Plato and Diogenes warn us about hubris

Summary: Here is a fun short story, historical fiction about one of the clashes between two of the larger-than-life people of the ancient world. It provides an important warning in our era of giant social engineering experiments. Unlike classical Athens, today we have people who want to impose their philosophical theories on the rest of us. We need a Diogenes to pop their bubbles.

Plato by Raphael (1509)
Plato in “The School of Athens” by Raphael (1509).

 

Plato’s Man

A short story by Ian Michael.

Diogenes lives in a jar on the winding streets of Athens. The cynical philosopher is well known among the men of the city, but not fondly. Thousands of people travel from the far corners of the known world for even a small taste of Athenian culture and lifestyle. Diogenes came here for the sole purpose of making a mockery of it.

When Diogenes isn’t stewing in his makeshift ceramic shelter or sunbathing on his mat, he roams the street with a lit lantern in broad daylight. When he comes across someone, Diogenes stares him in the eyes and declares he’s looking for a good man. Then he continues on in disgust. And that’s not even the most annoying thing he does.

Despite the cynic’s obnoxious behavior, Athenians are famous for their open-mindedness and drop enough coins into his beggar’s bowl for him to get by.

Today he receives a visit from one of his regular benefactors; Elena, a young merchant’s wife. She lives a short distance from his jar and took a liking to him right away. Elena comes by once or twice a week with money and food. More than once in the past she brought him soap, but it never found its way to his skin, so she gave up.

Diogenes by John William Waterhouse (1882)
Diogenes by John William Waterhouse (1882).

Elena’s existence as a housewife and mother is a comfortable one, just uneventful. As a woman, she isn’t welcome to participate in the worlds of politics or philosophy. Even if she was, Elena would have little desire to do so.

She talks to her husband and gossips with her girlfriends during women’s hour at the public baths. But none of those conversations are terribly insightful. Though Diogenes rarely speaks to Elena, he’s the most interesting person she knows.

“How are you this afternoon, dear?” Elena asks.

The philosopher shrugs, stretching his legs inside the jar.

“Plato gave a lecture at the academy yesterday,” she tells him.

“When isn’t he lecturing?” he grunts. Diogenes dislikes Plato and is quite public about it. To him, not only did Plato commit the crime of egregiously misinterpreting Socrates’ teachings, he founded the academy to spread his ignorance like a plague.

Some time ago Plato challenged him to a debate. Diogenes ignored the offer. He has attended Plato’s lectures on a few occasions, but only to annoy him. Instead of participating, or even listening, Diogenes would eat loudly, making it impossible for anyone to focus on the dissertation.

“This lecture was different.” Elena continues. “Plato is being heralded as a genius. All the city is abuzz about what he said.”

“Athenians are easily impressed.” A thought about Plato rarely crosses Diogenes’ mind, and he’s immediately irritated by it.

“He declared that man, despite all his achievements, is merely a featherless biped.”

“That does sound like something Plato would say.” Diogenes scoffs.

“Maybe you might consider sharing a counter-point to the people?” She suggests.

“Why bother? It seems like everybody has an opinion about it already. Even the women, apparently.”

Elena cocks her head, pondering what might budge her vagrant acquaintance from his jar.

“But what is Diogenes’ opinion?” She finally speaks.

He sits up, thinking about what she said. The sky is overcast and unfit for sunbathing. Normally, Diogenes considers the celebrity philosopher too much of a fool to waste time talking to. Elena is right. He has nothing better to do right now.

Diogenes pulls out his purse and empties it into his hand. A few copper pieces, smooth pebbles, and sand pour out. Elena has been around him long enough to understand why. It’s a private joke to himself. Money is of equal value to Diogenes as rocks and dirt. As a young man in his birth city of Sinope he debased the local currency to cause economic chaos. Predictably, he was exiled for it. He counts the copper pieces and frowns.

“How much do you need?” Elena asks.

“How much for a man?”

“There are many men at the slave market. Strong men for labor, educated men for tutoring, and beautiful men for pleasure. But I can’t afford them.”

“A very small man, then.” He says.

Elena opens her own purse and gives him a single silver coin. Enough for a few meals, or several nights stay at the inn.

He takes the coin and departs his jar, not saying anything further. Her adventure over, Elena returns home for her daily routine. She’ll tend to her children and manage the household. But in the back of her mind, she’ll be wondering what Diogenes is going to do.

Silver coin in hand, Diogenes goes downtown. He stops at a stall and examines the poultry hanging over his head. Finding a freshly cleaned rooster he likes, Diogenes pays with Elena’s silver coin. The butcher fumbles for change but Diogenes is already down the street. The bird was all he needed.

Diogenes makes his way to Plato’s academy. He sees two wealthy landowners in fine white tunics standing near the mason steps. The men are pretending to talk about Plato’s lecture. In reality, they’re talking about themselves. They’re basking in their own magnificence at understanding Plato’s point.

“It’s quite a humbling observation,” one of the landowners says. “Man has done so many things. He’s built the hanging gardens, the colossus, and the pyramids. He’s invented mathematics, geometry, and navigation. But in the end, he’s still a mere animal. A featherless biped.”

“Yes, that was a brilliant statement, even for Plato.” His friend agrees.

“An esoteric one though. Only a true intellectual understands Plato. If you told most men that they’re featherless bipeds, they wouldn’t understand the point. They would just be confused.”

The landowners stop talking as Diogenes passes with his dead bird. They’re relieved he isn’t here to insult them, but they are curious about what he’s up to.

