The Maelstrom


In the Fifth Century BCE, the son of a wealthy coin-minter was exiled from his home town of Sinope in Turkey and emigrated to the metropolis of Athens where he continued his rebellious behavior, sabotaging lectures given by Plato in his Academy, finding fault with his interpretation of Socrates. When Plato gave Socrates’ definition of man as a ‘featherless biped’, Diogenes plucked a chicken and brought it into the Academy with the words “Behold, I have brought you a man.” After being captured by pirates, he was promptly released, when he couldn’t be forced to do any amount of manual labour, and settled in Corinth, living in an abandoned tub in the town forum. So it was, when Alexander the Great began his conquests of the Persian Empire and became the subject of flattery and sycophantism from the day’s leading poets and philosophers, that he missed the presence of a particular, Diogenes of Sinope or Diogenes the Cynic (the dog like). Alexander travelled with his generals to Corinth where he found Diogenes looking at a pile of bones, asked what he was doing, Diogenes replied, “I am looking for the bones of your father Philip, but I can not distinguish them from the bones of a beggar.” Diogenes lived out his days lazing in the agora and his teachings later developed into the school of Stoicism.

It has often been asked, why Alexander was determined to conquer Asia, when it gave him no more happiness than was possessed by any other man. It has also been asked, why Diogenes was left unscathed after making such remarks of derision to the most powerful man in Europe. The answer to both questions is that Alexander was succumbed by the Maelstrom, while Diogenes was an observer, far removed from the normal conflict of human existence.

Look at the poor man and he will be desolate, impoverished and malnourished, but he will seek some solace in saying to himself that he would be happy if he only had some money. But, if we look at this next man, the man who has the money that the poor man desires, he is not content either and he thinks that if he could have even more money and be able to afford the luxuries of life, then he would be truly happy. So lastly, we look at the man who has more money than either of the two other men could even imagine, enough money to materialise any earthly desire he might have. This man isn’t happy either, but he has nothing to blame his unhappiness on, he can never say he would only be happy if he had a little more. This phenomenon is not unique to financial wealth, it can be observed in anything that someone has more of than someone else, Bertrand Russell thought humans fundamentally desired power, Karl Mark thought it was money and Sigmund Freud, sex.

In his novel, The Good Soldier, Ford Madox Ford tells the story of a small group of people who have readily available what they need to obtain their happiness in life, but who end up without it, “Why can’t people have what they want? The things were all there to content everybody; yet everybody has the wrong thing”.

There are those who will tell you that human existence is about obtaining happiness. These people will argue that catching a fish makes a fisherman happy, making music, makes a musician happy and even goths are most happy when in a state of supposed despondency. There is truth in that, the Pursuit of Happiness is enshrined as an inalienable right of man in the US Declaration of Independence, and Hedonism can be traced back over 4000 years to Ancient Egypt with the lines, “Follow your desire as long as you shall live/ fulfill your needs upon earth, after the command of your heart/ behold, it is not given for man to take his property with him/ behold, there is not one who departs who comes back again.”

Is the basic human impulse to pursue happiness? Orwell says no. In his masterpiece, 1984, O’Brien and the Inner Party don’t seek domination and control because it will make them happy if they achieve it and nor do they because they believe it is the right thing to do, they do it simply because they crave power.

Alexander was a thinker educated by the philosopher Aristotle and realised, Diogenes was able to stand outside the Maelstrom, watching and being entertained by the turmoil of human activity. While Alexander was very much embroiled in it and even though he most certainly rose to the very top, he gained no more happiness from it than did Diogenes. Alexander for all his prowess envied Diogenes for this, once remarking to his generals “If I were not Alexander, I would be Diogenes”.

One should follow the example of Diogenes and step outside the Maelstrom; it does not mean leading the life of poverty preached by Buddha, Christ and Confucius, but simply recognising the superficial nature of what I call, the Maelstrom.



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: