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Dialogue One from ‘Deface the Currency’

Last year I published a book of ‘lost dialogues’ based on the ancient Greek philosophy of Diogenes the Cynic – arguably the most radical practitioner of ‘simple living’ in history. Below I have posted the first dialogue. The full book is available here.

ACT I

DIOGENES’ LANTERN

Athens, 323 BCE. In broad daylight Diogenes wanders barefoot through the marketplace, dressed in rags, with a burning lantern in one hand and a staff in the other. He holds the lantern out before him as if searching for something, although he is walking backwards. The merchants know that they are being mocked in some way but do not understand the meaning of Diogenes’ provocation. They shake their heads in contempt and turn back to their petty business. A boy sits under a plum tree watching the scene with intrigue, trying to understand it. Eventually, as Diogenes drifts nearby, the boy plucks up the courage to engage the wandering beggar.

Boy [B]: Excuse me, sir.

Diogenes assumes it is not he who is being addressed.

B [louder]: Excuse me, sir, are you Diogenes the Dog?

Diogenes turns towards the boy and, now walking forwards, slowly approaches him with the lantern still outstretched. With faces close together, they stare at each other intensely until suddenly Diogenes barks loudly in the boy’s face. The boy jumps back in fright, shielding himself from an attack. After a moment the boy drops his guard.

B: So it is you.

Diogenes shrugs his shoulders and turns away, resuming his search, again walking backwards.

B: You know they call you ‘Socrates gone mad’, don’t you, Diogenes?

Diogenes again turns towards the boy and, walking forwards, slowly moves closer. They stare into each other’s eyes for a time but once more Diogenes merely barks loudly. The boy doesn’t flinch. Diogenes shrugs again and walks away, backwards.

B [after a pause]: You certainly seem mad, Diogenes. Barking mad. As for being Socratic – well, that’s not so clear.

Diogenes stops and turns to look at the boy from a distance.

Diogenes [D]: Tell me this, boy, you who are so quick to accuse me of insanity: what good is it to appear sane in an insane world? Our civilisation is sick to the core! So be very suspicious, I say, of anyone who appears well adjusted to the sickness, for they can only be sick themselves. I would rather not pretend, you see, and to instead live truthfully in this false world. I counsel you to do the same. The crazier the world is, the crazier sanity will look. Isn’t that so?

B: I cannot fault your logic, Diogenes.

D: Everyone – and by that I mean everyone – is within a finger’s breadth of insanity. For instance, if a man raises his first finger and speaks, people think him wise. If he raises his middle finger, they think him mad. It is merely my job to show people the middle way.

Diogenes howls like a dog while raising his middle finger to the merchants, then resumes his search, chuckling to himself, again walking backwards.

B: Don’t go, Diogenes. Some say you are the keeper of truth, and all I know is that I know not. Tell me, how is one to live in times like these? What should I do with my life? Like the merchants over there, I’m lost – only I know it.

As if in response to the question, Diogenes plucks a plum from the tree and begins to eat it. As he does so, he sweeps his rags to one side, crouches, and defecates unashamedly under the plum tree. There are cries of disgust from the marketplace.

D: I hope you appreciate the point of my philosophical vulgarity, young man, which is not gratuitous, though it appears to be lost on these vulgar merchants. Nourish that which nourishes you, boy, and live in accordance with nature. That is all you need to know. Now kindly leave me alone, I am looking for something.

Diogenes spits his plum stone into his waste, kicks some soil over it, then raises his lantern to resume his search, walking backwards.

B: But, Diogenes…

Diogenes interrupts with a bark, then pauses, as if checking his message was received. Eventually, he continues on his way. The persistent boy follows.

B: You can bark all you like, Diogenes the Dog. You can even bite me or strike me with your staff. But no matter how hard you bite or strike, I will remain willing to listen and stand at your side, like a faithful hound, so long as you speak the truth.

On hearing this Diogenes pauses for a moment and eventually turns around.

D: It should worry you, boy, that you sound a lot like me as a younger man, pleading with Antisthenes to take me on as a student. It takes a brave and stubborn soul to follow the dogs, boy. You are either incredibly wise or incredibly stupid. We’ll find out soon enough, I suppose. Come, let us sit a while, these old legs are weary from the search.

They sit. After a while the boy opens his mouth to speak, but Diogenes raises his hand in objection. They sit for a while in silence [long pause].

D: You have received your first lesson. Please reiterate for me the essential message.

