen Narren Symeon, pp. 17–18; my translation.

3. Rydén, Bemerkungen zum Leben des heiligen Narren Symeon von Leontios von Neapolis (Uppsala: Almquist and Wiksell, 1970), pp. 17–18; my translation. In such a fashion, Richard Reitzenstein (Hellenistische Wundererzählungen [Leipzig: Teubner, 1906], pp. 67–72) argued that the stories of Sarapion found in Palladius’s Lausiac History and in its expanded Syriac version share a similarity of spirit. Sarapion has often been seen by students of holy folly as a precursor to Symeon in the development of the concept of the holy fool in Christianity. Cf. Festugière, Vie de Syméon le Fou, p. 16.

4. Alexander Y. Syrkin, “On the Behavior of the ‘Fool for Christ’s Sake,’ ” History of Religions 22 (1982): 150.

5. Evagrius, HE 4.34.

6. On the model ascetic’s desire to avoid being seen defecating, see Thdt., HR 21.5.

7. On Dio Chrysostom generally, see Christopher P. Jones, The Roman World of Dio Chrysostom (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1978).

8. Dio Chrys., Or. 8.35.

9. Dio Chrys., Or. 8.36.

10. On δόξα and άδοξα in Cynicism, see Abraham J. Malherbe, “Ps.-Heraclitus, Ep. 4: The Divinization of the Wise Man,” JAC 21 (1978): 60.

11. Discussions of φύσις, especially as it is distinct from νόμος (convention), were common in Socratic and Sophistic debate. See especially Plato’s Gorgias. On the history of the concept in ancient philosophy see F. P. Hargar, Historisches Wörterbuch der Philosophie (Basel: Schwebe, 1971–), s.v. “Natur.”

12. Cf. Julian, Or. 6.191d.

13. ἀποπατέω, a common euphemism, literally meaning “to go off the path.” Its use here is ironic: Diogenes does not go off, but rather stays in public view. Julian no doubt intends his audience to appreciate the onomatopoeic qualities of the scatological words in this passage.

14. Julian, Or. 6.202b, c.

15. These details, among others, raise questions about Leontius’s sources for Diogenes. Leontius was no doubt familiar with Diogenes chreiai from his school education, but the parallels between the passage from the Life of Symeon quoted above, the passage from Dio Chrysostom, and this passage from Julian are striking. Thus it is possible that Leontius was familiar with the works of Dio and Julian. On the reception of Dio Chrysostom see Aldo Brancacci, Rhetorike philosophousa: Dione Crisostomo nella cultura antica e bizantina (Rome: Bibliopolis, 1986). On survival of the works of Julian, see N. G. Wilson, Scholars of Byzantium (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1983), pp. 12, 115 (on Photius), 130–32 (on Arethas).

16. On the Diogenes epistles and their probable date, see Malherbe, The Cynic Epistles: A Study Edition (Missoula, Mont.: Scholars, 1977), pp. 14–18.

17. Ep. Diog. 42.

18. Ep. Diog. 6.

19. Simplicius, Commentary on the Enchiridion of Epictetus, ed. Dübner, p. 40; cf. pp. 45, 49. Simplicius’s praise of Diogenes is particularly enthusiastic (In Ench., pp. 53–54):

“Why,” he [i.e., Epictetus] asked, “were Diogenes and Heraclitus despised, [since] they were divine and worthy to be called so?” For they were divine and living according to excellence [κατὰ τὸ ἄκρον], and setting free that which was within them. For they were in all ways excellent and divine, for God is more excellent than all things.

20. D. L. 6.46, 69; Epp. Diog. 35, 42, 44; Dio Chrys., Or. 6.16–20; Athenaeus, Deip. 4.145 ff.

21. D. L. 6.46.

22. This is a diminutive of θέρμος, also “lupines,” to be distinguished from υερμός, the adjective meaning “warm,” and its derivatives. Nevertheless, the popular lore about the physical effects of lupines is no doubt enhanced by the fact that their name is a pun for “heating.” Heated foods were believed to lead to flatulence as well as to increased sexual desire. Cf. Foucault, The Care of the Self, vol. 3 of The History of Sexuality, trans. Robert Hurley (New York: Vintage, 1986), p. 132.

23. The φουσκάριος sold a soup called φούσκα, which was made with vinegar. (Cf. Latin posca, a mixture of vinegar, hot water, and eggs.) He is not a “wine merchant” as others have conjectured. On this point, see also Rydén, “Style and Historical Fiction in the Life of St. Andreas Salos,” JöB 32 (1982): 175–83. An epigram in the Greek Anthology includes lupines in the description of a dinner party in which only vegetables are served. The poet deems the selection more fit for sheep than for friends. Anth. Pal. 11.413.

24. Mari Abba is a Greek transliteration of the Syriac “mry ab’,” meaning “my Lord Abba.”

25. See for example the Hippocratic Regimen in Acute Diseases (Appendix) 47: “All pulses produce flatulence. . . . The lupin is the least injurious of the pulses” (Hippocrates, trans. Paul Potter, vol. 6 [Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1988], pp. 308–9). Cf. Regimen 2.45 (Hippocrates 4:314–17), where lupines are grouped under the heading of κυάμοι, here “legumes” in general, which produce flatulence.

