Diogenes of Sinope, our nation turns its lonely eyes to you

As a kid I read about the Greek cynic Diogenes, and he became a kind of childhood hero. Diogenes famously argued that you don't own your possessions; your possessions own you. And since he valued his freedom, he decided not to own anything. For a spell he did own a cup from which he drank, but he threw it away after seeing a beggar drinking with cupped hands. There's also the story that Alexander the Great came to see him one day and found him sunning himself outside the upturned wine vat that he used for shelter. Alexander asked if there was anything he needed, and Diogenes said he needed the young king to move out of the way because he was blocking the sun.

So at 16, in imitation of Diogenes, I decided to throw away everything I owned. I got it down to a grocery bag of clothes. For a spell when I was single, I kept to the rule of never owning more than three things worth over $100. For many years I had a 10-year old car, a computer, and a microwave oven. Nothing else I owned was worth much. I remember once moving into a new apartment and managing it with a single load in the trunk of my Toyota.

For a spell I didn't even bother to lock my apartment because there was nothing in it worth stealing. That all changed the weekend I got married. I remember buying a barbecue grill and some patio furniture that weekend, things I never thought I would own. And now our attic is crammed with boxes of who-knows-what. It reminds me of a line from Walden Pond. Bemoaning how much his fellow Americans own, Thoreau writes, "It would defy a man today to pick up his bed and walk." But it's a waste of time trying to be an ascetic in American society. It's like being a prude at an orgy.

Besides, materialism is not devoid of a certain brand of spirituality, though the two are often counterposed. Each fall I have my Humanities sections read Satyricon. I introduce them to Veblen's concept of "conspicuous consumption" and let them use it to analyze Roman society as it appears in Petronius' work and contemporary America. They then have to decide whether we are more or less materialistic than the ancient Romans. One character in Satyricon, Trimalchio, is really disgusting but also sad and pathetic. Like any good materialist, he's a seeker longing for personal transformation. And, like Trimalchio, we Americans are really after something more than wealth and pleasure. Martha Stewart was not selling cookware or wreaths made from cedar twigs. She was selling a vision of "home" with all of the concept's attendant values of security, love, centeredness, connection, and freedom from anxiety.

There's a reason the working title of The Great Gatsby was Trimalchio in West Egg. Like Gatsby, we Americans believe that if we can get everything just right--get the car that is our freedom, the mutual fund that assures our newborn will be safe--then one fine day we'll finally burst into what Fitzgerald called the "orgiastic future that year by year recedes before us." In The Affluent Society (1957), John Kenneth Galbraith argued that modern economies of scale more than meet our physical needs. Thus the only way for them to continue expanding is to manufacture psychological need, which has the wonderful benefit of being inexhaustible.

Modern advertising and marketing--advertising is a little over 130 years old and marketing is a post-war phenomenon--are simply engines for manufacturing these psychological needs. Heck, most TV commercials are structured as a Biblical parable. They tell a little story about a problem in need of a solution. The difference is that the payoff is not spiritual insight; it's the promise that the solution to our spiritual anxiety is only one purchase away. Thus materialism is not the antithesis of spirituality. It's just a variant form of it that speaks to the same longings as popular religion: change me, bless me, make me new again...


Linda Cator said…
Dear Professor Quest,

Google brought me to your page while looking up something about Diogenes, and I found this blog.

Would you be willing to answer some questions (privately)that I have in my own quest of trying to make sense of it all?

Humbly, LC
Professor Quest said…
Sure Linda, but I'm not sure I have any special wisdom to impart.

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