Anti-Establishment with Diogenes and Fela

Diogenes and Alexander

The Visit of Alexander the Great to Diogenes Google Images

Diogenes and Fela are two interesting characters, with some striking similarities even though they lived in different generations and in different climes. They both showed disdain for the established authorities of their time, in protest against injustice. They did so in rather unconventional ways.

Diogenes would eat in the market place in Athens, a practice which was frowned upon at that time; when asked why he did so, he would reply that it was while in the market that he felt hungry and thus that was the right place for him to eat. He would even go further to masturbate in public and when confronted, he would respond that he wished he could satisfy his hunger also by just rubbing his hands on his stomach in public. Despite all this deviant behaviour, his popularity continued to soar, so much so that it was said that Alexander the Great was thrilled to meet him. Can you beat that? Alexander was thrilled to meet such a deviant, who had even taken to living in clay pots. What’s more? The story goes that while Diogenes was relaxing in the morning sunlight, Alexander and his entourage went to look for him. Diogenes, upon looking up to see the cause of the shadows that fell over him, saw that it was Alexander the Great. Alexander was said to have asked him if there was any favour he could for him, to which Diogenes replied “yes, please move away and stop blocking the sunlight”. Can you beat that? Alexander was so impressed at how unimpressed Diogenes was to see him that he was said to have replied: “if I was not Alexander the Great, I should love to be Diogenes”; to which Diogenes replied “if I was not Diogenes, I should love to be Diogenes”!

Fela Anikulapo Kuti was a musician who pioneered the Afrobeat music genre. It is reported that he was sent to the UK to study to medicine but opted for music. He went on to become a human rights activist, who expressed himself in rather unconventional ways. Fela would appear on stage in his underwear, and/or smoking Indian hemp. It was his way of fighting a system he thought was corrupt and oppressive, everyone, even legends, need something to keep going. Unlike Diogenes, Fela was not lucky to have met magnanimous leaders like Alexander the Great, who was impressed at being disdained. Fela was imprisoned several times, and lost his mother when the Unknown Soldiers attacked his home.


Fela Anikulapo Kuti – Google Images

The price of being anti-establishment may seem too high, from living in clay pots to imprisonment and even loss of life. It is in this regard that Seneca, in one of his letters to Lucilius “On the Reasons for Withdrawing from the World” gives him some advice on avoiding powerful men and tyrants:

“… Let us, therefore, see to it that we abstain from giving offence. It is sometimes the people that we ought to fear; or sometimes a body of influential oligarchs in the Senate, if the method of governing the State is such that most of the business is done by that body; and sometimes individuals equipped with power by the people and against the people. It is burdensome to keep the friendship of all such persons; it is enough not to make enemies of them. So the wise man will never provoke the anger of those in power; nay, he will even turn his course, precisely as he would turn from a storm if he were steering a ship…”

“… Our wise man does the same he shuns a strong man who may be injurious to him, making a point of not seeming to avoid him, because an important part of one’s safety lies in not seeking safety openly; for what one avoids, one condemns…”

“… One must therefore take refuge in philosophy; this pursuit, not only in the eyes of good men, but also in the eyes of those who are even moderately bad, is a sort of protecting emblem. For speechmaking at the bar, or any other pursuit that claims the people’s attention, wins enemies for a man; but philosophy is peaceful and minds her own business. Men cannot scorn her; she is honoured by every profession, even the vilest among them….”

“… Philosophy itself, however should be practised with calmness and moderation. “Very well, then,” you retort, “do you regard the philosophy of Marcus Cato as moderate? Cato’s voice strove to check a civil war. Cato parted the swords of maddened chieftains. When some fell foul of Pompey and others fell foul of Caesar, Cato defied both parties at once!” Nevertheless, one may well question whether, in those days, a wise man ought to have taken any part in public affairs, and ask: “What do you mean, Marcus Cato? It is not now a question of freedom; long since has freedom gone to rack and ruin. The question is, whether it is Caesar or Pompey who controls the State. Why, Cato, should you take sides in that dispute? It is no business of yours; a tyrant is being selected. What does it concern you who conquers? The better man may win; but the winner is bound to be the worse man.” I have referred to Cato’s final role. But even in previous years the wise man was not permitted to intervene in such plundering of the state; for what could Cato do but raise his voice and utter unavailing words? At one time he was “bustled” by the mob and spat upon and forcibly removed from the forum and marked for exile; at another, he was taken straight to prison from the senate-chamber…”