26. D. L. 6.48, trans. R. D. Hicks, Diogenes Laertius, vol. 2 (London: Heinemann, 1932), pp. 49–51.

27. D. L. 6.94; my translation.

28. Other examples of Diogenes causing a stir by eating in public include D. L. 6.57 (eating salt fish at a lecture); 6.58, 61 (eating in the market place).

29. Julian, Or. 6.202b.

30. D. L. 6.20, 80. Diogenes Laertius seems to have regarded the work as authentic! On farting in ancient times generally see Ludwig Radermacher, “Pordē,” in RE 22.235–40; Jeffery Henderson, The Maculate Muse: Obscene Language in Attic Comedy (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1975), pp. 195–99; and J. N. Adams, The Latin Sexual Vocabulary (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1982), pp. 249–50.

31. Epictetus, Disc. 3.22.80.

32. D. L. 8.24. Cf. Pliny the Elder, HN 28.18; Cicero, Div. 1.62; Aulus Gellius, NA 4.2.3. Other reasons for the prohibition are given by Porphyry, Vita Pyth. 44; Iamblichus, Vita Pyth. 109. On the Pythagorean avoidance of broad beans, see Mirko D. Grmek, Diseases of the Ancient Greek World, trans. Mireille Muellner and Leonard Muellner (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1989), pp. 210–24. Grmek sees the prohibition against eating the beans as only part of an elaborate taboo against the plant, forbidding touching the bean or walking through a field of bean plants. Celsus seems to have understood Pythagorean avoidance of kuamos to have been much like Jewish food taboos (Origen, Contra Cels. 5.41). I have been unable to find evidence that this concern to avoid foods which cause flatulence was carried into Christian monastic practice in the East. On the contrary, legumes (pulses) constituted a major element of the monastic diet. See Maria Dembin«ska, “Diet: A Comparison of Food Consumption between Some Eastern and Western Monasteries in the 4th–12th Centuries,” Byzantion 55 (1985): 431–62, and esp. p. 440.

33. In an epigram attributed to Lucian an unnamed Cynic avoids lupines, although he does eat a sow’s womb; Anth. Pal. 11.410.

34. The lupines in the Origen episode function as they do in the anecdote about Diogenes, as a commentary on the discussion at hand, dismissing debates concerning Origen’s orthodoxy. The question of Leontius’s possible sympathy for Origenism, which is beyond the scope of this study, is a subject worthy of further investigation. Despite the condemnation of Origen at the council of Constantinople in 553 at Justinian’s behest, debate over the status of Origen was still possible in the mid-seventh century, as witnessed by the trial of Maximus the Confessor. Cf. Sebastian Brock, “An Early Syriac Life of Maximus the Confessor,” AB 91 (1973): 299–346; and also Antoine Guillaumont, Les “Képhalaia Gnostica” d’évagre le Pontique et l’histoire de l’origénisme chez les grecs et chez les syriens (Paris: du Seuil, 1962).

35. The notion that eating raw camel was particularly disgusting recalls Thdt., HR 26 where Symeon the Stylite is credited with influencing the pagan Ishmaelites to such a degree that in assimilating to Greco-Roman culture and converting to Christianity they gave up their ancestral custom of eating “wild asses and camels.”

36. Plutarch, Mor. (Whether Water or Fire Is More Useful) 956b, and Mor. (On the Eating of Flesh) 995d; Lucian, Vitarum Auctio (Philosophies for Sale) 10. The chreia on which Plutarch is dependent suggests that Diogenes ate raw squid for the salvation of others.

37. D. L. 6.34.

38. D. L. 6.76. “Colic” is a particularly satisfying translation, since it implies an inability to flatulate.

39. Julian, Or. 6.191c et seq.

40. Ewald Kislinger, “Symeon Salos’ Hund,” JöB 38 (1988): 165–70.

41. Kislinger, “Symeon Salos’ Hund,” p. 168; my translation.

42. On dog = Cynic in collections of Cynic anecdotes, see for example D. L. 6.33, 40, 61, 77; Gnomologium Vaticanum 175, 194; Athenaeus, 5.216b; Florilegium Monacense 155 = Meinecke, 4.278; Stobaeus, 4.55.11; Anth. Pal. 7.63–68.

43. Κυνικός, in fact, looks like an adjectival form of κύων, and can also mean “doglike.” Cf. LSJ, s.v. On Cynics as dogs, see Ferrand Sayre, Greek Cynicism and Sources of Cynicism (Baltimore: Furst, 1948), pp. 4–5; see also Schulz-Falkenthal, “Kyniker—Zur inhaltlichen Deutung des Namens,” Wissenschaftliche Zeitschrift des Martin-Luther Universität Halle-Wittenberg (Gesellschaftsreihe) 26.2 (1977): 41–49.

