Thursday, 23 March 2017

The death of Diogenes

Diogenes of Sinope (c.410BCE – c.324BCE), a Greek philosopher of some fame and notoriety, lived in Athens most of his life and taught his students in the open. Often referred by his nickname, the Dog, Diogenes lived an austere life with few possessions, begging for food and sleeping in a ceramic barrel in the marketplace.

The Cynic school of philosophy he founded was based on the renunciation of worldly attachments and commitment to a style of living in keeping with nature; that is, what mattered most to a person’s physical and spiritual wellbeing. Using himself as an example, Diogenes taught happiness through simplicity and railed against social conventions, pretence and luxury.

Accounts of the time say there was a large gathering in Athens’ Agora a few days after he died to honour the man and his principles. Of the many speeches given only that of Stanios of Pharsalus, a one-time student of Diogenes, has passed down to us in full:

So, what of the Dog? Why do we remember him?

It would be wrong to speak only about the way he lived as if that was all that explained the man, but neither would it be right to touch lightly on his lifestyle, for it resonated so much with him, made the philosophy he practised, and served as his trusted weapon against all the folly of humankind.

We would all agree that in no other philosopher has there been a closer link between thought and way of life, none as consistent as the Dog. Many people think and talk about what is right, but he actually lived, he lived the righteous path, and what’s more he made his life a touchstone by which others could compare their commitment to what is right and good.

I was with him many times when, in the middle of a fine conversation with a man or woman about some aspect of life or philosophy, he abruptly reached out a great, dirty hand in a gesture of begging. The surprise, the shock, the fluster on the other person’s face told much about their soul. Whenever on these occasions he received an open-hearted and unencumbered response he’d leap into that peculiar Diogenes dance of swinging arms and legs many of us still remember with fondness.

Was he a perfect man? We all know he was not; perfection belongs to the gods. He was stubborn, at times pig-headed, at times lacking display of the human kindness he had in plenty in his heart. More than once he said to me, “Ah, Staniou, the good has left me today. I am too bitter to speak.” He simply could not surrender the belief that other people should aim as high as he did, or could share the same kind of faith and commitment.

He saved his most caustic attacks for the ignorant, the ambitious, the braggarts and windbags, the politicians and the rich; but somehow those whom he stripped to reality with his words, flayed with the fire of his tongue, still came back to speak with him, as if his wisdom was a kind of necessary tonic.

Who can remember the wrestler, Teles? He was the epitome of an Olympic champion with conceit to match. And Diogenes challenged him to a contest, spat in front of him saying he was nothing because his soul was nothing. All of us who crowded round to watch were praying Teles wouldn’t kill him, but the Dog was summoning him to a fight that was not about brawn. Time after time he broke out of Teles’ holds, squirmed and scrounged until the enraged wrestler finally gripped him, holding him well after his body went limp. When he let go Diogenes looked dead, and everybody suddenly turned to Teles, the mood went dark and even the women seemed ready to spring on him. The wrestler had the look of a hunted deer about to be torn apart by hounds. We know that after that day he never wrestled again.

Many years ago, when I first arrived in Athens and began to fall under the spell of philosophy, I would walk past that curious dishevelled man here at the Agora, lounging as he did in the sun by the fountain, talking to the shopkeepers, begging from passers-by. I thought he was a vagrant, perhaps mad. It was a shock when I learnt that this man was one of Athens’ finest philosophers.

Like everyone else, I was interested in the “Why” question – why he lived that way, and how it related to his thinking.

One morning in spring I found the courage to approach him. He was reading, in the sun as always, on the steps of the Temple of Zeus.

“Diogenes, I ... I have a question for you,” I stammered nervously.

He didn’t look up, but kept softly mouthing the words to himself as he read. So I sat down near him and waited.

It was some time, past noon, before he rolled up the parchment and finally acknowledged my presence. He of course knew what I was going to ask him, and I sensed a rehearsed, but not thoughtless, answer would come my way.

He pulled a bunch of grapes from his satchel, tore it in half and shared it with me. Then he shifted and set those calloused feet of his and said:

“A philosopher cannot be anything but what he is, just like a grape cannot be anything but a grape. Can a grape be a pear, or a fig or olive?”

“But philosophers don’t live like you do.”

“Show me another philosopher,” he said.

Sometimes those words of the Dog come back to me. Sometimes I wonder if he was right.

Sunday, 5 March 2017

Learning and unlearning

The extant Annals of Philosophy by Stesimachos contains several dialogues involving the Athenian philosopher Aristageles (second half of the 4th century BCE), believed to have been written by his student, Caro. In the following, taken from the Annals, Aristageles is in conversation with a merchant called Phidoxes on aspects of the nature of wisdom.

Phidoxes: What can you teach me about wisdom, Aristageles?

Aristageles: Nothing. I know nothing on the subject.

Phidoxes: Come now, don’t play Socrates with me! By your venerable grey beard, I’d say you would have learnt a thing or two over the years.

Aristageles: A thing or two? Yes, I learnt, but now to me it is as naught.

Phidoxes: How so?

Aristageles: Well, look at me. Do you see wisdom?

