In my first book, I describe working briefly with a new friend who once lived high off the hog as a computer programmer. However, he had been out of the game since the ’80s, rendering his skill set obsolete. Whereas his training made him valuable 25 years ago, my background in philosophy made me useful 250 years ago.
Before the more acclaimed Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle came upon the scene, there was a series of pre-Socratic philosophers in ancient Greece. Thales is reputed to be the first such philosopher in the Western tradition. We’re delving into legendary territory here, but there’s a story about him falling into a well as he was marveling at the majestic stars above him. He thus epitomized the stereotypical absent-minded professor, the one whose head is in the clouds, causing him to lose his footing on the ground.
Another intellectual luminary I’d like to mention here is Diogenes (of Sinope), the Cynic. He was a contemporary of Socrates and Plato. He essentially eschewed civilized society as having a corrosive effect on natural man. Etymologically, one of the bases for the name “Cynicism” is its derivation from the Greek word for “dog-like.” Diogenes flouted convention to the extent that he slept in a giant barrel, ate in the marketplace (a deviation from the norm), relieved himself and masturbated in public, and in general was no respecter of status. He even snubbed Alexander the Great.
I think of these two figures when I act in certain ways. I’m naturally sloppy, meaning that by noon I usually have a coffee or food stain on my shirt, perhaps a cigarette burn hole to boot. Moreover, I really don’t care. A buddy once told me that when he was in the navy, his unit’s motto was “LAMDILLIGAF?”: Look at me; do I look like I give a fuck? My nonchalance about my appearance in general could also be characterized as embodying Project LAMDILLIGAF? values.
Likewise, it takes a conscious effort on my part to not pick my nose, fart, or ogle pretty girls when others can see me. (I’d imagine that doing all three at once would constitute a hat trick of unsocial behavior.) I will sometimes walk for blocks with an untied shoelace, waiting for a convenient moment to re-tie it. I sometimes get so lost in my thoughts that I don’t notice that my zipper is undone, or that I have walked into the women’s bathroom by mistake.
I jokingly describe myself as an intellectual caveman: I’m good at intellectual matters and tasks that require brute force, but not much in between. Any tool more complicated than a screwdriver makes me nervous. Yet I also see this description as apropos to the eccentric characters of Thales and Diogenes. If I don’t experience any spiritual, intellectual, or physical pleasure from something, it just doesn’t pique my interest and I am pained to give it my focus.
Next week: Kant’s categorical imperative, existential authenticity, and my student loans.