Shortly after the It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia episode “Charlie Work” aired in February 2015, redditors took the the IASIP thread in order to applaud and critique one of the stronger installments from the series. The episode shows Charlie, who typically lands somewhere between an idiot and a (very charming) buffoon, masterfully regulating the rest of “The Gang” in order to pass the city’s health inspection of the bar. The last time I checked, the most up-voted comment thread was a rather puerile riff on one of Charlie’s minor stunts in the episode, but for awhile there was an insightful debate regarding whether his glorious health inspection feat was characteristic or uncharacteristic of him. Some redditors argued he has always been the most secretly intelligent of “The Gang”, while others saw it as either a departure or as an unreliable account of what happened. I’m going to settle that debate right now.
Here’s how: Since that time I re-read Foucault’s The Courage of Truth (his 1983-84 lectures) in order to refresh my memory of how he distinguished between cynic and stoic Indifference. As a result, I began recognizing cynic fragments in unexpected places. And now I’m convinced that Charlie might be a modern Diogenes, and that this hidden connection helps explain what happens in “Charlie Work”.
I think it’s worth taking the time to read Charlie as a modern cynic, but I’m going to add a huge proviso in advance: In no way am I suggesting that this show has a positive moral effect. It works as a satire, but at times it verges on nihilism.
With that said, it’s worth highlighting any legacy of cynic philosophy because it doesn’t get much coverage these days, at least not in writings meant for the general public. It does get discussed in more specialized arenas. Foucault’s reading of cynic philosophy was revived in the late 2000s as academic scholarship in the Humanities began thinking in biopolitical terms–thanks largely to the brilliant political philosophy treatises by the Giorgio Agamben. Foucault’s reading of cynic indifference became relevant because, in The Courage of Truth, he suggests that this ancient Greek strategy for living heightened the tension between the natural body (bios) and artificial custom, or what we would now call cultural norms (nomos). The cynics were bio-ethical, so to speak. If you’re not familiar with biopolitical speak, this academic jargon may sound rather dull. It’s not.
In the popular self-help arena, on the other hand, stoic–rather than cynic–indifference has been plundered by entrepreneurs and business athletes as a Western parallel to Buddhist mindfulness. Whereas the cynic distinguishes between nomos and bios, the stoic distinguishes between external and internal influences, and more fundamentally between what a subject can and cannot control. William B. Irvine in A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy offers a third category: things that we have partial control over. Mastering the art of self-control provides a foundation for success.
The cynic tradition is less useful for business athletes (and less publicized for the masses) because it disrupts productivity rather than encourages it. Whereas Stoics can live with wealth (Seneca and Marcus Aurelius were fabulously wealthy), cynics actively delimited their material possessions. The most famous minimization anecdote is the account of Diogenes observing a boy cupping his hands at a fountain, and, after observing this primitive strategy, he chucked away his last possession–his bowl–because it now seemed unnecessary. And whereas Stoics do task themselves with discomfort (about once a month, according to Epictetus and Seneca), cynics make discomfort an endless goal. As long as there is culture and wealth, cynics must remind others that nature satisfies the needs of individuals just the right amount.
So the cynics embrace minimization, which feels modern. I’m thinking here of the 2014 blockbuster, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, by Marie Kondo. Similarly, in the image above, Diogenes has mastered the tiny house lifestyle. However, cynic minimization is done for others–the point is to remind the rest of society that they’re too far from real nature, that is, the bios part of their identity. It should be uncomfortable and repugnant, not chic and bourgeois.
In summary, cynic indifference creates repugnance; stoic indifference maximizes self-regulation and mindfulness.
With this outline in mind, I propose that Charlie from It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia has a distinct cynic signature. It’s not entirely unexpected that a “cynical” figure would appear on a television satire. According to William Desmond’s Cynics, the satirical mode is more or less a literary derivation of cynic philosophy. Conceptually it makes sense: if the goal of cynicism is to remind people of the truth in a repugnant manner, it’s obvious how satire performs this for the masses in an entertaining way.
But I think Charlie is tied to the cynic tradition more specifically than simply being part of a satirical comedy. Like Diogenes, his daily routine is so uncivilized that it’s difficult for others to be around him. He lives off of partially edible food on most days and food scraps meant for rats on others. This alignment with animals (especially rats and cats) hints at his cynic lineage. St. Francis was a Christian cynic who similarly became aligned with animals. Charlie’s also the most physical of all the characters, in the sense that the materiality of his body is made explicit. Biologically, he’s falling apart. His teeth come out randomly. He feigns cancer. He suffers from sniffing too much air spray and glue. He concocts a poisonous patte in order to knock him out each night so he doens’t hear the cats screaming outside his window. He salivates uncontrollably. And, after dumpster diving for awhile, he intentionally becomes homeless.
Finally, Charlie occasionally slips into a mock-lawyer mode. In several episodes he jumbles legalese and utterly nullifies the law in the process. Whereas another character (Matt) takes religion too literally, Charlie plays with the law as he would a fictional script. In playing law he turns it into a naive game, blithely subverting nomos as a true cynic should.
Within modern television comedy, his immediate forebear is Kramer from Seinfeld, a connection Adam Kotsko makes in Why We Love Sociopaths: A Guide to Late Capitalist Television. After making this connection Kotsko suggests that Charlie “lacks any common sense,” might be “genuinely mentally ill,” and is (mostly) sociopathic (37).
The critical way in which Kotsko analyzes “The Gang” from It’s Always Sunny seems to miss the point of satire, but I do like how he homes in on the sociopathic element. I think this is important because it suggests a way in which ancient cynic indifference may have mutated into sociopathy–or at least that, when translated into a modern milieu, cynic indifference is hard to distinguish from sociopathic mental illness. Or maybe it’s that our culture is so transformed by the schema of mental illness that it resorts to familiar diagnoses in order to make sense of ancient genealogical legacies such as cynical indifference. We can’t recognize it from our collective past. Maybe.
I want to offer a final note on Charlie’s behavior that, for me, clinches his cynic identity. In “Charlie Work,” the entire episode shows Charlie whipping the Gang into shape in order to pass the health department’s “surprise” inspection. In anticipation of the inspector’s arrival, Charlie crafts an ingenious plan and magically transforms the bar into an ordered space. The episode is thoroughly messianic. In anticipation of the inspector’s arrival (the eschatological Judge), Charlie (the King/Monarch) brings order to his domain. It’s surprising for many viewers because they don’t typically associate Charlie with power.
Yet this is precisely what we should expect from a cynic, who, according to Foucault, believed in a “hidden king”. In The Courage of Truth Foucault suggests that the “theme of the hidden king, the unrecognized king who passes through humanity without ever being recognized by anyone” was taken up by Christianity (285), but it has cynic origins; e.g., the way cynics pit Diogenes against Alexander as the true monarch. In later traditions this duality appeared as a king-fool pairing, most famously in Shakespeare’s King Lear. Only the fool understands the king, who in turn can only confide in the fool (285). In It’s Always Sunny, the boss of the Gang, Frank, moves in with Charlie and similarly confides in him as a consistent partner.
I doubt the writers of It’s Always Sunny consciously adopted the king-fool pairing from Shakespeare and had cynic indifference in mind when scripting Charlie’s character, but it’s there.