Monday, May 14, 2018


It is not entirely unusual that, upon hearing or seeing an uncommon word, I privately promise myself to investigate later.  Today while driving my car into the city to get it washed I stopped at a red light next to a Jaguar automobile with the singular licence plate "Diogenes".  My Bachelor of Arts undergraduate degree is in Philosophy so the name had a shred of import for me.  But frankly I hadn't any more than that.  When I returned home late this afternoon I recalled the event and looked up the name.

Diogenes (c. 400 - c. 325 BC) was the disgraced son of banker.  He is best known as a Greek philosopher from Athens where he practiced Cynicism - the school of thought for which he is most famous.  For the Cynics "the purpose of life is to live in virtue, in agreement with nature". People gain happiness "by living in a way which is natural, rejecting conventional desires for wealth, power, sex and fame, free from all possessions".  It helps to appreciate this theory to know that Diogenes considered dogs as exemplary of this reasoning. Indeed the term "cynic" derives from the Greek word "kynikos" meaning "dog-like" or "kynos" meaning "dog".  Diogenes maintained that all the artificial growths of society were incompatible with happiness and that morality implies a return to the simplicity of nature.  So great was his austerity and simplicity that the Stoics would later claim him to be a wise man or "sophos".

This interpretation of cynicism collides with what is the more popular rendition that the cynic is a person who believes that people are motivated purely by self-interest rather than acting for honourable or unselfish reasons. Nonetheless the modern account captures an element of the jaundice peculiar to the ancient version.  Diogenes was a man seemingly unaffected by social niceties - even apocryphally to the point of insulting Alexander the Great:

It was in Corinth that a meeting between Alexander the Great and Diogenes is supposed to have taken place.  While Diogenes was relaxing in the morning sunlight, Alexander, thrilled to meet the famous philosopher, asked if there was any favour he might do for him.  Diogenes replied, "Yes, stand out of my sunlight".

What, you might reasonably ask, is the interest in this peculiar gentleman? Plainly I have little in common with one who purportedly lived so impoverished an existence.  And I am certainly not known for my dislike or diminution of either social niceties or material possessions.  But I am nonetheless attracted to his cynicism - that is, a general scepticism. I seldom limit my sardonic observations to those who are confined to one wrung or another on the social ladder.  My negativity is far less restrictive.

Interestingly the patron hero of the Cynics was Heracles (or the chap who is more popularly known as Hercules).

This seems rather bold application of an otherwise modest characterization. What however prevails between the two disparate symbols is the dedication to both mind and body and the inherent simplicity of those dichotomies.  Small wonder the plausibility of cynicism survives to this day. In its simplest analysis cynicism promotes a source of happiness which is free from the customary trials of life.

"Thus a Cynic has no property and rejects all conventional values of money, fame, power and reputation.  A life lived according to nature requires only the bare necessities required for existence, and one can become free by unshackling oneself from any needs which are the result of convention."

Cynicism offered people the possibility of happiness and freedom from suffering in an age of uncertainty.  That's not a bad menu for just about any political bent!  And I can't but recollect that a similar philosophy has insinuated a good number of monastic orders.  I'm sorry but a life of tranquillity, homemade bread and local honey is not totally unacceptable.  This is a distortion which the early Greeks hadn't to consider. In that respect the allure of the simple life wasn't clouded by religious debate - unless the mythical heroes fulfilled the need.

Perhaps the best that Diogenes can inspire today is a motive for  bluntness. Given the current popularity of Donald J. Trump - even among the Evangelicals - it is not completely foreign to imagine the provocation of the most offensive dog-like behaviour.  The tolerance of polite conduct has a vastly reduced appeal for a generation who mistrusts it.  The cynicism of today is an analgesic for everything from lasciviousness to vulgarity.  People excuse the behaviour as "telling it like it is". And if anyone thinks this proposition is easy to reject, I urge you to recall the substance of Mitt Romney and Ted Cruz. The cynical adoption of self-interest is a complicated choice.

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