Diogenes’ Search for an Honest Man

September 11, 2013

Diogenes of Synope

Diogenes of Synope was a funny Greek philosopher who used to wander the streets with a lantern in the daylight “in search of an honest man.”  He was something of a hippie, as he spurned riches, reputation, and even hygiene.  He also questioned patriotism and preferred to call himself a citizen of the world.

As I grow older, I find myself thinking more and more like Diogenes, at least insofar as I believe I could carry on a similar search for an honest man and never find one.  Honesty is more than telling the truth.  Honesty is the willingness to call a spade a spade, even when the full truth makes one look weak.

Lawyers might have a problem with this because they are paid to put the client’s “best case” before the court.  They are paid to keep some bad information secret through the attorney-client privilege, to ignore inconvenient facts, and to make the other side’s “best case” look preposterous, even if it is the more likely truth.  No doubt Diogenes would have a field day with lawyers.

Of course, lawyers do not necessarily handle the truth in such ways when clients, judges, and juries are not around.  We lawyers have also usually been exposed at one point or another to the limitations of our knowledge.  As young lawyers researching a legal question, we learn that even though we might discover a law on the books that apparently resolves our legal question, there might be another law out there stating that the just-discovered statute does not apply in certain situations.  Since it is practically impossible to read every law out there to prove a negative (especially on the client’s dime), the lawyer must act with some degree of faith in his/her mentors, practice guide books, and even gut instinct.  That degree of uncertainty should keep the lawyer’s attitude in check.

When dealing with coworkers and clients, however, lawyers must appear confident in spite of the fact that they might be wrong (even embarrassingly so).  I can’t help but wonder if this bravado comes from society or if lawyers helped to contribute this approach to society, but it seems that virtually everyone in public life wants to focus on his or her argument, ignore or suppress all information counter to that argument, discredit all those who might question that argument, and reframe any opponent’s argument in a weaker way so that it is easier to overcome.  This is probably not the best way for a curious listener to arrive at the truth—listening to multiple myopic, self-serving viewpoints and trying to sort between them.

The thesis/antithesis model of reasoning, where one honestly and readily admits the most powerful arguments opposing one’s argument during discourse, is far superior for everyone’s sake if one is to hope that the truth triumphs even to one’s own detriment.  Sadly, we are usually not honest enough to hope that the truth prevails even though it crushes us.  We could join Diogenes’ search, knowing full well that no one is brave enough or righteous enough to always admit the truth and expose his own frailty.

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