Dog-gone: of cynics and misanthropes

OK, in Act Four of Timon of Athens, Timon ‘introduces’ himself to Alcibiades as “Misanthropos” (IV.iii.54). Interestingly, the words ‘misanthrope’ and ‘misanthropy’ didn’t exist in Shakespeare’s day (and no, he didn’t invent them). “Misanthropos” is Timon’s self-moniker (Timon Misanthropos) from Shakespeare’s source material in Plutarch (though the version I quoted earlier in our discussion on sources seems to have left it out), and I’m guessing that enough people were aware of this for Shakespeare to use the reference.

And I’ve seen some people paint Apemantus with a broad brush as an misanthrope as well. (Did I? Let me check. Yup, I was just as guilty in my Act One review… and then again and again… bad Bill, bad). But Apemantus is not a misanthrope. He’s a cynic (but maybe even more than that, a Cynic).

What’s the difference, you ask?

A misanthrope is “a hater of mankind; a person who distrusts and avoids other people” (“misanthrope, n.; A.” Oxford English Dictionary Online. Oxford University Press, September 2016. Web. 5 December 2016.). A cynic is “a person disposed to rail or find fault; now usually: One who shows a disposition to disbelieve in the sincerity or goodness of human motives and actions, and is wont to express this by sneers and sarcasms; a sneering fault-finder” (“cynic, n.; B.2.” OED Online), and a Cynic was “One of a sect of philosophers in ancient Greece, founded by Antisthenes, a pupil of Socrates, who were marked by an ostentatious contempt for ease, wealth, and the enjoyments of life; the most famous was Diogenes, a pupil of Antisthenes, who carried the principles of the sect to an extreme of asceticism” (“cynic, n.; B.1.” OED Online).

Apemantus does not ‘avoid other people,’ much to other people’s emotional discomfort. He insults all and does it from within their midst, having sought them out. Note the contrast to later-half Timon, who exits the city to get away from the people he curses. He doesn’t go out of his way to meet others; they visit him.

There’s something else of note going on here. The OED definition of ‘Cynic’ includes a reference to Diogenes. He was such a follower of Antisthenes that he was seen as Antisthenes’ dog. And Diogenes went so far as to push his cynical anti-social behavior to dog-like extremes: urinating and defecating in public, eating what he found, and sleeping in the streets. In fact, the etymology of ‘cynic’ actually includes a link to the Greek κύων, or “dog.”

And, why, you ask, do I seem as relentless as a pitbull on this ‘dog’ thing?

Well, you know me. I love a concordance. For those who don’t know, a concordance is an exhaustive listing of the uses of any word within a given body of work. And if you’ve been following along for any length of time (or have just checked out the not-so-digital tools of the trade), I love the one over at OpenSource Shakespeare, into which I like to take a dive for words that I feel are popping up with a higher than normal frequency in a play. And guess what?

Timon of Athens has more ‘dog’ usages (‘dog,’ ‘dogged,’ ‘dogs,’ and ‘dog’s’) than any other play in the Canon with 18. In fact, for ‘dog’ itself, Timon has 14 usages, with only The Two Gentlemen of Verona coming close with 12 (but remember there’s a dog in the play itself).

Does this mean anything?

I’m not sure. But I’m also not so sure it doesn’t.

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