Diogenes enters Plato’s huge lecture hall. Nearly a hundred wide-eyed students are lining the benches, eating up their teacher’s every word. Plato himself is wrapped in a robe befitting a scholar. He’s a tall man with a great beard. He’s one of the most famous philosophers in the Western world, and looks the part.

His lecture hall goes silent. Diogenes isn’t here to disrupt the class, or at least not the way he usually does. He’s here to address his rival. By pure good fortune, today’s attendees are about to witness a meeting between two of the greatest minds alive; a meeting that will be spoken of for thousands of years.

The lecturer stops midsentence and looks up at the entrance, locking eyes with Diogenes. Plato has challenged Diogenes to a debate before. He relished the opportunity to show his superior understanding of Socrates and philosophical matters in general. But not like this. If Plato had known Diogenes was finally going to take him up on his challenge, he would have spent days, or even weeks, preparing for it. Of course, that wouldn’t happen. Diogenes just wandered in when he felt like it.

Plato is an exceptionally intelligent man. With such intelligence comes self-awareness. He knows his teachings are just as mortal as he is. His lectures and writings are widely known now but will fade quickly after his death. As the seasons pass, the novelty of Plato’s words will melt like yesteryear’s snow. People will remember his name and be vaguely aware he was important. But beyond scholars and philosophy students, few will actually be able to cite Plato’s positions with any detail.

This is different. What’s about to happen will be remembered. Mundane lectures don’t ignite people’s imaginations. Conflict does. Even men a hundred generations from now will remember the confrontation between Plato and Diogenes. More importantly, they’ll remember who won and who lost. Plato steels his mind and body for the most important battle of his life.

Diogenes descends the steps toward Plato. Pupils jump in their seats as Diogenes suddenly shouts at the top of his lungs like he’s made the greatest discovery of all time.

“Behold! Plato’s man!” Diogenes raises the plucked rooster over his head. The plucked rooster. The featherless biped. Plato’s man.

Plato is speechless, his mind spinning for an answer. But there is none. Not that it would matter. Diogenes didn’t come here for a debate. His mind has already moved on to other things.

He discards Plato’s man into the lap of a bewildered student and leaves the lecture hall.

“Plato’s man.” Plato sighs in despondence.

Diogenes brings a plucked chicken to Plato.
By an unknown artist, 19th century.

———————————

Editor’s Afterword

A chreia was a brief, useful anecdote about a particular character or group. Much of what we know about Diogenes and Plato comes from chreia. The chicken story is one of the most famous of these.

“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 Dionysius, you wouldn’t have to wash vegetables.’ Diogenes replied, ‘If you knew how to wash vegetables, you wouldn’t have to pay court to Dionysius.'”

“An Athenian reproached Diogenes for begging, saying that Plato did not beg. ‘Yes he does,’ replied Diogencies, ‘but he holds his head down so that none may hear.’”

“I am Diogenes the dog [cuôn, also, Cynic]. I fawn upon those who give me anything, bark at those who give me nothing, and bite the rogues.”

See more about Diogenes and his fellow cynics.

Ian Michael

About the author

Ian Michael served 5 years in the US Marine Corps. He did two tours patrolling in Helmand Province (Afghanistan) and one in Kuwait. He now serves as a Staff Sergeant in the US Army Reserve. He lives in Iowa and does marketing for a local gun club, and writes fiction as a hobby.

See his military science fiction novel Ultra-Violence. Ultra-Violence is a military science fiction novel about a day when technology mutates war into a dark new form. Although set in the future, biomedicine might make it real in our lifetimes. File it under “terrifying dreams.” It is presented as weekly chapters, – one every Sunday afternoon.

Some of his other articles.

For More Information

Ideas! For some shopping ideas, see my recommended books and films at Amazon.

Please like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter. Also see other posts about philosophy, about science fiction, and especially see these posts …

  1. Why don’t our dreams of a better world inspire us to act?
  2. The philosophy behind the legend of Batman.
  3. Where we can find the inspiration to fix America?
  4. The philosophy of the Joker.

Great introductions to philosophy

Plato and a Platypus Walk into a Bar …Understanding Philosophy Through Jokes by Thomas Cathcart and Daniel Klein.

The History of Hell by Alice K. Turner. About the largest and longest-running creative project in the history of humanity,

The best place to begin: Introducing Plato: A Graphic Guide by Dave Robinson and Judy Groves.

The History of Hell
Available at Amazon.
Introducing Plato: a graphic guide
Available at Amazon.

8 thoughts on “Plato and Diogenes warn us about hubris”

  1. OK
    Five comments on this important story?
    How many readers of this site had read K. Popper’s “The Open Society and Its Enemies?”
    Apparently, humility is not very popular remedy to the US of A’s natural exhibition (of hubris)…

    1. Jako,

      It’s always fun to read your comments, silly as though they are.

      “How many readers of this site had read K. Popper’s “The Open Society and Its Enemies?””

      Probably the same fraction as those in the US population: zero to several decimals. I like Popper’s work, and I’ve not read it.

      “humility is not very popular ”

      Nor is it very common – anywhere, anytime. It was one of the few traits attributed to Moses (Numbers 12:3), which tells you what the OT authors thought about its frequency in the public.

      Your comments consistently compare America to Heaven. That’s quite flattering to us!

  2. The two Athenians discussing the brilliance of Plato’s philosophy. I can almost imagine speaking in a snobbish tone. ” Oh yes, so marvelous” as they twirled their moustaches and adjusted the monocles.

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