I was thinking about Diogenes the other day. No, not that Diogenes—not the one who runs that popular Greek restaurant and sells that remarkable rice pudding. Yes, he is a newsworthy character, but I was thinking of his namesake, the original Diogenes, the historical figure.
You know Diogenes, right? No? It sounds familiar to so many people, but they just can’t place him. That’s probably because he died in 323 B.C. I’ve always admired Diogenes for his determination in pursuing his dream and grieved for him because he died before he could complete his mission. It was such a noble effort and ended in such a dismal failure.
Diogenes spent his life searching for an honest man. We have an image of him prowling the streets of Athens and out in the countryside, holding his lantern high in a fruitless quest for an honest man. He was a Greek philosopher, a cynic, and he paid little attention to the basic elements of a normal life. He begged for alms, relying on the charity of others.
Most importantly, he carved for himself an enduring niche in history by trekking through cities and villages in a valiant and unending search for an honest man.
He died without finding one.
What would Diogenes find today? Would his lantern be extinguished, a rueful admission that his was an impossible quest?
Whom do we trust today? There are some honest folk, or are there? In my youth I had a boss who repeatedly attempted to convert me with his philosophy. It was simple: “Trust nobody,” he often asserted. He never convinced me, although I learned not to trust him and always wondered whether he trusted me.
So the question remains: In whom do we place our trust?
Throughout history, an endless cavalcade of political candidates has contributed to the erosion of public confidence in those who seek or hold public office. It is a situation that transcends borders; the U.S. isn’t alone regarding the truthfulness of public officials. As a group they long ago lost the confidence of the public. The public is eternally suspicious of their motives. We vote for them but have little faith.
The current presidential campaign has provided an unrelenting barrage of unproven charges. Newspapers and networks have been trying to keep pace with the rhetoric and enumerate the many assertions that have no basis in fact.
One of the candidates has proven to be a true fabulist. That is a word I’ve never used before, but I cringe at using the term “liar” even though the candidates themselves seem comfortable using it to characterize the opposition. Fabulist works for me: “A liar, especially a person who invents elaborate, dishonest tales.” If you have been paying attention, you probably know who I mean.
Fabulism pervades areas other than politics. In many cases corporate bosses are undone by greed and criminal behavior. The plight of the clergy is stunning. Where once there was infinite trust, now there is lingering suspicion. In education, some teachers inflate grades while others sleep with students. Those are just some of the most visible trouble spots.
Life is more complicated than centuries ago when Diogenes embarked on his mission. Are there fewer honest men today? That is a question that is easy to ask in a situation like this, but impossible to answer.
Were Diogenes alive today, some may wonder how that dauntless Greek would rank us if we encountered him while shopping at the mall. Would I qualify if he shined his lantern’s beam in my direction?
Dick Hirsch is a longtime contributor to the Opinion page.
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