Posts Tagged ‘Henry David Thoreau’

Philosophers Discuss Civility: the Cynics

June 30, 2018

Philosophers Discuss Civility: the Cynics


Of what use is a philosopher who doesn’t hurt anybody’s feelings?

—–Diogenes of Sinope



There has been much thought and more said about the need for civility and the deplorable lack of it today. There has been much outrage over the lack of common decency between strangers and between rivals, so much outrage that it would seem mathematically inevitable that some small portion of it must actually be sincere. But there has been little discussion as to what it is, why we need it, whether we can manage without it or whether we should. Part of a philosopher’s job is to discuss things everyone else thinks they know (or says they know) but really don’t, to clarify concepts, to untangle knotted thoughts. This seems like a good time for some of that. This is the first in a series of essays looking at some thoughts from philosophers who had different views on manners and civility, to see if the wisdom of the past can help us clean up some of the present follies.

There are many stories about the Greek philosopher known today as Diogenes the Cynic. Sometimes he seems more like a shock comic than a teacher of wisdom, as if Mel Brooks’ blurring of the distinction with his character of the “stand-up philosopher” had come to life mixed with some Triumph the Insult Comic Dog. And this is fitting, since “Cynic” is from the Greek word for “dog.” So here’s an anecdote: One day Diogenes was invited to the house of a rich man. He wasn’t used to polite company, and his public behavior was notoriously boorish. His host therefore sternly instructed him not to spit on anything, as he often did: not the nice furnishings, expensive tapestries, or even the elegant floor. Diogenes instead spit in the man’s face, saying everything else looked so nice he didn’t know where else to spit.

Cynicism is not, as commonly supposed, just not giving a fu—- oops, almost got a little too much like my subject! In fact, it was and is a very serious and challenging philosophy of life. Diogenes said that dogs live more natural and better lives than people; people are phonies, liars, cheats, fools, flatterers, chasing after money and status, while dogs just do what comes naturally. Diogenes famously walked around Athens in broad daylight with a lit lantern. When asked why, he said he was looking for an honest man, and not having much luck. So now he’s not only an insult comic, he’s a prop comedian. As Mark Twain, put it, “The more I learn about people, the more I like my dog.”[1] Centuries earlier, Diogenes had taken that lesson and pushed it beyond all bounds. For him, the natural was the real and true, and dogs and other animals better role-models than any people. Dogs don’t care if you see them mating or licking their genitals, and Diogenes thought this shamelessness was a lesson for people too; nothing is wrong in public if it isn’t wrong in private. Dogs don’t love you more if you wear fancy clothes or if you’re famous; if you feed them and scratch their heads you’ve probably made a new friend for life.[2] This is actually a very hard way for a human to live, however. Cynicism teaches that first each person has to be honest with himself or herself. It has no tolerance for hypocrisy. It embraces poverty as a virtue and is utterly indifferent to social status, since materialism and social climbing drag one away from the pursuit of Truth. There are several versions of this story; here’s the one that seems right to me. The philosopher Aristippus had sucked up to powerful people and won himself a place in the court of the ruler. He saw Diogenes cooking a bowl of lentils for his dinner. He said, “You know, Diogenes, if you’d just be a little more polite and tell the dictator what he wants to hear, you wouldn’t have to live on lentils.” He replied, “And if you would live on lentils, you wouldn’t have to flatter the tyrant.” THAT’s cynicism in a nutshell! Live life honestly; don’t compromise just to get ahead or win a popularity contest. Phony etiquette and politeness just block honest conversation between real people.

