In a New Yorker article last fall, Kathryn Schultz attacked the legacy of Henry David Thoreau, calling Walden’s author “pond scum” and dismissing as unrealistic any political vision built upon his “rugged individualism.” Based on her reaction to Thoreau, she’d likely recoil in horror from Diogenes of Sinope (412-323 BCE), founder of the Cynic school of philosophy in ancient Greece. Known as “The Dog,” Diogenes lived in a tub, begged for food, and went barefoot, haranguing rich and poor alike for their pointless conformity, irrational behavior, and moral bankruptcy. Compared to Diogenes, Thoreau was pampered and tame.
You might be familiar with the image of a white-haired man carrying a lamp in daylight, searching for an honest man. That was Diogenes.
Brilliant philosopher, shameless exhibitionist, ragamuffin — take your pick, but before we concede to people like Schultz and dismiss the man, we have to ask the question, why is Diogenes still remembered some twenty-four hundred years after his death?
I recently came across a book by Professor Luis Navia of New York Institute of Technology, Diogenes the Critic: The War Against the World, which sheds some interesting light on this question.
As someone who enjoys running in the mountains, I find myself drawn to Henry David Thoreau’s vision of nature and wildness. But when you follow in Thoreau’s path, you discover that his admirers include not only outdoors enthusiasts, but also people with more extreme views. Consider the philosopher and writer John Zerzan, a self-proclaimed anarchist and primitivist, who criticizes industrial mass society as inherently oppressive and warns us that technology is leading humanity into an increasingly alienated existence, at the same time that it threatens to destroy the natural environment. To be sure, the anarcho-primitivist movement counts few members, but does that mean it’s safe to ignore Zerzan and his warning?
This Thanksgiving, if you’re spending time with family and friends, that’s fine, but if you consider yourself an “Epicurean,” that is, someone who places a high value on fine food and drink, unfortunately, I can’t find any philosophical justification for your preferences.
As a fan of the Stoic philosophers of Ancient Greece and Rome, I thought it was only fair to give the other side a fair hearing, and so I set out recently to learn something about Epicurean philosophy, thinking it would be a study in contrast. After all, the dictionary defines Stoicism as endurance of pain without complaint, while Epicurean signifies devotion to sensual pleasures, especially fine food and drink. But I discovered, to my surprise, that this is not the real story.
In a recent post, I compared a weekend spent hiking in the Catskills to Henry David Thoreau’s two-year sojourn at Walden Pond, as both were experiments in natural living and self-sufficiency.
But then my daughter Emeline brought to my attention a recent article entitled “Pond Scum.” The author, Kathryn Schulz, questions why we still admire the literature of a man who was mean-spirited and a fake. She summarizes her opinion in no uncertain terms:
Friday evening, my nephew Nathaniel stopped by to visit during college break. Over dinner he mentioned a course he was taking on Henry David Thoreau, the 19th century transcendentalist who had spent two years living in a cabin by the side of Walden Pond. I had read Walden recently and appreciated Thoreau’s experiment in self-sufficiency and simple living, as well as his clever style. I asked Nathaniel, did he think Thoreau was a nature lover or a social recluse? Then I wondered aloud why Thoreau had left Walden after only two years.
Once dinner was over, and Nathaniel had left, I summoned Odie the Labradoodle, and we piled into the car for a weekend adventure that might, it occurred to me, share some of Thoreau’s values. For us, self-sufficiency and simplicity would mean hiking barefoot, skipping meals, and sleeping in a lean-to. However, instead of two years, our trip would last two days. It would be like Walden, just in miniature.
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.
Behind me the sky had colored with the rising sun, while to the front the southern escarpment of the Catskill Mountains was silhouetted in mauve and cerise.
Odie and I were headed north for a minimalist adventure, the objective to climb three mountains, of which one would be a bushwhack. The protocol for me would be climbing barefoot and descending in LUNA sandals; Odie is always barefoot. Emboldened by slow but successful ascents of Peekamoose, Hunter, and Southwest Hunter, I had developed the peculiar ambition to climb all 35 peaks in the Catskills barefoot, and today’s activities would hopefully get me to number 6.
To make this expedition appropriately minimalist, I was carrying a small safety kit, but no food or water.
I recently read Peter Nabokov’s 1981 book, Indian Running: Native American History and Tradition. The book chronicles the 1980 Tricentennial Run, a 375-mile relay race across Arizona and New Mexico undertaken by teams of Pueblo Indians as a celebration of a 17th century rebellion against Spanish rule. An anthropologist by profession, Nabokov weaves into the book a broader discussion of Native American running, including how they ran to communicate, fight, and hunt, as well as to enact myths and to create a bridge between themselves and the forces of the universe.
I read the book with great curiosity, wondering if people whose culture predated the spread of modern technology and sedentary lifestyle were indeed natural runners and if so, how their capabilities would compare to the those of modern runners.
My grandfather told me that Talking God comes around in the morning, knocks on the door, and says, “Get up, my grandchildren, it’s time to run, run for health and wealth.”