Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Diogenes' Lamp

Diogenes of Sinope is not a name one often hears. Even in the world of Professional Philosophy his name is not among the most studied minds. By way of short summary, Diogenes was a Cynic, a word which does not quite carry its contemporary meaning of a cynical and bitter person. In the ancient world a Cynic was one who repudiated - in word and deed - the entire culture of normalcy and "fitting in" that dominates the lives of most of us. For the Cynic culture is filled with injustice, exploitation, and inhumanity.

The basic idea is that social conventions and the desire for status that arises from them enslave us. Insofar as we attempt to conform to the ideals and patters of the dominant society, we are in bondage. And not only are we in bondage, but we exploit and demean one another. Only a rejection of the norms of society as binding on us can liberate and empower us.

This often took extravagant forms. Cynics frequently eschewed property and social standing - Diogenes himself was said to live in a barrel - they damned titles and any official power. Wealth, fame, and worldly success was frequently anathema to them. The logic of the cynic is that the world corrupts, society corrupts, we must return to nature and free ourselves of such corrupting influences.

One need not look far to see they have a point. The amount of hurt that has come from human beings' need for power, wealth, status, position, and comfort is truly staggering. The degree of violence, death, and needless tragedy that results from our struggle to succeed in the social world is so vast that I cannot begin to enumerate it.

Perhaps the most famous story about Diogenes is the tale of his wondering about town in broad daylight with a lantern. Asked why he was behaving in such a manner, he declared "I am only looking for a human being." The implication is that he had not found a human being. We, all of us, have failed to live up to our humanity. What can that mean? How have we failed? The injustice and villainy that fill the world may be our despairing answer to these questions.

In a world where the rich continue to prosper at the expense of the poor, a world where violence is the norm, discrimination an every day occurrence, injustice, brutality, anger and hate commonplace, have we yet to find a human being? Have any of us lived up to what we might be?

Need we light the torch brighter? Or does Diogenes' lamp merely reveal that there is nothing to find?

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1 comment:

  1. Although far from rich myself "the rich continue to prosper at the expense of the poor" seems to me a rather shallow truism. The well off that I count among my friends are also some of the very best people that I know.

    I doubt if Dioogenes had any interest in the modern concept of class. Having been very poor in two periods of my life, I can assure you that there is little time or effort spared for nobility, and dishonesty is at least as common among the poor as the finacially better off.


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