Boston suburbs, late 1970s. Ron was heir from a well-known brand of instant coffee who opened his mansion to our peer counseling splinter group a few times a year for personal growth weekends. We experimented with pagan rituals, nude dancing, drumming and chanting. There was a lot of confessional openness and support for venting feelings of all kinds. One time I brought a paper bag full of dollar bills, fives, tens and a few twenties to publicly burn them in Ron’s ample living room hearth. This brought up more than a few hundred dollars’ worth of feelings for most of us, plenty of grist for the mill. People laughed or screamed or just shook heads with their mouths open. Ron was the one who didn’t see this as “feelings” at all. It was just wrong. He reached into the fire with his bare hands, tried to find the higher-denomination bills, pulled them out and rescued at least a few of them from the flames.
Back when the word had very different connotations, the original “cynic” was Diogenes of Sinope, the philosopher who was mad enough to act on his professed beliefs. Son of a banker, Diogenes slept homeless in a wooden bathtub, let his beard grow to unfashionable lengths, tramped mud into Plato’s soirées, and mocked every pretense to civilization and respectability. There were things that people were not supposed to do in the Agora, including urination and (strangely enough) consumption of food. But Diogenes professed that what we do in private we should not be ashamed to do in public. How else he offended respectable society might be surmised from his response when chastised, “I wish it were as easy to banish hunger by rubbing my belly.”
What would become of a Diogenes on the streets of San Francisco or New York today? In the Golden Age of Athens, Diogenes was tolerated and even commemorated, so that we may read of his antics to this day. He did, however, commit one unspeakable sin for which he was banished from Sinope, and it is recorded as “debasing the coin of the realm”. What does this signify? Some say that he and his father flooded the city with counterfeit money, others that he defaced the city’s good money with a hammer, or that he melted it down.
If you are to be kept right, you must possess either good friends or
red-hot enemies. The one will warn you, the other will expose you.