Diogenes, Harari and Stoicism

I fear I may have already written too much on the subject, clouding the issue with …..well, rantin’, but I fear my rant would not be comlpete without discussion Harari’s interpretation of the story of Diogenes.

It goes, roughly, like this: Diogenes is sitting in a barrel, making his cynical-later-to-become-stoic point. Some emperor or other arrives to gloat at the great man. He asks: “what may I do for you?”, or something of the sort, and Diogenes answers: “you may move away a little, you’re blocking my sun”.

What does it all mean, other than the fact that Greece was full of weird people in those happy times before the Romans came and ordered the place up, and that philosophy is sometimes hard to distinguish from religion? Harari said the following (my paraphrase): most of what  we do is a result of social programming, of those ideas coming from our inter-subjective reality…. without those memes, our true survivalists’ needs would be minimal – just like in the case of Diogenes sitting in his barrel, who had stripped himself of all those beliefs and conceptions and is, now, looking reality straight in the face…. and all he needs is some food, and water, and some sun.

To make matters worse, Harari then adds: basically, in order to just survive, in Israel, today (2011), all you need is a few hundred shekels a month (about 100-150 dollars)….. seriously, mate? I guess that ivory tower you live in truly is located in a different country. While this last comment merits no further response (food alone would cost you at least twice that amount, and that’s assuming you’re living in the streets, never need new shoes, or to see a dentist, and don’t mind being dirty in this heat and begging – yeah, being homeless and destitute is so much fun, especially here, where there is no space, no free nature).

I guess I felt it did merit a response.

My problem, though, is with his main statement, that without memes we would all be like Diogenes, sitting in barrels, indifferent to society, to the social order and to its demands, worrying only about not having anybody blocking our sun in the morning and to have enough to eat and to drink…..

But you can’t really live like this, not even as a caveman. First and foremost, survival does not merely mean “not being dead”, and you can see it in the animal world, as well as in our own, and maybe a demonstration from the world of our distant relatives would help illuminate the issue better. Survival is not just not being dead, survival is being as alive as you can be. This is wired into our brains, into our psyche. The more you succeed – in gathering food, controlling land where it can be gathered, getting more respect from your comrades (and respect equals cooperation, help) – the less are the chances of you dying.

And then there is procreation. Why do we risk so much to propagate those selfish genes of ours (and you will not get much ‘action’ sitting all unwashed and indifferent, in a barrel)? What sense does it make?

What sense does our existence make? It is pleasurable to be alive. We’re wired to want to keep existing, it makes sense….. emotionally. Of course, you can rationalize it, but at the end of the day, it’s all an emotional issue. Our genes have wired our subconscious thus, and there is nothing that can be done about it. We exist at their pleasure, they define what this existence will be, the limits of our possibilities. So we enjoy sex because it facilitate their procreation. We enjoy being alive, it means something to us, and we try to be ‘happy’, which comes when we satisfy their needs. Does it means we should give it up? Is it merely a construct of our memes?

We certainly have memes that explain it, justify our various needs. When it comes to procreation, there’s the macho attitude – of males being proud about obtaining sex – there’s motherly sacrifice, and there are all those divine commandments urging us to procreate, to make more children. Prohibiting prophylactics. My point is that these memes do not come out of nowhere. They evolve to satisfy our biological needs, our basic needs that are directly tied to survival and to procreation (and, BTW, I do believe that Freud got it right when he put procreation before survival, as a possible cause of psychological distress – genetically speaking, it is higher, topmost, on our list of agendas).

Memes existed in human societies from the early days of the language revolution, which, IMO, began about 2 million years ago, when our brains began to evolve. The cognitive revolution (maybe 70,000 BP, the exact dating of the emergence of Homo-Sapiens-Sapiens is not certain), which also improved our imagination to the point we could create art, improved our lingual skills and, most likely, improved our ability to handle memes, which are, basically, elements of brain programming.

They are the topmost level of our programming. As such, they are an essential part of who we are, of how we survive. They are the ideas we have about the world, even animals have them, I am certain, only theirs are much simpler – I am not sure exactly how animal thinking works, but I am sure they have their own way of creating concepts about reality. Certain images and sensations mean ‘bad’, ‘dangerous’, others mean ‘food’, etc. An example of an animal meme could be a cat believing that a certain human object, moving in the wind, is a living thing – especially an object the cat can’t interact with (according to the principle that the further a phenomenon is from your immediate environment, from the action you do to survive and all that’s related to them, the more likely you are to develop irrational beliefs about it). As long as you can’t communicate those ideas…. though we could fantasize about how they might communicate some simple ideas to each other, some of which could be construed as false beliefs, we assume that, though animals have awareness and consciousness, and thought, they still don’t have anything resembling a real language.

It’s more obvious in humans, particularly in modern humans, since we have created elaborate systems of beliefs and of ideologies, but shared memes have existed for as long as language has. I believe – and this is an educated guess – that even the earlier species of Homo, ones that already had brains larger than those of apes, had shared beliefs, could share their beliefs about the world, and if you can share them, then you must do it, or else your society will not survive – be it a small pack of hunter-gatherers or a large, advanced, nation.

There is a lot more to be said about beliefs and ideas, and how they fit into the framework of human psychology. I will go into this in depth in future posts. This post is the 3rd and last in a series that focuses on Harari’s book/lecture series, and on my critique of his ideas. Any constructive criticism is welcome – I am always happy to debate my ideas and learn new things.


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