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.
I once led one side of a heated political contest and was shocked, arriving at a board meeting, to hear people describing me in precisely the terms that I had been using to describe my opponent (dishonest, malicious, etc.). What struck me most was the absolute sincerity of my misguided adversaries.
It’s a design principle of our reality, and one that I think we are most obliged to learn from.
May I be one of the first to stand and say “Hi, I am Bob and I am a Diogenes”. I agree with all you said about this ‘Gift’. But you left out one dimension…it’s fun. But, Patricia, it also carries the gene to recognize other Diogenes.
#1 mlu, by “design principle of our reality,” do you mean it’s unalterable? Can’t we somehow flip this reality?
#2: Hiiii, Bob. But my, what are you suggesting? Diogenes might be ironic, but not all irony is diogenetic. Unless, of course, by diogentic we mean “born of God”–then you might have something.
In fact, irony of Diogenes’ coin might not quite ring true. He’s gotten in trouble for that before, you know.
Everyone: My DSL is out, I’m on dial-up, which is slow and unreliable. So I might drag a bit today answering comments.
What reason do we have to see that the middle-ground, take both sides perspective is right? How do we know that when two sides are making similar accusations about the other, one of the sides isn’t right and one isn’t wrong?
#3 I think much of the gospel is teaching us to alter it–a part of overcoming the “natural.”
The design, in rough form:
1. We make meanings endlessly
2. We can’t see the data of what others are really up to, so we ascribe intentionality in the dark
3. We see how things affect us most strongly and have a bias toward thinking that things that affect us adversely were done by others with that effect in mind
4. We are often (usually? always?) wrong in our assessment of other’s motives
#4 I think Adam’s question is apt. Often one side is at fault, so any simple algorithm won’t work. We have to judge.
Adam, We have no reason to see that the middle-ground, take-both-sides perspective is right. Nor am I suggesting that in all cases where two sides make similar accusations against each other neither can be right (or wrong).
I’m suggesting that where two parties engage in similar or identical bad language to defend their apparently polar positions on an issue, the language might be more indicative that certain excesses of personality (narcissism, unreasonable stubbornness, rage, wild fear) are at issue rather than the matter ostensibly up for debate.
“Middle ground” might actually exist in some practical matters (“Okay, Billy, you get half and Dora gets half”). But in other cases, it might just be an imaginary zone between two false opposites. How can middle ground between two false opposites be a satisfactory place to take a stand? One might manage it for a while, I suppose.
Instead of “middle ground,” I wonder if in such cases there might be better ground — positions or solutions lying outside either position that neither false opposite has proposed or can even see, but that might, by careful and caring language, turn on the lights.
You’re more optimistic than I am.
Someone someplace has to be in touch with reality. This is one of the reasons we need friends not just opponents or people who agree with us, but friends who are willing to talk about what is real. Admittedly this is difficult, but there are at least two sides to every question and more often than not there are more than two. How do we know Diogenes wasn’t just a paranoid miscreant that wanted to be left alone. Why does he have to be a narcissist?
I think it is part of human nature to think that other people are like us. We have a romantic fantasy that if we could strip away all the social and cultural constructs we would find a reality where we would all be in agreement. There are a lot of things which work against this. So we need as much input as we can get in order to come to some kind of understanding that has to do with what is.
I look forward to the day when a complete understanding will be possible and then truth will at last be made known. There is too much clutter in this life to be really grounded in reality without lots of feedback. If we are willing to give up staking out some kind of ground and question everything maybe we will find some commonality in truth, maybe not.
Also, I think you shift too readily between bad language that is expressive of emotion, not truth, to “false opposites.” It seems to me that you’re suggesting that fear and so on lead to polarization, but I think its often polarization that leads to fear. And I don’t think that polarization is usually unjustified.
#7: I am. But maybe not like you think.
If Patricia Karamesines weren’t Patricia Karamesines, maybe she’d be Adam Greenwood.
#5 mlu: I think much of the gospel is teaching us to alter [reality]. (Did I get that right?)
That’s what keeps me going.
#8: How do we know Diogenes wasnâ€™t just a paranoid miscreant that wanted to be left alone. Why does he have to be a narcissist?
Well, Diogenes was probably a lot of things. The author I linked to in the post suggested both he and Alexander were narcissistic. Others think they were both admirable men. Highet certainly thought they were both admirable. I’m wondering if they were in fact different faces of the same coin and if so, what that might mean.
#9: I think you shift too readily between bad language that is expressive of emotion, not truth, to â€œfalse opposites.â€
Trying to grasp your meaning here. Explain more, please?
It seems to me that youâ€™re suggesting that fear and so on lead to polarization, but I think its often polarization that leads to fear. And I donâ€™t think that polarization is usually unjustified.