The most famous American philosopher who comes closest to Greek cynicism is Henry David Thoreau. Although Thoreau is more commonly known as a Transendentalist, in his personal ethics he shows many of the traits of cynicism: belief that voluntary poverty is a virtue, social climbing a vice, honesty matters above all. The Greek cynics lived shocking lives by a human perspective, but did so in the name of a deeper devotion to God. Thoreau too lived his life in opposition to what he saw as false human values, even going so far as to break the law (he invented “civil disobedience”), largely because he put his moral principles and spiritual beliefs ahead of the expectations of society. He was not as deliberately offensive as Diogenes had been, but he did reject the common rules of etiquette that we use to avoid actual human contact. In his day as in ours, people would say “How are you doing?” and the expected response was a perfunctory “fine” or something like that. Thoreau was notorious for taking that sort of question seriously; if you asked him how things were going, you were likely to get a half-hour summation.[3] While Diogenes had a reputation as a misanthrope, Thoreau was more sociable; but he was similarly inclined to ignore the social rituals of civility and cut straight to an honest response in his devotion to his principles.

This is certainly one way of thinking about civility, and it reappears in persons and cultures as different as Diogenes in ancient Greece, Chuang Tzu in ancient China or Thoreau in 19th century America.  Honest dialogue between human beings is valuable, maybe the only thing that is; adherence to good manners over honesty is not respect, but simple fraud. If someone is being a jerk, a fool or a villain, you do that person a service if you point this out to him or her; if you smile and compliment out of politeness, you cheat the other of the chance to learn and improve himself or herself.

To be continued…

[1] What would Twain say about this current president* who famously hates dogs, the first inhabitant of the White House in generations to have no dog or any other pet?

[2] Trump’s first wife had a dog that hated him.

[3] I’ve tried answering the “How’re you doing?” question honestly, and it often unsettles people if they listen at all; some just respond to “Kinda sick, actually,” with a mindless “That’s nice,” which seems to prove the claim that this politeness blocks actual communication.


Henry David Thoreau on the Division of Labor

June 18, 2012

Henry David Thoreau on the Division of Labor

“Where is this division of labor to end?  No doubt another may also think for me; but it is not therefore desirable that he should do so to the exclusion of my thinking for myself.”

—-Henry David Thoreau

Originally I wrote this as part of my “Work and Philosophy” series; but since I am rewriting that section and still think the original has some merit as it is, I am preserving it here as a separate fragment.

Thoreau lived at the beginning of the worldwide Industrial Revolution.  The division of labor, the harnessing of machines and the mass production of commodities had given the English a growing middle class with the highest standard of living in the world.  They drank tea from India, smoked pipes with American tobacco and wore cotton grown in the United States, they ate from porcelain made from China (called “china” even today), and used a wide variety of clothes, cutlery, and other luxury goods the generation earlier would have found amazing.  They even had commemorative cups and saucers, coins and other goods, like the sort of things we buy today from late-night television commercials.  Industrialization led to mass production, which in turn gave rise to consumerism.  Today, we might call this “The American Way;” but in the mid-nineteenth century, it was the English way—-and Thoreau was not impressed.[6]

Thoreau had three primary complaints against the division of labor and “the English way” of providing goods.  One was that the division of labor alienates one from the conditions of one’s own life, and from life itself.[7]  When one works to provide one’s own food and shelter, one is part of life; when one works to buy them, one is part of something else, of an institution perhaps or a system.  Our spirits do not sing.  We are not like songbirds who sing while they build their own nests or feed their own families; we are like cuckoos who rely on others to do the work, divorcing us from our very selves, leaving us unpoetic and unproductive souls.  Next, this division of labor separates the individual from the need, encouraging the individual to become fixated on the shallow and useless rather than the vitally necessary.[8]  “I am sure that there is greater anxiety, commonly, to have fashionable, or at least clean and unpatched clothes, than to have a sound conscience.”[9]  Thoreau argued that one’s work should meet the needs of one’s own life, and the realities of the world.[10]  Thus, for example, he argued that college students would do well to build their own shelters instead of renting dormitory apartments, that the one who wishes to learn metallurgy should try digging and smelting his own ore, and that the poor student would do better to learn personal economy than to study Adam Smith for four years while bankrupting his parents.  “To my astonishment,” he writes, “I was informed on leaving college that I had studied navigation!—why, if I had taken one turn down the harbor I should have known more about it.”[11]  The division of labor means that workers are (to use another man’s terms) alienated from their products, and from themselves and their own needs.  What one does is not an expression of one’s own personality or ability at all, and it does not connect one to the world.  That was the whole point of Thoreau’s Walden Pond experiment:  to see what he could do without, and thus to see what was truly important and what was mere chaff.  As he puts it, “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.”[12]

