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Monday, November 9, 2015

Cynics and Skeptics

Diogenes, ancestor and spokesperson for Cynicism, was sitting on his pillar when Alexander the Great, Prince of Macedonia and Conquerer of the World, came up to him. Alex, tutored by Aristotle to be a seeker of wisdom, asked Diogenes if there was anything in the whole world he could do for him. Diogenes answered: "yes, could you move over a little bit? You are blocking my sunlight."

The Middle East followers of Diogenes, uninterested in material gain, withdrew from the political economic order of patronage that caused such suffering among the peasantry. These cynics would walk around with just a pack on their back having no secure place to make their beds and lay down. They would teach others who were suffering to join in their way of life. Tune in and Drop out! 

John Dominic Crossan, in his anthropological and archeological studies of the time of Jesus of Nazareth, reached the conclusion that Jesus was influenced by, and perhaps took on the way of, these ancient hippies. Cynics refused to believe in the patronage myth that held that society together. Of course the whole political economic order depended on the peasant class, so cynicism could be quite threatening to the ruling class who named these people dogs (Gr. kynos).  

According to Harari, "This is why cynics don’t build empires and why an imagined order can be maintained only if large segments of the population – and in particular large segments of the elite and the security forces – truly believe in it. Christianity would not have lasted 2,000 years if the majority of bishops and priests failed to believe in Christ. American democracy would not have lasted almost 250 years if the majority of presidents and congressmen failed to believe in human rights. The modern economic system would not have lasted a single day if the majority of investors and bankers failed to believe in capitalism."

Today a cynic is considered someone who does not believe in anything. But the original cynics merely quit believing in the current imagined order and began acting on different beliefs which made them rebels. And they were not necessarily skeptics.

Skepticism taught that truth could never be obtained. The Sophist Pyrroh, the Muslim philosopher Al Ghazali, and English empiricist David Hume taught that nothing could be held with certainty. Big theory philosophers determined that such a teaching was illogical. For if you taught skepticism then you thought it to be true--a contradiction. And even if you admitted the limitation of the human mind in obtaining truth, it clearly reached truths through clear and distinct ideas. And God through His illumination will do the rest. 

Skepticism was redeemed by science which adopted methodic doubt. Everything, even every answer that science affirmed as true, is to be questioned. Its answers are always provisional and partial. But still truth could be achieved and someday science will achieve the unifying insight into everything and that will be the Truth--or as Hawking metaphorically called it "the Mind of God."

A postmodern is a cynic in the original sense and a complete skeptic that holds that there are no final truths. This is quite different from premodern or modern believers. Premodern thinkers generally believed that things could be known with certainty if revealed as such by the gods or inspired by God. Modern thinkers generally believed that things could be known with certainty through logic or using scientific method. 

But postmodern thinkers, accepting the symbolic mode of interacting with others in the environment, believe that they cannot know with certainty, that all expressions are questionable, and that we all live, as the song says, in a make-believe world.

While that is distressing to some, it is also liberating to many and certainly to me.  As a postmodern, I do not complain of being imprisoned by myth. I help create a new self-conscious myth with the values, norms, and standards to lead us on. But that shall be my next blog.

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