Does that last sentence mean that you do think polarization is usually/often/sometimes justified?
If so, I can imagine circumstances when adopting a polar opposite position — taking a position opposite one you find morally/logically untenable — could be justified in the course of asserting what you believe is right against what you believe is wrong. But I can also imagine some that can’t.
#11: If Patricia Karamesines werenâ€™t Patricia Karamesines, maybe sheâ€™d be Adam Greenwood.
Whoa. I don’t think I’m that optimistic.
Optimism is defined as “a tendency to expect the best possible outcome or dwell on the most hopeful aspects of a situation.” My optimism doesn’t work this way. In word and deed, my optimism is more ironic.
#4: As I pointed out in another tread, as soon as you take the ‘middle ground’ between two positions, you only create two new ‘middle grounds’. The points between your middle position and each of their ‘pure positions’. Attorney Adam demands $30,000. I offer $10,000. My boss says “meet in the middle”, I offer $20.000, Attorney Adam says: “let’s meet in the middle at $25,000!
# 6 You seem to be saying that rather than finding a middle ground, recognize that there is completely “other” ground. I think that’s right. It’s mostly other ground. And mostly better ground. Zillions of disputes can simply be ignored and forgotten about.
But when someone breaks into my house and takes my tv, and I tackle him in the hall, and the mediators all come and want to hear both sides and then split the difference, I become obstinate.
#17 MLU: You seem to be saying that rather than finding a middle ground, recognize that there is completely â€œotherâ€ ground.
Yes, thank you, I’m thinking that at times, “middle ground” might be an illusion created by a false dilemma. And maybe I’m thinking that there is always “other” ground, but I’m not entirely sure about it yet.
But when someone breaks into my house and takes my tv, and I tackle him in the hall, and the mediators all come and want to hear both sides and then split the difference, I become obstinate.
I don’t think I’d tackle someone over the tv. Too ambivalent there. But I know what you mean, and I think those instances fall into the “practical” category mentioned back in #6.
Did that happen?
Oh, I think it’s mostly “other” ground. I think we perceive such a tiny spectrum of what’s here, that we’re nearly always wrong about most things–except desire. It’s mostly variants of oversimplification: thinking we much choose between A and B when actually there are an infinitude of other possibilities.
Not that I know what they might be. I expect to be surprised–stunned really. Socrates had it right: he knew he didn’t really know what was going on, though he could see the silliness of others’ positions.
I probably wouldn’t tackle anyone over a TV but I might tackle someone just for acting like a bully. I mean, think of the damage you do to his soul, allowing him to get away with such behavior.
No, it didn’t happen. I was just thinking about the United Nations.
#19 MLU: …itâ€™s mostly â€œotherâ€ ground. I think we perceive such a tiny spectrum of whatâ€™s here, that weâ€™re nearly always wrong about most thingsâ€“except desire.
I can work with “mostly other ground.” In fact, the very thought that I’m nearly always wrong because I’m perceiving such a tiny spectrum of what’s going on makes me kinda happy.
By “desire,” I take it you mean wishing or missing or longing for something more?
When I first read the Alexander, Diogenes story, because of my experience in dealing with the mentally ill, my first reaction was to think Diogenes was psychotic. He displayed all the symptoms lying on the beach in the sun wearing a rag and living in deplorable conditions. Further more he didn’t want anyone to suggest that this might not be a rational thing to do. He didn’t like the suggestion that he might need help because to admit to needing help would give another person power over him. That was a thing he could not live with. Better to die believing in his delusion than accept help from someone else.
Upon further thought I can see that this story can be a metaphor for many things and relationships. But I’m not sure that it has anything to do with finding any kind of middle ground. I think it is a better illustration of what divides us. “Man prefers to believe what he prefers to be true.” (Francis Bacon) So it seems that whoever we are and what thing it is that might drive us crazy it would better ro give up trying to come to some kind of accommodation unless that accommodation is to agree to disagree and live and let live.
But, I want to be right and I want people to admit it. ;-)
#22 Y Stephenson: When I first read the Alexander, Diogenes story, because of my experience in dealing with the mentally ill, my first reaction was to think Diogenes was psychotic. He displayed all the symptoms lying on the beach in the sun wearing a rag and living in deplorable conditions. Further more he didnâ€™t want anyone to suggest that this might not be a rational thing to do. He didnâ€™t like the suggestion that he might need help because to admit to needing help would give another person power over him. That was a thing he could not live with. Better to die believing in his delusion than accept help from someone else.
