Philosopher Diogenes Looking for an Honest Man
Where Might that Be?
WHAT THE GREEKS KNEW
Simple but true concepts are found in ancient Greek history, and probably earlier if the record were clear. They have also been expressed in visual art, probably 40,000 years ago with cave paintings and with verbal communication. Humans evolved with their expanding minds, looking upward into the heavens and beyond the horizons. Philosophical questions, including those about truth and morality, became critical.
The Greek philosopher, Diogenes (412BC to 323BC) was not impressed by human reactions to abstract concepts, such as “What is integrity and is it a common trait?” He exclaimed: “I am just looking for an honest man,” as he would walk among the streets shining a lamp into every corner. But what he found was that humans were “nothing but rascals and scoundrels.” Diogenes lived in poverty, howled like a dog for food, and slept in a large wine cask.
His thoughts led him to establish the Cynic philosophy, where he regarded his fellow Athenians with disdain, arguing that they were vain, self-deceptive, deceitful, and showed a lack of concern for their fellow man.
On the other hand, he failed at example, rejecting human decency, urinating on people who insulted him, defecating in the theatre, and masturbating in public, saying, “If only it were as easy to banish hunger by rubbing my belly.”
I depict his rhetorical searching for an honest man, showing that when truth is shined in dark corners, men and women hide their faces, run for fear of being discovered as duplistic, and hide their true thoughts. If caught in lies, they do a cover up. The concept, shown in visual form, reflects a fundamental characteristic of humans, one that may be practical in the pursuit of personal ambitions, but one that leads us away from truth and limits our moral integrity.
The late philosopher and president of Boston University, John Silber, remarked that sincerity has become our only virtue – not flat-out truth – and can be easily assessed for validity, but truth, or moral character, can only be assessed through time, and is much more difficult to obtain. Our perversion of morals and our demand for an “instant culture” shows that the loss of principals moves toward its own destruction:
Ours moves towards the last moment of its short
existence by throwing away its heritage, its
institutions, and the patterns marking a meaningful
ordering of time in the passage of the individual from
infancy through childhood to adulthood and old age.
In this apparent decline of Western Civilization, Silber adds, we can better ourselves by reflecting on John Fletcher Moulton’s “law of obedience to the unenforceable.” He said that there are three domains of human behavior. The first is where our behaviors are determined by laws that must be obeyed (or punishments are delivered). The second is where we express our individual freedoms to do as we like, without regard to written law. Lord Moulton said that between laws to regulate social behavior and complete freedom is the important middle ground, that includes moral duty, social responsibility, and proper behavior, covering all behaviors of doing “right” where there is no one to make you do it but yourself.
This level of activity is the most important level for the assertion of individual integrity and truths. They do not require a spot light to make them happen. Moulton concluded in its importance by saying: “The real greatness of a nation, its true civilization, is measured by the extent of this land of obedience to the unenforceable. It measures the extent to which the nation trusts its citizens, and its area testifies to the way they behave in response to that trust.”
This is where we should stand when tough decision must be made, where we must trust to our integrity to do what we think is the right thing, regardless of whose eyes are following our behaviors or ignoring our actions. It is the very heart of our existence and the bedrock of our strength.
Del Wolf Thiessen, Professor Emeritus, Psychology, University of Texas at Austin, January 30, 2015.