Because we forget what is truly essential, we are attracted to style over substance, fashion over functionality, cornice over foundation.  When we have provided for our needs, we fulfill our desires; and when we have fulfilled those, we fill the desires we are told to have by our neighbors and the businesses that want our money.  As Thoreau says, the purpose of the “English” style of industrial mass production is not that people should have the best goods, but that corporations should be enriched.[13]  Then as now, the makers of consumer goods invested a great deal of effort in shaping tastes and fashions, so that people would be obliged to continue buying new things to remain respectable in the eyes of their neighbors.  And this division of labor makes it possible for many to continually change their wardrobes, redecorate their houses and even buy the most fashionable books to display on their coffee tables, though they have no time to read—-they divide the labor, and let reviewers do that for them.  But what of the people who produce this bounty?  “The luxury of one class is counterbalanced by the indigence of another.”[14]  The whole purpose of the division of labor is, after all, to eliminate personal effort and to eliminate skill, so that as much as possible can be done by unskilled, cheap and expendable workers.  For every one noble buried beneath a pyramid, there were dozens of architects and artists to design it, living in much more modest circumstances, and below them thousands laboring in anonymous squalor.  Today, we might look at the cornucopia of goods we Americans enjoy, and contrast it with the drudgery of the sweatshop and the tomato field.

The final result of this division of labor, Thoreau argues, is the destruction of the individual and the nation.  “It is the luxurious and dissipated who set the fashions which the herd so diligently follow.”[15]  To show that we are as good as anyone, we want to display our wealth by having nice things to show off.  What were once the baubles of the rich and bored become the ornaments and, eventually, the necessities of the industrious, how we prove to each other that we are worthwhile and industrious.  Over time, we become soft and weak and cannot survive without these former luxuries.  He repeatedly compares the physical endurance and strength of the non-industrialized peoples (Laplanders, nomadic Arabs, native Americans or natives of Terra del Fuego) with the weakness and lack of ingenuity shown by “civilized” people.  Ultimately, this weakness of body also becomes weakness of character, and the weakness of the individual becomes the weakness family lines, and finally of the civilization itself.[16]

To be continued…..

[6] Henry David Thoreau, Walden; from The Viking Portable Library:  Thoreau, edited by Carl Bode (New York:  The Viking Press, 1975)Walden pp. 281-82

[7] Walden, pp. 300-01

[8] Walden, pp. 276-80, 301-02

[9] Walden, p. 277

[10] Walden, pp. 304-06

[11] Walden, p. 306

[12] Walden p. 343

[13] Walden, p. 282

[14] Walden, p. 289

[15] Walden, p. 291

[16] Walden, p. 270

Quote for the Week (June 8, 2012)

June 9, 2012

I’m still working on the next installment of “Philosophy and Work,” so here’s a quote to mull over in the meantime.


“In the long run men hit only what the aim at.  Therefore, though they should fail immediately, they had better aim at something high.”

—- Henry David Thoreau, Walden

Quote for the Week

May 24, 2012

I’m still working on the next installment on “Work and Philosophy.”  In the meantime, here’s a thought I ran across:


“There are nowadays professors of philosophy, but not philosophers.  Yet it is admirable to profess because it was once admirable to live.  To be a philosopher is not merely to have subtle thoughts, nor even to found a school, but so to love wisdom as to live according to its dictates, a life of simplicity, independence, magnanimity, and trust.  It is to solve some of the problems of life, not only theoretically, but practically.”

—-Henry David Thoreau