Perplexed, the boy ponders the meaning of Diogenes’ lesson. Unexpectedly, as he sits quietly next to Diogenes, the boy becomes enraptured by the soft breeze on his face in the morning sun. In the goodness of time he proceeds to offer an answer.

B: Diogenes, you have shown me the unceasing eloquence of silence. I can only assume your message is that the beauty of ordinary existence can be ruined by adding unnecessarily to it, and that perhaps we already have everything we need to flourish and prosper, provided we look at life the right way and act accordingly. For a moment, just then, as the soft breeze was touching my face in the morning sun, I swear I was the richest man in the world, richer than Alexander the Great. But that sounds silly when I say it.

Diogenes listens intently and raises his lantern to the boy’s face once more.

D: It is my pleasure and honour to meet you, young brother. This dog is no master, nor does he seek one beyond Truth and Nature, but if you can tolerate my company, I can tolerate yours. It takes a wise man to discover a wise man. I am Diogenes of Sinope, at your service.

B: I am Philiscus of Aegina, son of Onesicritus.

They shake hands.

D: And why, Philiscus, was I walking backwards just now?

B: Well, one can never be sure with you, Diogenes. I heard the merchants mocking you for doing so. But I feel that they should be ashamed, for they walk backwards along the whole path of existence, and laugh at you for merely walking backwards along the path of the promenade. Does that answer suffice?

D: Yes, indeed, Philiscus, you understand things well enough.

They sit together for a time in silence.

D: Were you going to eat that weed over there, my friend?

B: No, Diogenes, I was not.

D: Do you mind if I do?

B: Why, no, Diogenes, not at all – although you are aware, no doubt, that eating in the marketplace is frowned upon.

Diogenes reaches over and pulls a weed from the earth and begins to chew on it.

D: If it is in the marketplace where my belly rumbled, why not eat here? Bah! The customs and conventions of this world are strange, indeed. Acting in accordance with nature – frowned upon though it is – is certainly preferable to being invited to the dinner parties of the rich, for then I must eat when they are hungry, and that makes no more sense than putting on clothes when the rich are cold.

B: From what I can tell, Diogenes, the rich are hungry no matter how much they eat; cold, no matter how many clothes they have; and yet, here I see you, fit, strong, and healthy, despite being of considerable age, feasting on weeds and dressed in rags, with an eternal smile on your face.

D: He who has the most is most content with the least.

B: You speak the truth, Diogenes – although I am taught the opposite in school. But people laugh at you for saying such things, you know?

D: Well, so do the asses laugh at them. But just as they do not care for the asses laughing at them, neither do I care for the asses laughing at me. I assure you, at the end of their lives, if not before, those merchants over there will go home, look at themselves in the mirror, and see only an ass staring back. Then their laughter will come back to haunt them, for they will realise that they have lived a fool’s life.

B: I do not want to live a fool’s life, Diogenes.

The boy reaches over, pulls out a weed, and raises it to his mouth.

D: I wouldn’t eat that one, my friend; it will kill you. That’s hemlock.

Diogenes reaches over, pulls out a weed from a different patch, and passes it to the boy, who examines it, throwing the hemlock away.

B: This simple life you practise isn’t very simple, Diogenes. Some might even say that it is dangerous. It might even get you killed!

The boy eats the weed Diogenes gave him, nodding approvingly.

B: But it holds unexpected delights.

D: These are the paradoxes, my boy, that flow from believing contradictory truths such as ‘less is more’.

Diogenes draws < = > in the sand with his staff.

D: Beat that Pythagoras! Beyond your theorem, here lies Diogenes’ Praxis! This is why I am so happy and carefree, my friend, even if, admittedly, I am also irritated easily and increasingly cantankerous in the presence of fools.

B: You certainly don’t seem to care much if people laugh at you, Diogenes. Only yesterday I saw you begging for money from a statue! Would you care to explain that to me? I might have even laughed at you myself.

D: Begging from statues gets me used to being refused, young brother. Only then do I feel ready to try my luck with people.

B: And the result?

D: I have lost a lot of weight but gained a philosophy!

Diogenes laughs.

B: Why is it, Diogenes, that people will give alms to the blind and crippled, but never to philosophers?

D: Because, young man, people know that one day they could be blind or crippled, but they never dream they will take up philosophy.

Diogenes laughs again.

B: I am surprised you haven’t starved to death, Diogenes. How do you survive?

D: Nature provides well enough for creative souls with simple needs, my friend. And when necessary, I steal from the temples.

B: What! That is an unusual practice for a philosopher who preaches about how to live an ethical life.

