Diogenes Versus Plato: Who will set you free?

No one can question Plato’s writing and rhetorical abilities. He was a superstar of the ancient world, and the fact that his dialogs have endured for millennia attests to the fact of his beautiful writing. Of course, Bertrand Russell found it ludicrous to praise Plato’s ideas based on the quality of his writing, saying, “That Plato’s Republic should have been admired, on its political side, by decent people, is perhaps the most astonishing example of literary snobbery in all history.” Other famous thinkers of the ancient world weren’t as lucky as Plato; although their reputations survive somewhat through the words of others, we often have no copies of their original works or just a few remaining fragments. It may be that Plato was simply such a great writer that his works were preserved while the works of others were not, or perhaps other factors played a role in which works were saved and which were lost.

According to the biographer of philosophers, Diogenes Laertius, the Cynical philosopher Diogenes of Sinope (no relationship to the biographer), also wrote a number of books.* If he actually did, none survives today. The biography is here. The Cynic is infamous for masturbating in public, going naked, eating in the market, and carrying a lamp around in the middle of the day. As we don’t have the original works of Diogenes, we can’t be sure which of these stories might be true and which are apocryphal as they reflect how others saw him, not necessarily how he presented himself. The lack of surviving texts may be down to Diogenes himself, at least partly. When Hegesias asked todiogenes-800px read some of his writing, he reportedly replied, “You are a simpleton, Hegesias; you do not choose painted figs, but real ones; and yet you pass over the true training and would apply yourself to written rules.”

So, it seems that Diogenes, like Socrates before him, valued face-to-face interaction over the more passive learning that comes from reading. It is worth noting that Diogenes was a student of Antisthenes, who was in turn a student of Socrates. Although Antisthenes was reluctant to accept Diogenes as a student, Diogenes considered Antisthenes, not Plato, to be the true successor to Socrates.

According to Bertrand Russell’s History of Western Philosophy, Antisthenes enjoyed a comfortable and aristocratic life until the death of Socrates. After that, “He would have nothing but simple goodness. He associated with working men, and dressed as one of them. He took to open-air preaching, in a style that the uneducated could understand. All refined philosophy he held to be worthless; what could be known by the plain man.” Also, “There was to be no government, no private property, no marriage, no established religion.”  Diogenes, it would seem, followed the lessons of his teacher to their logical extremes, which lead Plato to describe Diogenes as “Socrates gone mad.”

When studying the history of philosophy, we generally follow the lineage from Socrates to Plato to Aristotle. We could just as easily follow it from Socrates to Antisthenes to Diogenes. With the former approach, we find justification for authoritarian rule over the ignorant unwashed masses constantly threatening the fabric of society. With the latter approach, we find a rejection not only of authority but of all the values that drive the totality of social regulation and empty social status.

It should be no surprise, then, which works were preserved. We know Socrates primarily through the works of Plato, which painted Socrates as a victim of ignorant Athenian leaders who rose to positions of power through a democratic process and not on their own merit. Threatened by the wisdom of Socrates, the thoughtless and insecure leaders sentenced Socrates to death. In response, Plato promised order could be secured under the direction of educated and dispassionate leaders who would tame the rabble, leading from their own realm outside the cave of illusion and delusion. The Cynics, on the other hand, would cause disruption, encouraging the working people to believe that they could take control over their own lives even without the aid of book learning and academic discipline. The Cynics valued reason, but not the well-healed reason of the aristocrats such as Plato and Aristotle.

Further, the Cynics encouraged citizens to question the value of everything that is supposed to motivate the working class. For Plato, workers driven by their appetitive elements would produce more goods in order to receive rewards to satisfy their hungers and desires. Diogenes rejected the value of expensive clothing, food, shelter or anything else, and often lived off what he could get through begging. Having almost no possessions and no desires for any more, how could anyone take control over him or threaten him with anything? When Perdiccas threatened Diogenes with death if he didn’t appear before him, Diogenes reportedly replied, “That is nothing strange, for a scorpion or a tarantula could do as much: you had better threaten me that, if I kept away, you should be very happy.” As Todd Snider said in his song, “Looking for a Job,” “Watch what you say to someone with nothing. It’s almost like having it all.”

Imagine if the working class (note: if you work for money, you are working class) now began to question the value of cars, wide-screen TVs, sports, clothing, and “good” neighborhoods. And if the poor of the world adopted Diogenes’s views on citizenship, who would fight our wars? Diogenes gets credit for coining the word “cosmopolitan,” which is usually taken to mean citizen of the world. People who travel the world, speak more than one language, eat varied cuisine, and are not, to put it simply, provincial, consider themselves cosmopolitan, but this is not what Diogenes meant. Diogenes considered himself a citizen of the universe with no political allegiance and without political rights. He was banished from his home for defacing currency or something, and he was what would now be described as a “man without a country.” Imagine everyone being that way (John Lennon thought it should be easy, if you try).

Examined rationally, as the Cynics would have us do, virtually nothing we hold dear has any intrinsic value. We spend our lives working for trifles while ignoring anything that make us genuinely happy. When Diogenes was told it is a bad thing to live, he said, “Not to live, but to live badly.” We can live well, but we may be thought mad.

* Diogenes Laertius says, “The following books are attributed to [Diogenes of Sinope]. The dialogues entitled the Cephalion; the Icthyas; the Jackdaw; the Leopard; the People of the Athenians; the Republic; one called Moral Art; one on Wealth; one on Love; the Theodorus; the Hypsias; the Aristarchus; one on Death; a volume of Letters; seven Tragedies, the Helen, the Thyestes, the Hercules, the Achilles, the Medea, the Chrysippus, and the Oedippus.”

