Everyone has heard the story of Diogenes the Cynic who went around the sunlit streets of Athens, lantern in hand, looking for an honest man. This same Diogenes, when he heard Plato being praised for defining man as “an animal, biped and featherless,” threw a plucked chicken into the Academy, saying, “Here is Platonic man!” These tales display Diogenes’ cynicism as both ethical and philosophical: he is remembered for mocking the possibility of finding human virtue and for mocking the possibility of knowing human nature. In these respects, the legendary Diogenes would feel right at home today in many an American university, where a professed interest in human nature and human excellence—or, more generally, in truth and goodness—invites reactions ranging from mild ridicule for one’s naiveté to outright denunciation for one’s attraction to such discredited and dangerous notions.
Tracing the stories about Diogenes the Cynic to their source, in Diogenes Laertius’ Lives of Eminent Philosophers, one discovers that the apocryphal story is somewhat embroidered if not incorrect. Yes, Diogenes lit a lantern in broad daylight, but he did not say he was looking for an honest man. What he said was, “I am looking for [or ‘seeking’] human being”—anthrôpon zeto—either a human being or the human being, either an exemplar or the idea of humanity, or both. To be sure, purporting to seek the answer by means of candlepower affirms Diogenes’ badge as cynic. But the picture also suggests a man who refuses to be taken in by complacent popular beliefs that we already know human goodness from our daily experience or by confident professorial claims that we can capture the mystery of our humanity in definitions. But mocking or not, and perhaps speaking better than he knew, Diogenes gave elegantly simple expression to the humanist quest for self-knowledge: I seek the human being—my human being, your human being, our humanity. In fact, the embellished version of Diogenes’ question comes to the same thing: to seek an honest man is, at once, to seek a human being worthy of the name, an honest-to-goodness exemplar of the idea of humanity, a truthful and truth-speaking embodiment of the animal having the power of articulate speech.
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