12/08/2012

Diogenes: Homeless, but not Hapless

The recent story about the NYC police officer who bought shoes for a barefoot man struck a deep cord with me. Perhaps, it is because I have always been a bit of an oddball and felt it would be easy for me to slip from the ranks of respectability into the depths of homeless obscurity. It gave me emphathy for people with that undefineable quirk preventing them from conforming and finding acceptance in the "normal" world.


It turned out that the man, who received the new shoes from the officer, was indigent, but not really homeless, and he sold the shoes for hard cash. People ask, “How could he do that? or What kind of hopeless nut job is he?” We cannot seem to fathom the idea that some people do not care about material things, or conventional customs, and assume they must be lazy or mentally ill to display such behavior.

This is not a new manifestation of the twentieth century. Diogenes of Sinope (412-323BC), the renowned Greek philosopher is an example of a very early unsociable homeless person.  I am not saying our homeless are great philosophers, but they are not all drug addicts, criminals, or shiftless no accounts either. Diogenes renounced all material things and slept in a large earthen jar in the agora.

Diogenes was asked, "Tell me, to what do you attribute your great poverty?"
"Hard work," he replied.
"And what advice can you offer the rich?"
"Avoid all the good things in life."
"Why?"
"Because money costs too much. A rich man is far poorer than a poor man."
"How can that be?"
"Because poverty is the only thing money can't buy."

His father minted coins for a living and Diogenes believed he was told by the gods to deface the currency. When he started to ruin his father’s coins he was cast out and disowned. He took it as a sign he had to refute all established social customs and behavior. This included adopting very bizarre behaviors: masturbation in public, urinating on people, and defecating at the theater were obscene actions he is said to have committed. He strolled through the agora holding a lamp in the middle of the day and when questioned by passersby, he would say that he was looking for an honest man.

A favorite story is that Alexander the Great sought him out and found him enjoying the sun in the market place. He offered to give Diogenes anything in the world he wanted. Diogenes said, “Yes—there is something—could you move out of my sun.
or

Diogenes was knee deep in a stream washing vegetables. Coming up to him, Plato said, "My good Diogenes, if you knew how to pay court to kings, you wouldn't have to wash vegetables."
"And," replied Diogenes, "If you knew how to wash vegetables, you wouldn't have to pay court to kings."

His behavior was psychotic by today’s standards. There is even a malady called Diongenes Syndrome. In his own time, he was spat on by the citizens of Athens and Corinth, and demeaned and laughed at by esteemed men like Plato and Socrates. As despicable as Diogenes was, he had a following of disciples, men who listened to him and wrote down his anecdotes and wisdoms. He did not write down anything himself, but many of his wisdoms and anecdotes have survived through the ages.

A young man contemplating marriage sought advice from Diogene:
"Should I marry?"he asked.
"Marriage is too soon for a young man"
"Would you have me wait then until I am old."
"Oh no, Marriage is far too late for an old man."
"What am I to do then? I love the girl."
"Love is a luxury no one can afford. It is for those who have nothing better to do."
"What should we be doing then?"
"To seek freedom. But it is not possible to be free if you have a wife and children."
"But having a wife and family is so agreeable."
"Then you see the problem, young man. Freedom would not be so difficult to attain were prison not so sweet."
"You mean to be free is to be alone?"
"We come into the world alone and we die alone. Why, in life, should we be any less alone?"
"To live, then, is terrible."
"No, not to live, but to live in chains."

Call me a democrat, but it does not irk me to provide a homeless person with a dry place to sleep, warm blanket, and hot meal with no strings or drug testing attached.

"Why is it, Diogenes, that pupils leave you to go to other teachers, but rarely do they leave them to come to you?"
"Because," replied Diogenes, "one can make eunuchs out of men, but no one can make a man out of eunuchs".


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