Several months ago on the slymepit – in a rare lull between rape jokes, posting pornographic photoshops of Ophelia Benson and plotting patriarchal domination of atheism – Rocko2466 presented an uncharacteristically serious question:
I gots a question. If you had to write a book your kid for when s/he’s say 20 – 25, what topics would you include?
Atheism and ethics are two obvious ones, but any ideas (even if they’re within those two broad categories) would be appreciated.
This got me thinking. I would not to seek to impart knowledge per se – that would be tedious and not really special. Knowledge is what any kid with curiosity and motivation will find for themselves. I would instead try to seed habits to cultivate – method and attitude for intellectual integrity; a framework to train yourself to apply to all information you may transmit to others and, more importantly, to apply to all information you apprehend. To instill a mindset that tries to avoid the pitfalls of deception of the self and dishonest manipulation of others. My response to Rocko is reproduced below, with minor corrections.
Three concepts that need resuscitation from ancient Greece. Typhos, atyphia and parrhesia. All have their roots in ancient Athenian Cynicism circa 400–300 BCE and are all largely lost, or more probably eradicated, as they are heretical to every ideology that has ever stained our species – no exceptions. These words have no modern equivalent in any language that I am aware of.
Parrhesia to an extent has been revived, most prominently by Michel Foucault in his last lectures. At it’s most superficial, it is simply free speech. More correctly, it is fearless or bold speech. Absolute frankness, truth and clarity, even at the expense of hurt feelings or personal consequences. The Foucault extracts from the cesspit summarise it fairly well –
So you see, the parrhesiastes is someone who takes a risk. Of course, this risk is not always a risk of life. When, for example, you see a friend doing something wrong and you risk incurring his anger by telling him he is wrong, you are acting as a parrhesiastes. In such a case, you do not risk your life, but you may hurt him by your remarks, and your friendship may consequently suffer for it. If, in a political debate, an orator risks losing his popularity because his opinions are contrary to the majority’s opinion, or his opinions may usher in a political scandal, he uses parrhesia. Parrhesia, then, is linked to courage in the face of danger: it demands the courage to speak the truth in spite of some danger. And in its extreme form, telling the truth takes place in the “game” of life or death.
To summarize the foregoing, parrhesia is a kind of verbal activity where the speaker has a specific relation to truth through frankness, a certain relationship to his own life through danger, a certain type of relation to himself or other people through criticism (self-criticism or criticism of other people), and a specific relation to moral law through freedom and duty. More precisely, parrhesia is a verbal activity in which a speaker expresses his personal relationship to truth, and risks his life because he recognizes truth-telling as a duty to improve or help other people (as well as himself). In parrhesia, the speaker uses his freedom and chooses frankness instead of persuasion, truth instead of falsehood or silence, the risk of death instead of life and security, criticism instead of flattery, and moral duty instead of self-interest and moral apathy.
Typhos has been completely lost – to the point it doesn’t even exist in google. But, to me, it is the most important concept of the three. It has nothing to do with the monster in Greek mythology that even the god’s feared, nor the disease. It is so obscure, I have had to make an effort to reconstruct its meaning from quite a pile of sources. At its superficial level it translates as nonsense, but again, there is a lot more to it. This is my interpretation –
typhos – Archaic Greek, literally “smoke, vapor”. A cloudy, misty, befuddled state of mind; intellectual smog; the delerium of popular ideas and conventions that are thoroughly divorced from reality or merit.
Typhos sees no difference between religion, homeopathy, conspiracy theory, personality cultdom or the gibberish that spews from the baboons. It is all the product of a mind that is fogged by the indistinct mist of concocted realities and incapable of either objectivity or clarity.
Luis Navia, probably the best living Cynic historian puts it this way –
The Cynics persisted in the conviction that most people live as if immersed in a cloud of smoke (typhos) that prevents them from seeing clearly and does not allow them to use that which distinguishes humans from animals—namely, the capacity to reason. In abandoning this capacity, people forsake their true nature. Diogenes often said that the human world is an enormous madhouse in which every sort of madness is found everywhere: cruelty, greed, deception, mendacity, brutality, uncontrolled hedonism, and the rest of the all-too-common diseases that afflict humanity and have become endemic in the form of things such as religion, patriotism, tradition, and other manifestations of irrationality.
It is no extravagant claim to say that every fuck up this planet has ever made has been the direct result of typhos.
Atyphia is the simplest. It is the antithesis of typhos. It is clarity and simplicity in expression, the removal of ambiguities from meaning. It is the engine that drives parrhesia. Plain talk, calling a spade a spade, fuck your feelings, this is how it really is. Pure and bullshit free, if somewhat painful.
I think everything else that we have – from reason to ethics to logic – is built upon the foundation stones of these concepts. And certainly, if atheism and skepticism as a whole had a grip on these ideas, we would not be as susceptible to the nonsense that is currently poisoning our various communities.
Several people have expressed surprise that I appear to champion Foucault. To be honest, I don’t know what to make of him. What is apparent is that he is responsible for a hell of a lot of nonsense that has poisoned much of academic humanities with post-modernist / post structuralist (and whatever else you call it) typhos over the last half century. Truth be told, I have never read him. I have made several attempts, but really, he is mostly an impenetrable morass. Camille Paglia summarises him with her usual delicious venom.
I never met or saw Foucault in the flesh. (He died in 1984.) My low opinion of him is based entirely on his solipsistic, mendacious writing, which has had a disastrous influence on naïve American academics.
I miss no opportunity to throw darts at Foucault’s scrawny haunches because he is the last standing member of the Terrible Triad of French poststructuralists, whose work swept into American universities in the 1970s and drove out the home-grown radicalism of our own 1960s cultural revolution.
Foucault-worship is an example of what I call the Big Daddy syndrome: Secular humanists, who have drifted from their religious and ethnic roots, have created a new Jehovah out of string and wax.
But, what confuses me about Foucault are his Last Lectures – a large part of which revolved around Athenian Cynicism – which to me is antithetical to much of his other philosophy. I think if Diogenes were alive to witness Foucault’s other lectures, it would be safe to say he would have gotten up and taken a dump on stage. Foucault is definitely not a practitioner of atyphia.
I only referenced Foucault because he revived the word parrhesia and gave a reasonable account of it. As I stated, these are long dead words and concepts – beyond the reach of even google.
- Foucault’s 1984 lectures: a summary [215kb .pdf, via augustinian.wordpress.com]
- A History of Cynicism: From Diogenes to the 6th Century A.D. — Donald R. Dudley; free and legal download; FYI – if purchasing, there are plenty of 1967 and earlier editions to be found second hand and cheap – avoid. They have pages out of sequence and no annotation or translation for cited Greek texts.
- The Cynics: The Cynic Movement in Antiquity and Its Legacy — various; google books scan
- Diogenes The Cynic: The War Against The World — Luis E. Navia
- Cynics (Ancient Philosophies Vol. 3) — William Desmond
The last two are excellent and highly readable for the amateur Freethinker that is curious about genuine (as opposed to dictionary) Cynicism.