D: Not at all, just think about it. Everyone knows that the gods are friends of the wise, and friends are a community who share their goods. Since I am a wise man, I know that the gods want to share their goods with me. How’s that for philosophy?

B: I’ll need to think further on that, Diogenes. Do you really believe in the gods?

D: How can I not? Just look at all of the god-forsaken people around here! If the gods do not exist, they ought to exist, if only to ensure these people have a hell to go to when they die. People go to the temples and pray for their health, only to return home and feast until they are sick!

B: Would they sooner find what they seek by adopting your simpler ways?

D: Undoubtedly that is the case. The gods provide all people with the means to be happy, young brother, yet people devote their lives to making themselves and others miserable. And they call me mad.

Diogenes sighs deeply.

B: Despite the wisdom of your words, Diogenes, it is hardly surprising they call you mad. After all, I just saw you wandering through the marketplace, in broad daylight, with a burning lantern! I can understand why you eat weeds, walk backwards, and beg from statues, but I can’t for the life of me understand why you carry around a lantern in the daytime.

D: Do you really want to know, young brother?

B: I do, Diogenes.

D: Are you prepared to be blinded by the light?

B: If that is what it will take, Diogenes, I am sure my eyes will eventually adjust.

D: Well then, if you think you are ready…

Diogenes pauses for a moment and his mood becomes more sullen and serious. He turns to look the boy in the eye.

D: I carry my burning lantern, my friend, because of the terrible darkness that envelops us. The sun has almost set on this civilisation of ours – the evening light is fading as we speak – and thus only with my lantern burning can I hope to find a community of honest men and women with whom to converse.

The boy looks around, confused.

B: You talk of darkness, Diogenes, but all I see is daylight. The sun is shining as brightly as ever. Perhaps in your old age your eyes are failing you?

D: I am afraid you are like the fish that does not know it is in water, failing to perceive the fabric of existence on account of it being omnipresent. Signs of descent are everywhere, young brother, and if you cannot see those signs then I am afraid it is your eyes that are failing, not mine. The bridge of civilisation has been crumbling for so long now, and so slowly, that people do not often notice its deterioration. But the pillars holding it up have been compromised so fundamentally that it risks collapsing at any moment. I used to sleep under that bridge over there, my friend, but wouldn’t dare to do so these days. It’s only a matter of time – whether it falls sooner or later, it doesn’t really matter. Descent is inevitable: our task now is to descend with dignity.

B: If what you say is true, Diogenes – that the world is darker and more fragile than most people perceive – then it would follow that what the world needs more than anything else is enlightenment.

D: Exactly so! Nothing is more important than a new consciousness, my boy, for we are living in a society made up of slaves who think that they are free and free spirits who think they are slaves. If our minds are not in order, all else is lost. We are freer than we think we are. That is why the Oracle at Delphi ordered me to deface the currency.

B: Deface the currency? I have heard, of course, that you and your father debased the coinage many years ago and for that you were both exiled from Sinope. But I had thought all that was behind you now. Are you telling me that you are still defacing the currency?

D: Why, it is my life’s work! The Oracle did not intend for me to continue defacing actual coins but to deface the coin of custom, the ‘currency’ of our times. And since it is customary to think that money is the most important thing in the world, I have taken it upon myself to change the value of money, to expose the errors of conventional economic valuation. Thus I deface the currency.

B: I think I am beginning to understand you, Diogenes. When you masturbate in public, for example, it is only to make the point that people do that every day by living such vain, materialistic lives. You do not do this to pleasure yourself but to provoke others to consider their own shamelessness.

D: At last, I am understood! I was beginning to worry that posterity would only remember me as some shameless old pervert! Hopefully one day I can put the false coin out of circulation.

B: One thing, however, is not clear to me, Diogenes. What were you searching for so intently, with your lantern?

D: I was in search of a just and honest person, young brother, and in this overcrowded marketplace I had only found rascals and scoundrels, until I found myself talking with you, a man among boys.

The two friends sit for a moment in silence.

B: I have learnt much from you already, Diogenes. For now, however, I had better get home.

D: Well, just remember that teaching is a two-way street. I expect you to teach me things too.

B: Never could I hope to teach anything to a man as wise as you, Diogenes. But I will forever be your humble student. Goodbye for now.

The boy runs off, stopping to drink from the river with his cupped hands. Diogenes looks at his cup, then throws it away in disgust.

D: What! A child has beaten me in plainness of living! Fool that I am, to have been carrying superfluous baggage all this time!

———–

The full book of dialogues is available here.

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