Phidoxes: I see only an old man.

Aristageles: Exactly. Wisdom is not something that you see.

Phidoxes: Is it something that you hear?

Aristageles: No.

Phidoxes: Feel?

Aristageles: Absolutely not.

Phidoxes: Well then, what?

Aristageles: Fill a cup with wine, it is full. Empty the cup, it is empty.

Phidoxes: By Zeus, Aristageles, enough with opaque words and let’s have something that makes sense!

Aristageles: Learning and unlearning, accumulating and letting go – that’s the nature of wisdom. If you don’t learn, life is limited and basic. But if you learn and don’t unlearn, you lack the completeness for wisdom.

Phidoxes: Can you say more?

Aristageles: When I was a child, I loved the hearth-side stories of the Trojan War. I wanted to be one of the great warriors who fought at Troy – an Achilles, a Diomedes, an Ajax – and my brother and I used to cover ourselves in bruises running around hacking at each other with wooden swords pretending to be one hero or another.

Then I grew up and gradually realised the adult meaning of those Trojan War stories. All of them are cautionary tales about what goes wrong when you become a slave to your emotions: lust, anger, pride, envy, greed. Achilles was almost permanently in a rage, and it ultimately cost him his life. Ajax’s hurt at being cheated by Odysseus drove him to madness and ultimately suicide. Indeed the whole ghastly slaughter of the war would not have happened if not for Paris’ infatuation with Helen.

Phidoxes: And how does this relate to wisdom?

Aristageles: There are men well into their old age still believing themselves to be Achilles, still pretending to be Ajax or Odysseus, and still enslaved in all the ways of those heroes. Learning requires participating in life, gaining experience, but unlearning is seeing through the boundaries and limits of ordinary life to what lies at its heart.

What do I care if my honour is offended? If someone curses me in the street, I thank them for the opportunity to practise humility, going on my way without responding in kind to create more trouble. If another philosopher has views opposed to my own, what is the use of storming about and writing endless treatises to destroy his position, as so many of our people do? I should rather thank him for what his views can teach me about my work and improve accordingly.

Phidoxes: So wisdom is about being humble?

Aristageles: It is like a sculptor chipping away at stone, taking away the quantities of the bare material of living to find the core and create something beautiful. Wisdom removes the apparent, the obvious and the hard-edged, to get at what is truly life-giving. It is the cool spring high in the mountains that feeds a myriad of streams tumbling to spread a bounty of life below.

Phidoxes: You speak of unlearning, but to me that sounds like removing knowledge. Why would a man spend his whole life learning, only to lose the very thing he sought?

Aristageles: Unlearning is not subtracting knowledge but transforming it. Tell me, as a merchant who no doubt travels much by sea, have you encountered ship’s captains who have been particularly good at what they do?

Phidoxes: Yes, I have.

Aristageles: And can you describe one of these men?

Phidoxes: Well, the best I use is one called Stopheon. He has an uncanny knack of bringing ships through the worst storms and highest seas without damage. His ability to read the winds and the seas, to navigate and steer, to know the sails and how to employ his crew, is peerless. And he has more than a touch of the requisite captain’s sense of humour.

Aristageles: Is it likely this Stopheon would have had to learn much when he started out as a seaman?

Phidoxes: Of course, like everyone working on ships.

Aristageles: And you would say that his knowledge now as a seaman and ship’s captain is great?

Phidoxes: Vast. I have never seen him unsure of himself. He seems to act seamlessly, like the ship is an extension of himself, his own body – he knows how it must move in all conditions, what to do when.

Aristageles: Ah, seamlessly – that is the clue to the unlearning. Stopheon has all the knowledge but it is not mere knowledge any more, the bare facts or ideas of what to do in various circumstances, he has transformed it into something else. Can he sometimes act in ways contrary to received knowledge, unorthodox as it were?

Phidoxes: Yes, I have been on a ship of his when he has steered towards an oncoming storm – not a major one, mind you, but a storm nonetheless – to use the winds. I wonder if sometimes he makes up his own rules as he goes along, but I still have full confidence in him.

Aristageles: So there is wisdom: you learn the rules, you know the rules, the rules are transformed. It is not that a wise man does not observe customs and laws – he lives in the world like everyone else – but that he sees beyond them and operates in a refined way.

Phidoxes: May I remind you, Aristageles, that only a few minutes ago you said you knew nothing about wisdom.

Aristageles: And I don’t.

Phidoxes: Then what you have just said is worthless?

Aristageles: You must let go of it at the appropriate time, Phidoxes. As for me, it is gone – just a pleasant breeze from the west that has graced us for a few moments and disappeared.

Phidoxes: Gone? No more?

Aristageles: It is a feature of being elderly that all that is solid, all that is substantial to younger people, becomes much less so. The older I get the quicker I see through what is present in the world and the quicker I let go. It is as if I am only partially here, reaching into the next world. Sometimes I feel I can almost touch the gods.

Phidoxes: I pray the gods grant us a few more years of enlivening discussions with you, Aristageles.

Aristageles: That, along with everything else, is entirely in their hands.