Illness as Financial Ruin (US only)

Every human who has drawn a breath has faced illness, injury, and death. The universal experience of illness creates vulnerability, loss of identity, anxiety, diminished autonomy, and fear. The inescapable battle between health and illness defines human experience and shapes our personalities, our worldviews, and spiritual depth.

For most of the developed world, though, it does not mean financial ruin. In the United States, alone among developed nations, even a relatively minor injury such as broken bones or illness requiring a brief hospital stay can lead to economic disaster. As a result, when we in the US get sick, we don’t think about how we can recover, how we can endure the pain, or the spiritual significance of our pain; rather, we think of how we will pay for our bills.

poorunclesam-800pxAs we face our anxiety over possible diagnoses, we must constantly be prepared to battle with insurance companies, aggressive hospital billing agents, and doctors exhausted from dealing with insurance paperwork. Few things in life create as much anxiety as financial insecurity, and illness always brings the threat of insecurity to US residents. When people have serious accidents, they balk at calling an ambulance because they fear the bills—they worry over whether the ride will be covered and whether the ambulance will take them to a hospital that is in-network. As a result, many people suffering medical emergencies drive themselves to the hospital.

When it isn’t an emergency, Americans often forgo treatment altogether. A Gallup poll in 2014 found that one-third of Americans skip needed medical treatment because of cost concerns, even when they have insurance.  According to the report, “Some 34% of Americans with private health insurance say they’ve skipped out on care because it was too expensive, up from 25% last year. Additionally, 28% of households that earn $75,000 or more report that family members have delayed care, up from just 17% last year.” The Affordable Care Act succeeded in insuring more people, but it also created greater financial burdens for middle-income families through higher deductibles and co-pays. Many people who have been accustomed to being able to afford healthcare now find that it is out of reach.

While healthcare inflation has slowed a bit in recent years,  catastrophic medical events put the costs incurred out of the reach of most of us. The United States alone finds medical fundraisers to be normal and routine. According to an article in Journal News, the number of GoFundMe contributions for medical expenses “was up more than 293 percent in 2014, when more than 600,000 medical campaigns were launched, compared to just over 158,000 in 2013.”  Families with or without insurance cannot afford their medical bills. A serious accident or illness such as cancer creates an existential crisis while forcing people suffering from illness and their families to scramble to avoid destitution.

I don’t write this impersonally, my wife and I buy our insurance through the healthcare exchanges. We pay $682 per month ($8,184 per year) with a $4,000 deductible per person. The out-of-pocket limit on expenses is $13,700 per year. Balance-billed charges do not apply to the out-of-pocket limits, so there really is no upper limit to possible charges. Ignoring balance billing, my costs could easily exceed $20,000 per year.

I often hear the argument that universal healthcare coverage is too expensive and will require raising taxes on the middle class. As I see it, I would still benefit from a tax rise of $15,000 or even $20,000 each year. It is true that others are not in my position, but all Americans should realize they are at risk. No one stays young and healthy. Eventually, everyone will be at greater risk for catastrophic illness, but even those who are currently young and healthy can face illness and injury, though we may not like to think about it. Further, everyone’s income is subject to great variability. Those who have employer-provided health insurance may not want to pay in to a national system, but employer-provided insurance is never guaranteed. Employers may cut benefits, employees lose jobs through layoffs and termination, or illness can end employees’ ability to work.

The same is true for business owners. The tides of fortune shift. When the Affordable Care Act was passed, Mary Brown brought a lawsuit against it, saying she did not want to be compelled to purchase health insurance. Mary Brown owned an auto repair shop that went under due to the pressure of economic recession and the Gulf oil spill in 2010. Of note, her bankruptcy filing listed “among the couple’s unsecured creditors several providers of medical care – a hospital and a physician group in Florida; an anesthesiology group based in Mississippi; and an eye care center in Alabama.” https://newrepublic.com/article/98145/affordable-care-act-mandate-lawsuit-nfib-mary-brown-bankruptcy-court-standing

Like many people, when she was doing well, Mary Brown thought that guaranteed universal access to healthcare was something the government was providing to other people. It didn’t occur to her that she might ever be in a position where she could not pay for her own medical care, but that is exactly what happened. I recently had the opportunity to speak to a Swedish citizen about Sweden’s healthcare system. He was a middle-aged man who explained that healthcare was paid through higher taxes. He said he didn’t mind the taxes, though, because you never know when you will be the one needing care.

It seems many Americans are not able to make this basic calculation of risk. Most people, even those who consider themselves well off, are not immune from the financial ruin that illness and injury can bring. Once people realize their own vulnerability, they support universal coverage for healthcare. The time for a more sober and accurate assessment of risk is well past due. We must wake up to the fact that the US healthcare system is not sustainable, that it leaves us at risk of financial failure, that it makes the experience of illness exponentially more stressful, and that we can do better.

It will not be easy. The US spends far more than other developed nations on healthcare. Each excess dollar we spend is profit for an insurance company, hospital, testing facility, pharmaceutical company, biotechnology company, or other player in the healthcare industry. Many people profit from the dangerous, expensive, and inefficient system we have in the United States. Every reduction in healthcare spending will be a reduction in profit for someone, and each person (or business) facing a loss of income will argue vehemently and vociferously that such a loss of income is a horrible tragedy and an impossible feat.

We will be told that reducing healthcare spending will reduce the quality of care. We will be told it will reduce our choices and control. We will be told it is impossible. We already have little choice or control, and we already have higher mortality rates than the rest of the industrialized world, so we have nothing to lose and everything to gain. We have plenty of ideas on how to improve the system. What we lack is political will, but I think the will is growing. If we want universal coverage, we must demand it, and the time to demand it is now.