Sounds like this: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/sites/entrez?cmd=Retrieve&db=PubMed&list_uids=46514&dopt=Citation
I’ve made no real study of Diogenes’ life but know that anecdotally he was exiled from Sinope because he and his father were reputed to have “adulterated the coin,” which many take to mean he was a counterfeiter. What we have about Diogenes is made up of widely varying narrative accounts from which people pick and choose according to what point they want to make about him, especially where the Alexander and Diogenes tale is concerned.
I find the counterfeiting story interesting because if it is true at all, it shows a, shall we say, cynical attitude about the underlying value of anything, clear down to his nation’s currency. He ran about “ringing” the human soul like a coin, ostensibly to test its value and authenticity, but since he didn’t seem to find any man’s mettle to his liking, I wonder at his underlying value system.
As for Alexander — I wonder if there’s an “Alexander the Great” syndrome?
About this: But Iâ€™m not sure that it has anything to do with finding any kind of middle ground.
Yes. If Alexander and Diogenes were two faces of the same coin, how can there be any middle ground? I like MLU’s “other ground” model, see comment #17.
I wonder if thereâ€™s an â€œAlexander the Greatâ€ syndrome?
I expect there is, although it is probably called bipolar or manic depressive syndrome. If that were true then they would be two faces of the same coin that being their mental health. That also makes Alexander’s comment the more poignant.
#22: “My first reaction was to think Diogenes was psychotic. He displayed all the symptoms lying on the beach in the sun wearing a rag and living in deplorable conditions”.
WOW! Clear my name from your therapy calender along with Gandhi and Thoreau. Bill Clinton had a thing called ‘Triangulation’. ( I never fully figured it out.) I think it meant, not a line with two ends and a middle. rather a Triangle, that put him at an equal distant from two other points. (?)
â€œAlexander the Greatâ€ syndrome….It is probably called bipolar or manic depressive syndrome”. Add Al to the list of cancellations.
I can see Clinton’s affinity for triangles. Everyone knows Thoreau talked a good game, but at the end of the day he took his laundry home to his mother. Ghandi — a decent enough start if we overlook a few things, but hardly enough.
What, Bob — you’ll shine your knuckles on the genius but whistle through the oddball parts?
#25: You caught me again! You are right, I don’t like the follow up stuff. “All that aside. .Babe Ruth could still hit!” All these Guys are remembered for their ‘genius’ side, not the ‘oddball side”.
See #8: “How do we know Diogenes wasnâ€™t just a paranoid miscreant that wanted to be left alone”. Take Diogenes off the calender too. I don’t think any of these men should labeled paranoid, bipolar, psychotic, or manic depressive.
( I..however, will answer to “goofy or ‘bomb-thrower”)
What does bother me is that in politics you have two poles that were created by coalitions, but over time the collective agreements somehow became ideological gospels. Thus you have otherwise-intelligent college professors with bumper stickers supporting troop withdrawal, choice and the spotted owl, but not seeming to realize that those issues have no fundamental philosophical relationship. And then you have conservatives who are libertarian when it suits them, but authoritarian when it will whip their opponents into shape. I realize itâ€™s yet another oversimplification, but literally millions of â€œotherwise-intelligentâ€ people fall down into these generalized categories.
Like mlu, my experience in politics has taught me that most elected officials and activists are good people with one faultâ€”they think the other guys are NOT good people. I try to practice selective naivetÃ© and assume that all my opponents are good people and would make good friends. And while I often agree with Adam, I would say that polarization is neither inevitable nor desirable.
Douglas and mlu – the problem with most politicians isn’t that they think the “other side” are not good people. It’s that they inherently think they know more than the rest of us as to how to live our lives.
Of course, for us rugged indivuidualistic hate the govmint types, we think that we know more than them as to how to live our lives . . . wait . . . same dang thing! I guess that just kinda proved PK’s point. Woops!
Ha Ha. Good point Jacob M. But for many, at least admitting they are wrong as to their opponents character is a good start. Admitting you are wrong with respect to a position is a different matter.
Generally, if people have the same values and a measure of humility, then statistics, debate and information will lead some to admit they are wrong. But if partiesâ€™ values are totally different, then maybe debate becomes a waste of time at some point.
But, at the point the Lion lies down with the Lamb and we recognize the inherent goodness in each other, then I guess we will have become Alexanders of a different, un-narcissistic sort; i.e., â€˜I am a human and so is Diogenes.â€™
#29 Douglas: But, at the point the Lion lies down with the Lamb and we recognize the inherent goodness in each other, then I guess we will have become Alexanders of a different, un-narcissistic sort; i.e., â€˜I am a human and so is Diogenes.â€™
My point that philosophical/social/whatever opposites are sometimes not opposites at all but different manifestations of the same personality/gestalt doesn’t hope that we will recognize the inherent goodness in each other so much as that any given individual might gain insight into him/herself, which is where the gospel and other belief systems focus our attention when it comes to change and progress.
