Get Out of My Sun!

This is the story of a legendary conversation.

The exchange occurs between two men: Diogenes, an ascetic philosopher, and Alexander, the great military hero of Greece.

It is a dialogue that enchanted the minds of many later thinkers. But first, the story:

One day, Diogenes was doing what he did best: sitting in his tub by the side of the street, naked or half-naked, castigating passing pedestrians for their foolish ambitions for money, fame, and leisure. “You are pathetic puppets of your society!” he might have shouted. “You live for your stomachs and pocketbooks!”

Diogenes berated anyone who would pay attention to him for wasting their lives in mindless pursuits. His nudity and overt poverty were intended to reinforce his creed: humans do not need anything but to be free — to speak their minds and enjoy the sunshine.

Diogenes’ brazen critique of society earned him a reputation; he personified the philosopher who lived what he preached.

Alexander the Great, the conqueror, was curious to meet the legendary cynic, so he sought him out. Details vary as to the exact flow of their conversation, but most accounts converge on a particular point in their exchange: the great Alexander asked the humble Diogenes if there was anything he could do for him, and Diogenes replied: “Could you move over a bit? You’re blocking my sun.”

For many writers, this moment epitomized the ultimate juxtaposition in human status: Alexander, the most celebrated, famous, and successful man in the world; Diogenes, the most disinterested, honest, and poor man in the world.

According to Plutarch (46-120 CE), Alexander was astounded by the wisdom of Diogenes. Alexander later says, “If I were not Alexander, I would be Diogenes” — implying that he inwardly endorsed the philosopher’s rejection of social convention, even though Alexander himself carried the burden of disseminating Greek culture to the world (Plutarch, On the Fortune or Virtue of Alexander 331f-332c). Plutarch intentionally frames the story to highlight the dichotomy between Alexander the military imperialist and Diogenes the philosophical rationalist.

Laërtius, the third century CE historian, highlighted the social class and value distinction as well. When he approached Diogenes, Alexander introduced himself, “I am Alexander, the Great.” In response, Diogenes said, “I am Diogenes, the Dog” (Diogenes Laërtius, Lives 6.60). The Dog proves to more satisfied and confident that the Great.

Seneca (4 BCE-65 CE) had a theory: it was Diogenes’ security in his lowly position that gave him greater confidence than a man who directed armies. Because Diogenes had nothing to lose, he had nothing to fear, even when approached by an entourage of the ultimate power in the world. For all his pride and accomplishment, the ‘great’ Alexander was “beaten as soon as he met a man to whom he could give nothing, and from whom he could take nothing away” (Seneca, De beneficiis 5.6.1; trans. Dobbin 2012:32).

Cicero (106-43 BCE) drew a similar lesson from the encounter: Diogenes had nothing and was content; Alexander had everything and could not have enough. It was Diogenes’ disregard for earthly pleasures that granted him satisfaction with life, whereas royalty can never find contentment. (Cicero, Tusculan Disputations 5.92)

Juvenal, the early second century CE Roman poet, agreed:

The nude Cynic fears no fire for his tub; if broken, he will make himself a new house to-morrow, or repair it with clamps of lead. When Alexander beheld in that tub its mighty occupant, he felt how much happier was the man who had no desires than he who claimed for himself the entire world, with perils before him as great as his achievements. (Juvenal, Satire 14.308-12, trans. Ramsay 1918)

The story of Alexander and Diogenes leaves us with a proposition to consider: The greatest strength, confidence, and courage does not come from accomplishment and reputation, but from having nothing at all to lose. The more we have to protect — whether our names or our treasures — the less free we truly are. What do you think?

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An Evening

She said: “It’s a beautiful evening, isn’t it? Just about perfection.”

“I know!” he said. “Too bad it’s supposed to rain tomorrow.”

Then they went their separate ways: one to enjoy the evening and the other to spend the evening dreading the disappointment of tomorrow.

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Do What You Love?

In a recent article in Jacobin, art historian Mika Tokumsitu addresses one of the most popular mantras in Western culture today: Do what you love, love what you do. Tokumsitu argues that the attitude behind this little inspirational slogan is a Trojan horse – a set of assumptions quietly eroding our respect for work itself.

This is Tokumsitu’s contention: if we believe that personal fulfillment is really the ultimate purpose of labour, then who do we expect to do all the other jobs that are not so existentially fulfilling? After all, society depends on a great many people doing a multitude of messy, unpopular, and quite ‘unlovable’ tasks, day after day. Even more importantly, the self-actualized doer-of-what-thou-loves still depends on the janitorial staff, the electronics assembly line manufacturer, and the sewage line maintenance crew. You can only do what you love as long as someone else makes sure the toilet isn’t backing up. As an ethos, doing what you love invites us to ignore the importance of most real work, and re-labels everything else as a romantic pastime.

The idea that a person can arbitrarily select any activity or interest they ‘love’ and then expect to receive monetary compensation for pursuing it depends on several factors, not the least of which include social class and economic mobility. For instance, the mother whose immediate concern is buying groceries for her children is not in a position to contemplate how her job as a cashier is supposed to reinforce her transcendent sense of meaning. For her, work is work – not a mechanism to validate her theoretical and unique identity on the planet.

Tokumsitu’s conclusion: the message that our work ought to be emotionally gratifying and spiritually rewarding only deepens the trench between the working class and the intellectual class. Even though the rallying cry to do what you love seems to celebrate the importance of work and career on the surface, it is essentially elitist and anti work at its core. Practically speaking, society would altogether fail to function if everyone did nothing but the things they love, therefore the ‘option’ only exists for a small, select segment of the population.

I also wonder what the personal implications are for believing that our work must be the object of our love. In our insistence that every dimension of life should be loveable and edifying, do we consequently undermine our ability to truly love anything? If I truly love my work, in what sense then do I truly love my family? In our effort to find jobs that we love, do we inadvertently cheapen our love for everything else?

Maybe the point of work is to work. And maybe the more we respect work as work, the more we will appreciate our interdependence. And maybe, just maybe, if work is respected, then workers, too, might be appreciated as more than minion cogs in a vast machine, slavishly working to provide a handful of ‘creative’ people the opportunity to believe employment is only meaningful if it is also a passion.

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Ironic Kōan

You only live once (YOLO), so don’t stress out over all that carpe diem stuff.

True stoics do not get excited about abandoning their passions.

The desire to be liberated from attachments is no less a craving to which you can cling.

Do not stress out over the acquisition of a stress free life.

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