“… However, we shall consider later whether the wise man ought to give his attention to politics; meanwhile, I beg you to consider those Stoics who, shut out from public life, have withdrawn into privacy for the purpose of improving men’s existence and framing laws for the human race without incurring the displeasure of those in power. The wise man will not upset the customs of the people, nor will he invite the attention of the populace by any novel ways of living…”

“…What then? Can one who follows out this Plan be safe in any case?” I cannot guarantee you this any more than I can guarantee good health in the case of a man who observes moderation; although, as a matter of fact, good health results from such moderation. Sometimes a vessel perishes in harbour; but what do you think happens on the open sea?…”

“… Now you are stretching forth your hand for the daily gift. Golden indeed will be the gift with which I shall load you; and, inasmuch as we have mentioned gold, let me tell you how its use and enjoyment may bring you greater pleasure. “He who needs riches least, enjoys riches most.” “Author’s name, please!” you say. Now, to show you how generous I am, it is my intent to praise the dicta of other schools. The phrase belongs to Epicurus, or Metrodorus, or some one of that particular thinking-shop. But what difference does it make who spoke the words? They were uttered for the world. He who craves riches feels fear on their account. No man, however, enjoys a blessing that brings anxiety; he is always trying to add a little more. While he puzzles over increasing his wealth, he forgets how to use it. He collects his accounts, he wears out the pavement in the forum, he turns over his ledger, –in short, he ceases to be master and becomes a steward. Farewell.

Excerpts from: Lucius Annaeus Seneca. Letters from a Stoic. Translated by Richard Mott Gummere.

When like Diogenes, Fela or Cato one is able to go against the establishment when necessary, despite the dangers, the results can be significant, and the benefits to humanity goes beyond measure. The Abolitionists that fought to end slavery were anti-establishment, so also the likes of Nelson Mandela and Martin Luther King Jnr. These are all persons that could have opted to live in comfort, but they took the rough road to improve society. These men disdained comfort and riches, and Seneca says this enabled them establish kinship with God:

“… So begin, my dear Lucilius, to follow the custom of these men, and set apart certain days on which you shall withdraw from your business and make yourself at home with the scantiest fare. Establish business relations with poverty….”

“… Dare, O my friend, to scorn the sight of wealth, And mould thyself to kinship with thy God…”

“… For he alone is in kinship with God who has scorned wealth. Of course I do not forbid you to possess it, but I would have you reach the point at which you possess it dauntlessly; this can be accomplished only by persuading yourself that you can live happily without it as well as with it, and by regarding riches always as likely to elude you…”

Excerpts from: Lucius Annaeus Seneca. Letters from a Stoic. Translated by Richard Mott Gummere.

Diogenes so despised materialism that he even considered lucky those who fell from riches to poverty. When Dionysius, the despot, fell from power, and started living amongst ordinary citizens, some thought it was a misfortune and either mocked him or sympathized with him, but Diogenes on his part, thought he had finally found enjoyment which he didn’t deserve (for he considered the throne to be more miserable). Plutarch records this conversation between Diogenes and Dionysius:

“…Plato never saw Dionysius at Corinth, for he was dead at that time; but Diogenes of Sinope, when he first met him, said, “How unworthily you live, Dionysius.” Dionysius answered him, “Thank you, Diogenes, for sympathising with my misfortunes.” “Why,” said Diogenes; “do you suppose that I sympathise with you, and am not rather grieved that a slave like you, a man fit, like your father, to grow old and die on a miserable throne, should be living in luxury and enjoyment amongst us?…”

Excerpt From: 46-120 Plutarch. “Plutarch’s Lives, Volume I.” iBooks.

In the society today, many things are wrong even though they have been sanctioned by the State, and termed “legal”. What do we do? Mind our business and remain in comfort, or go against the establishment and establish kinship with God?

Some attribute the following quote to Thomas Jefferson:

if a law is unjust, a man is not only right to disobey it, he is obligated to do so.”

Is this a call to anarchy? Arguments will come as to what justice is. This will be topic for another day.

Slave History Museum Calabar

The Outer Wall of the Slave History Museum, Calabar, Cross River State, Nigeria (Previously a holding cell for slaves before ships arrive)

Dr Ande Elisha

The Amateur Philospher