Sure, recognizing the inherent good in others has value (as does recognizing any inherent bad). But if we weren’t able to recognize that good at some earlier point, what makes it possible for us to see it at another, if not for some change in our own hearts?
I guess I am lost again: I can see a man as good, I can also see he is ‘right’, from where he stands. But that doesn’t mean I can not have a value or position that is opposite of his that I am willing to fight him over or debate him over. I don’t believe “recognizing the inherent good in others…” will end a value difference. I do see it good/wise, not to demoize the other side.
I agree Bob. I guess I have always assumed that when the millenium or Kingdom of Heaven arrives, we won’t have as many value differences as we do now.
Aside from my take on things I think Patricia’s post is very interesting. I wonder though, if it was actually the surface differences that created a safety zone for Alexander to recognize the similarities in him and Diogenes. My experience shows that some people with similar traits actually loathe each other and fail to recognize their similarites–particularly those with strong personalities and ambition.
#32: If you are saying Diogenes was wise enough to know, at their base they were the same, and he could jerk Alexander’s chain, and get away with it. And Alexander knew the same, so he let the joke go: we agree. I guess, I have a hard time processing this and a War in Heaven (Whatever that was with no bodies or tanks). Was it good on good, but a fight over values? Or, good on evil? If either way, can â€œrecognizing the inherent good in othersâ€¦â€ ever be a true end of disputes?
People with the same values find themselves in conflict all the time. Both sides appeal to justice.
It’s often interests rather than values that are in conflict.
I think the movement toward peace has more to do with agreeing on principles and processes for selecting good judges, respecting the authorities and abiding by their decisions, refusing to accept or pass on ungenerous judgments of others’ motives without sufficient evidence, etc. When one has been judged wrongly, as we all are from time to time, one ought to learn to be careful about forming similar judgments about others.
That said, there is also evil–a rejection of God’s vision for our destiny, a hatred of goodness itself.
#34: It’s not Justice we seek, but Mercy. “People with the same values find themselves in conflict all the time”, why? Who/what do you mean by ‘good judges?
Yes, I agree, if we agree, we will no longer disagree.
#24, I see you have never read a biography of Gandhi. You probably only have experience with newspaper accounts of what it means to be mentally ill. Everybody is a little bit crazy sometimes. You don’t have any trouble with calling both of them narcissistic, yet narcissism is a recognized mental illness and it is probably symptomatic of other disorders. One fifth of the people in our population has some kind of metal disorder. BP is one of the big ones that though difficult to treat, is treatable. Many people work and create and do great things while dealing with this particular illness. They need the kind of understanding everyone is talking about here more urgently than all of us who are healthy. Psychotic simply means a person lives in a distorted reality. Isn’t it time we took the stigma off.
Let’s be honest diagnosing anyone from so great a distance in time and without the ability to interact with them in person is an exercise in exhibiting our own biases. If they are two sides of the same coin the question that must be answered is, what is the coin.
#36:”You probably only have experience with newspaper accounts of what it means to be mentally ill.” Oh for the love of my family,I wish that were true..how I wish.. That’s why I am not quick to judge others as mentally ill I don’t know. Or to think anyone who was great, must have been ill.
Sorry I missed narcissistic, it must have been some kind of suppression on my part. Psychotic means you are beyond living with reality.
Letâ€™s be honest diagnosing anyone from so great a distance in time and without the ability to interact with them in person is an exercise in foolishness.
Bob, narcissism is mentioned in the original post, “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.” It is a bit of a leap to say that I have suggested anyone who is great is mentally ill. I certainly don’t think Gandhi was mentally ill. I only said some people with mental illness do great and creative things. Most of them don’t.
But, that is really irrelevant when you read the rest of what I said in post #21.
I repeat, Upon further thought I can see that this story can be a metaphor for many things and relationships. But Iâ€™m not sure that it has anything to do with finding any kind of middle ground. I think it is a better illustration of what divides us. â€œMan prefers to believe what he prefers to be true.â€ (Francis Bacon) So it seems that whoever we are and what thing it is that might drive us crazy it would better ro give up trying to come to some kind of accommodation unless that accommodation is to agree to disagree and live and let live.
#38: “When I first read the Alexander, Diogenes story, because of my experience in dealing with the mentally ill, my first reaction was to think Diogenes was psychotic”….” It is a bit of a leap to say that I have suggested…” Sorry for the misunderstanding.
We do agree ” excesses of personality bound them in spirit.”
” I see you have never read a biography of Gandhi”..I have