Sunday, April 5, 2009

Learning to love lentils

This is one of my favorite anecdotes about Diogenes, a Cynic philosopher who lived in ancient Greece during the height of the Classical period. He famously pursued the Cynic ideal of self-sufficiency by trying to live independently of the 'luxuries' of civilization.

In contrast to Diogenes, the hedonistic philosopher Aristippus secured himself a place at the king's court thanks to his tireless flattery to the tyrant. One day Aristippus saw Diogenes preparing a meager meal of lentils and advised his fellow sage:

"If you would only learn to flatter the king, you wouldn't have to live on lentils."

Diogenes retorted: "And if you would only learn to live on lentils, you wouldn't have to flatter the king."

While I don't agree with much of the ascetic aspects of Diogenes' philosophy (he was also well known for sleeping in a barrel to avoid owning a house), this anecdote sums up quite nicely the relationship between freedom and needing less. We are free in inverse proportion to how much we need. Needs can be material (hello, nice car) or metaphysical (praise, recognition). Either way, those needs keep us tied to jobs that often involve some variation on 'flattering the king.'

There seems to be a sweet spot where a person spends enough to live in comfort, health and safety, but doesn't spend so much that working is an undue burden. Similarly, there is a fine line between meaningful and purposeful work and an ego-driven compulsion to achieve. The sweet spot is sweet because nothing is owed, nothing is wanted, nothing is a burden. This is a state worth working for.

I don't think our friend Diogenes was sitting around eating lentils and lamenting his fate. He was enjoying his lentils with a side of freedom, which probably made them much tastier than even the most lavish meal Aristippus was served at court.

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