The textbook I used when I taught freshman comp at BYU contains an essay by Gilbert Highet titled â€œDiogenes and Alexander.â€ This well embellished tale recounts the legendary maybe-it-happened, maybe-it-didnâ€™t visit that Alexander the Great paid to the notorious Cynic philosopher at Corinth. The meaning of this â€œMutt Who Snarled at a Kingâ€ story seems to hinge upon polar differences between the two men, one a much feared and fawned upon conquerer, the other a relentless and often grotesque social critic who scorned human comforts and lampooned conventions at every turn.
As the story goes, Diogenes lay stretched across the ground, basking in the sun, paying little attention either to the gathering crowd or to Alexanderâ€™s approach. Highetâ€™s version of the story has Alexander taking notice of the rag Diogenes wore, his neglected person, and the cracked pot he was reputed to live in. He asked, â€œIs there anything I can do for you, Diogenes?â€
â€œYes,â€ said Diogenes. â€œStand to one side. Youâ€™re blocking the sunlight.â€
The crowd awaited the kingâ€™s reaction to Diogenesâ€™ surly words. But Alexander only walked away, saying, â€œIf I were not Alexander, I should be Diogenes.â€
Highet says those hearing Alexanderâ€™s remark thought it a bit of glibness meant to defuse an awkward situation. But Highet thinks that Alexander recognized himself in Diogenes: â€œ[Alexander] knew that of all men then alive in the world only Alexander the conqueror and Diogenes the beggar were truly free.â€ I think Highet might be right, Alexander did recognize himself in Diogenes. But instead of showing how the two men shared freedom of mind and body, the story might suggest how similar excesses of personality bound them in spirit. This author suggests narcissism on both sides.
Around the time I used this story in class, I had a funny dream. I was walking through a series of passages cut through solid stone. Over one archway, a sunflower had been carved into the rock. As I walked behind two men, both hippy-like in appearance with long hair, beards, and careless clothes, I heard one say to the other, â€œYou canâ€™t trust Mormons. Theyâ€™ll take you for all youâ€™ve got. Theyâ€™re self-serving and dangerous.â€
Shocked and offended, I followed these gentlemen until I came to a doorway that led to a well-lit cavern. This was my actual destination, and I went in. Folding chairs had been set out in rows. A meeting was in progress â€“ an LDS fireside. As I made my way to an empty chair, I heard the speaker, a balding man dressed in a suit and tie, say in exactly the same tone the hippy had used, â€œYou canâ€™t trust non-Mormons. Theyâ€™ll take you for all youâ€™ve got. Theyâ€™re self-serving and dangerous.â€
I folded my arms across my chest, sat down hard in a chair, and resolved to sit tight until, as I thought in the dream, â€œsomething better happens.â€
Like I said, a funny dream. But along with Highetâ€™s essay, it rises to mind whenever I see people who argue opposite positions fling the same anger- or fear-charged tones and flaming rhetoric at each other. Call it a weird hobby, but my mind casts them in different versions of the Diogenes and Alexander tale. For instance, after witnessing all the apparently polarized (and polarizing) language traded between the â€œtree huggersâ€ and the ATVers over â€œCrossfire Canyon,â€ I can imagine the following scene.
An ATVer of some social standing rides his new ATV, bought not on credit but with his hard-earned and carefully saved wages, up to a tree-hugger basking on a rock. To Mr. ATVer, the socially and physically idle tree-hugger seems in need of â€¦ something. A ride, at least. â€œAre you lost?â€ asks Mr. ATVer. â€œIs there something I can do for you?â€ â€œYou idiot,â€ says Mr. Tree-hugger. â€œGet that thing out of here. Itâ€™s giving Nature road burn and ripping holes in my solitude.â€ Riled, ATVer guns his machine and rides off, leaving Tree-huggerâ€™s head rattling with engine vibrations. A thought flits through ATVerâ€™s mind, affirming the superiority of his way of life over Tree-huggerâ€™s. But as he lingers over it, it acquires the tarnish of paradox, then the diplopia of ambiguity: â€œIf I hadnâ€™t been brought up to love what I love and work for what I work for, I might be like that naked guy back there on that rock.â€
Squint, tip the page a bit, and the characters become more or less interchangeable.
Likewise, sentimentalists â€“ people who take pleasure from emotional overindulgence â€“ and cynics â€“ people who enjoy being habitually scornful or negative â€“ appear to be opposite personalities. But closer inspection of the contrariness of any given cynic might well reveal him to be only a disillusioned sentimentalist whose psychological pendulum has frozen at the apex of a counter-swing. Another weird hobby: I like playing around with the following, um, extended joke:
A sentimentalist and a cynic sit in hell. The sentimentalist says, â€œChildren are Godâ€™s best gifts; every time I see one of those little darlings, it makes me want to cry.â€ â€œI know what you mean,â€ says the cynic. â€œKids drive me to tears, too.â€ The sentimentalist catches something in the cynicâ€™s tone. â€œBut surely their sweet innocence touches your heart!â€ she says. The cynic scoffs. â€œInnocence is merely the absence of being found out,â€ he says. â€œNot where children are concerned,â€ insists the sentimentalist. â€œEspecially where kids are concerned!â€ retorts the cynic. The sentimentalistâ€™s face reddens. â€œWhy do you hate children so?â€ she asks, eyes filling with tears. â€œHate them?â€ says the cynic. â€œIâ€™m merely careful of them, as I would be skunks and low-flying bats that might get caught in my hair.â€ The sentimentalist begins weeping copiously. â€œOh, no! No â€“ not that!â€ moans the cynic. â€œPlease, turn it off before you drown us again.â€ â€œYouâ€™re inhuman!â€ the sentimentalist screams. â€œMe!â€ the cynic says. â€œI’m not the one sitting in hell all day embroidering â€˜Do the Math, Count Your Blessingsâ€™ on hankies!â€ The sentimentalist weeps harder. Repulsed, the cynic glances at the roomâ€™s walls, but as always, he can see no escape. â€œThis must be how an ant stuck in a Popsicle melting on a hot sidewalk feels,â€ he groans.