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.

This part of the Letter probably describes how a lot of us have felt when others don’t share our sense of moral outrage over some particular issue:

I must make two honest confessions to you, my Christian and Jewish brothers. First, I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a “more convenient season.” Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.

I had hoped that the white moderate would understand that law and order exist for the purpose of establishing justice and that when they fail in this purpose they become the dangerously structured dams that block the flow of social progress. I had hoped that the white moderate would understand that the present tension in the South is a necessary phase of the transition from an obnoxious negative peace, in which the Negro passively accepted his unjust plight, to a substantive and positive peace, in which all men will respect the dignity and worth of human personality. Actually, we who engage in nonviolent direct action are not the creators of tension. We merely bring to the surface the hidden tension that is already alive. We bring it out in the open, where it can be seen and dealt with. Like a boil that can never be cured so long as it is covered up but must be opened with all its ugliness to the natural medicines of air and light, injustice must be exposed, with all the tension its exposure creates, to the light of human conscience and the air of national opinion before it can be cured.

Who among us has not felt such frustration?  It is truly difficult when dealing with complacent, like-minded people who don’t seem to care about injustice.  Disagreement about whether some such circumstance is an injustice is acceptable.  But when someone agrees with you that some circumstance is unjust, but then does nothing to oppose it, or even aids and abets such unjust circumstances, it can be quite discouraging.  It helps to know that MLK experienced that same frustration, and yet also overcame it (in part by writing this outstanding letter).