ONE OF my all-time heroes is Diogenes the Cynic, who spent most of his life chilling out in his barrel outside the city-state of Corinth . He was the original Cynic because he believed that men and women lived a life dictated by rules and taboos and therefore no one was really truthful or honest. Actually Diogenes is my hero because he was witty, rude, and had little respect for authority. For example, when Alexander the Great rode down to visit Diogenes in his barrel, he offered Diogenes any gift of his choice.
With a scowl, Diogenes snapped back his response: “What you’ve taken away, you can never give me.”
“Huh?” said Alex.
“You’re standing in my sun.”
What most people know about Diogenes is that he wandered around ancient Greece carrying a lantern and searching for an honest man. In Plaka you can find the figures of him and his lantern and Rataplan, his mangy mutt. What most people don’t know is why he went searching for an honest man when he believed, as a Cynic, that there was no such person.
A few scholars believe that Diogenes went on his fruitless search as an altruistic philosophical search for a truly evolved human being. However, my years as an archaeology student reading whatever was irrelevant to my studies revealed to me a darker reason. It may have had to do with the fact that he and his father had been accused of embezzling money from the Corinthian mint, where they had worked. Perhaps Diogenes was trying to prove that nobody is completely honest, and thus wipe the slate clean from his little misdemeanour.
Even though I don’t live in a barrel like Diogenes did, I did live out of my car in the exclusive Irodotou Attikou Street outside the Spanish ambassador’s apartment until one day I caught a policeman taking the plates off my car. I brought up the idea of paying him off in exchange for my number plates. But unfortunately, the amount he suggested was five times more than my yearly budget for traffic offences. So, being rather good at bargaining, I haggled. At which point, this honest copper threatened to arrest me, impound the car, and keep the plates.
Suddenly I was reminded of Diogenes, who as I mentioned was also was accused of something that most ancient Greeks did routinely. In fact, being caught with your fingers in the till was so common, that ancient Greek historians used to write with surprise and wonder about the one or two cases where men, having been entrusted with money or power, were actually straight in their dealings.
Indeed, when anybody tried to swindle the Romans in commercial dealings, the name the Romans called such actions was “Greek honesty.”
So I decided to follow my great hero’s footsteps and go in search of an “honest” man (or anyone who could help me get my plates back before 40 days.)
My first interviewee was the periptero (kiosk) man I buy my Rex Lights from. “Do you know an honest man?” I queried.
He winked at me, “I am,” and grinned.
I kept my hand out for the rest of my change. “Really? What is an honest man?”
“Ah, an honest man is someone who says what they mean, doesn’t steal, doesn’t lie, and respects their responsibility to society.”
“Do you know anyone in the traffic police?” I asked.
“How much money do you have to spend?” he asked promptly.
I told him and he laughed. At this point, I knew my task here was difficult. So I decided to simply concentrate on searching for an honest modern ancient Greek.
“Do you know of any other honest men in Athens ?” He thought this over for a couple of seconds. “No.”
“How about honest women?” He laughed.
“How about honest men on the islands?”
“Not a chance,” he sneered, and proceeded to passionately recount the tale of being swindled at a tavern in Hydra after choosing a “fresh” fish.
I wandered off to continue on my search. The next few people I asked had a similar response, i.e. yes, they were honest and of course, they didn’t know anyone else who was.
In true modern ancient Greek tradition, individuality is the most important liberty. There is no sense of hypocrisy when people change their principles or lie to defend themselves, or attack others, or… just for the fun of it. For example, we can take the great Athenian general, Alcibiades who, on a drinking binge with his mates, went around the wealthy streets of Athens breaking off the phalluses from the statues. The Athenians, miffed at his juvenile antics, punished him by not letting him lead the campaign against the city of Syracuse in Sicily. So, taking this with typical grace, Alcibiades went to Sparta and revealed the Athenians’ plans, which led to the Spartans crushing their expedition.
A Spartan general, Pausanias, popularly known as The Lech, switched sides in a similar way. Throughout Greek history, villages and towns have switched their allegiances, and this has been deemed acceptable and not punished because it was understood that it usually was a case of self-preservation.
So the modern ancient Greeks think themselves honest, as indeed do I. This is different from most of my northern European friends who openly and freely admit that they are not always honest.
This is shocking to me and my Greek compatriots (who would never admit such a thing).
Did Diogenes ever find his honest man? As far as I know, he did not.
Nor did I find my cheap corrupt traffic cop. So I had to wait 40 days to get my plates back. Which I think somehow and in some way makes me an honest man.
By Adrian Vrettos from his series MODERN ANCIENT GREEKS