44. Philo, De plantatione 151, Philo, ed. F. H. Colson and G. H. Whitaker, vol. 3 (London: Heinemann, 1930), p. 290; my translation.

45. Clement, Strom. 8.12.4–7; trans. ANF 2:561. We should not think of Clement as dependent on Philo here; rather, it seems, the word kuōn was a stock example in rhetorical education. The “land-sea-and-heaven” trope is found in two scholia to Dionysius Thrax’s treatise on grammar which date from the middle or late Byzantine periods, commenting in both cases on the problem of homonyms. Scholia in Dionysii Thracis Artem Grammaticum, ed. A. Hilgard (Leipzig: Teubner, 1901): Scholia Vaticana (cod. C) to Dionysius Thrax, p. 236; Scholia Marciana (VN), p. 389.

46. The lexica are very difficult to date and are remarkable for the high degree of continuity which they suggest in Greek education. On the grammarians generally, see Robert A. Kaster, Guardians of Language: The Grammarian and Society in Late Antiquity (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988).

47. Hesychius of Alexandria, Lexicon, ed. Kurt Latte, vol. 2 (Copenhagen: Ejnar Munksgaard, 1953), p. 555, entry Kappa 1763. See Hesychius’s prosopographical entry in Kaster, Guardians of Language, p. 292. Hesychius was a Christian.

48. John Chrysostom, Ad populum Antiochenum de statuis 12.2, PG 49.130; cf. English translation NPNF (first series) IX, p. 420. See also Aelian (Varia Historia 7.19, second or third century) who comments, “Dogs and flies are without shame,” when he relates an incident of a dog committing adultery with a Roman woman.

49. Etymologicum magnum, ed. Frederic Sylburg (Leipzig: Wiegel, 1816), col. 498.

50. Cf. the kuōn entry of the Hellenistic Homer Lexicon of Apollonius Sophista (Lexicon Homericum, ed. J. C. Molini, vol. 2 [Paris, 1773], p. 510).

51. Manuel Moschopoulos, De ratione examinandae orationibus libellus [Peri Schedōn] (Paris: Stephanus, 1545), s.v. (p. 4). On the Peri Schedōn, see John J. Keaney, “Moschopulea,” BZ 64 (1971): 303–21.

52. Greg. Naz., Or. 25.2.

53. Greg. Naz., De vita sua, ll. 751–52.

54. Greg. Naz., De vita sua, ll. 1030–33.

55. Greg. Naz., Poems 1.2.10, l. 218, PG 37.696.

56. Augustine, Civ. Dei 14.20.

57. Festugière, who appears to acknowledge the allusion to Diogenes here, remarks in a footnote that the last words of the passage, “having lost his senses,” “show that it is not possible to confuse Symeon with the Cynics” (!) (my trans.). Festugière, Vie de Syméon le Fou, p. 21 n. 1.

58. D. L. 6.54. Cf. Aelian, Var. Hist. 14.33.

59. Stobaeus, 3.3.51.

60. Transliterated: qynwqws.

61. Luz, “A Description of the Greek Cynic in the Jerusalem Talmud,” JSJ 20 (1989): 49–60. In yGittin, in a pericope which Luz dates to the mid-third century, a madman is defined as someone who sleeps in a graveyard, burns incense to demons, wears torn garments, and destroys his property. Such a madman is then called a Cynic. Luz correctly observes that these attributes do indeed identify a Cynic type. Such a type is distinguished in the passage from a kanthropos (spelled: qntrwpws) which Luz conjectures is a Hebrew version of the Greek κυνάνθρωπος “dog-man,” a term with obvious Cynic overtones. Luz, “A Description of the Greek Cynic,” p. 52 n. 14.

62. Aëtius of Amida, 6.11.1, 2. The condition is elsewhere referred to as lukanthrōpia (from λύκος, “wolf”). Cf. Giuseppe Roccatagliata, A History of Ancient Psychiatry (New York: Greenwood, 1986), pp. 155–56, 255; on Aëtius as a psychiatrist, see pp. 256–60.

63. Pseudo-Dionysius of Tell-Mahre, Incerti auctoris chronicon 3.7; Michael the Syrian, Chronique 9.32. On the “plague of madness” at Amida, see Susan Ashbrook Harvey, Asceticism and Society in Crisis: John of Ephesus and The Lives of the Eastern Saints (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990), pp. 64–65.

64. D. L. 6.57. Other anecdotes about Diogenes eating in public include D. L. 6.58 and 61, where Diogenes eats in the marketplace.

65. The identification of a black dog as a demon is also found in the Life of Theodore of Sykeon where an innkeeper is afflicted with fever after such a dog yawns in front of him. Theodore explains that the dog was a demon; George of Sykeon, Life of Theodore of Sykeon 106.

66. See above.

67. On the relationship between madness and demonic possession see also Palladius, LH 34.

68. D. L. 6.46.

69. See John Moschus, Spiritual Meadow 3 for a similar story.

Symeon and the Cynics

Preferred Citation: Krueger, Derek. Symeon the Holy Fool: Leontius's Life and the Late Antique City. Berkeley:  University of California Press,  c1996 1996.