The Dog and the Lamp
One day in Athens some 2,400 years ago, the great philosopher Plato invited Diogenes of Sinope into his home. We don’t have a lot of descriptions of Plato’s domicile, but given his wealth, friends, and general thoughtfulness, it’s probably safe to assume that everything Plato owned had a meaning and story behind it. In any case, Diogenes entered to discover a very fine rug in the foyer. He promptly stomped over, defiled the rug with his considerable deposits of mud and soil, and grandly declared to his host, “Thus have I trampled the vanity of Plato!”
Diogenes was in many ways the original troll. He insulted the rich. He derided the poor. He took great delight in poking holes in the theories of great men in the most embarrassing ways possible. Once, when Plato defined man as “an animal, bipedal and featherless,” Diogenes went and plucked a chicken, presenting it to the crowd with the declaration, “Behold, Plato’s man!”
Diogenes is most often identified with the philosophy of Cynicism, which for the Greeks was a term derived from their word for dog. The cynics believed that the purpose of life was to live in virtue, which meant in accordance with nature. Dogs, for instance, are really good at this — they sleep when and where they want, eat whatever they can, don’t give a fig for money, fame, or re-tweets, and have a healthy, uncomplicated relationship with sex (my dog’s amorous feelings towards my duvet cover notwithstanding).
Diogenes was called a dog on many occasions, and with good reason. He is purported to have lived in a barrel in the streets, begging for food, and snarling at people he found deplorable. One legend suggests that when he met Alexander the Great at Corinth, the military commander asked if there was any favor he could do for the famous philosopher. “Yes,” replied Diogenes, “Move aside. You’re blocking the sun.”
“I fawn on those who give me anything, I yelp at those who refuse, and I set my teeth in rascals.” — Diogenes
However, there is another story about Diogenes that makes him most lovable and sympathetic of all the early philosophers. It is said that he would often carry a large lamp with him during the daylight hours, and when he was asked why he did so, he would respond, “I’m looking for an honest man.” It’s easy to read this as yet another irreverent stunt — this is the same man, after all, who, when reprimanded for public indecency, quipped that “it is a shame a man’s hunger is not satisfied by rubbing his belly.”
But if you try to imagine Diogenes as a man — and not some merry prankster — his lamp casts a more haunting glow. Diogenes’s father was a banker disgraced by scandal; Diogenes was exiled from Sinope for the same crime. Traveling to Athens, he found a once-proud city state decimated by corruption and military decline. Socrates had been executed, and the men who claimed his mantle fought childishly about the meaning of his legacy. Even the great Plato proved disappointing. Everywhere Diogenes looked, he found rogues, scoundrels, and fools.
If Plato was history’s first and greatest idealist, I imagine Diogenes as history’s first great wounded idealist, a man who lost his nerve for believing in the social institutions that attracted so many of the ancient world’s brightest minds to Athens in the first place. When he speaks of his lamp, I hear not an impish twinkle but weariness. Where, indeed, have the honest men gone?
I have reached the point that I, too, would like to take up Diogenes’ lamp. Like many Americans, I have lost my vocabulary for goodness. Sitting around our digital campfires online, warming ourselves by the heat of our own beliefs, we tell one another stories of virtue while glaring suspiciously at other fires in the distance. I am ready to admit that I don’t know anymore what it means to be good. But like the dog-like man so long ago, I think it’s worth the effort to find out.
So here’s what I’d like to do: send me your stories of goodness. My email is email@example.com; you can also find me on Twitter @michael_rossi79. I will curate them and share them in this space. Maybe goodness is as Diogenes suggested — sans possessions and clothing, enjoying the world with the liberty and carelessness of a dog. Maybe it’s something more Epicurean or Spinozian or Kantian; maybe it’s Islam or Christianity or Buddhist. Maybe it’s something that could only exist in this moment, or maybe it has not yet been brought to light. But I’m seeking. I’ll bring the lamp; you supply the vision.