Today I went cycling with my friend Paul along the cycle path that follows the beach of Brighton Le Sands which is very close to where Captain Cook first landed in Australia. Since the day started off overcast it wasn’t so hot today and the cycling was quite pleasant.
Brighton Le Sands is in Botany Bay and because of that fact it doesn’t get really big waves and to be honest it’s not a particularly interesting beach. The beach itself is probably about 5 km long and every couple of hundred metres there are rock breakwaters going out a few hundred metres into the water. There weren’t very many people at the beach except for a few kite surfers and the occasional fishermen at the end of the breakwaters. As we were cycling along we noticed at the beginning of one of the breakwaters near where the beach and the water meet, there was an old man trying some sticks together with some discarded rope to make himself a shelter from the sun.
Since he was on the breakwater near the beach, he wasn’t far enough out to fish and I was wondering what he was doing so I went over to him to have a chat. As I got closer I could see that the shelter builder was a little nut brown weather-beaten old man. At first I thought he might be from India or Afghanistan but as soon as he responded to my hello I could tell from his accent that he was Greek and he told me his name was Pierre.
After exchanging introductions the conversation quickly moved on to the nature of happiness which of course involves discussing Greek philosophers.
Don’t think for a minute that I consider myself a learned man on the subject of philosophy. I’ve read a little bit, here and there, and there are a few things that have stuck in my head that I often think about.
It would seem that Pierre liked to spend the days sitting on the breakwater either fishing or thinking about life. I soon found out that Pierre came from the Greek island of Ithaca in the Ionian Sea and that he came to Australia when he was 13 years old and hadn’t been back to Greece since. I asked him if he missed Greece and he answered me with a smile and said “we create our own reality in our heads and I can be happy anywhere and I don’t need to go back”. Then he went on to say, “the past no longer exists outside of our memories and you can’t live in the past”.
After talking with Pierre for a while I found myself recognizing a lot Epicurean thought, along the lines of what it is we actually need to be happy in our lives. Epicurius felt that all we needed was to be free, without pain, surrounded by friends with some modest shelter and enough food to eat. Epicurius also thought that wealth and power were completely unnecessary to achieve happiness. We talked about Epicurius for a while then moved on to Socrates and then onto another favourite of mine, Diogenes.
I told Pierre that in a way he reminded me a little bit of Diogenes. Now when one compares somebody to Diogenes they have to be careful because he is best known for living in a barrel outside of a brothel from where he used to abuse the men entering, for being degenerate and slaves to their appetites. Occasionally the brothel patrons would throw money at Diogenes to make him shut up. When Diogenes had enough money, he used to go into the brothel himself. I didn’t have to explain myself to Pierre because he understood that Diogenes was a man who was not that interested in luxury and contented himself in an ascetic life of contemplation. Pierre in his little shelter made of sticks, seemed to me, to be very close in spirit to Diogenes.
One of my favourite stories about Diogenes is the time that Alexander the great came to visit him because he had heard about the brilliant philosopher who lived in a barrel.
When Alexander came to Diogenes who was lying on the ground, he became very annoyed that Diogenes didn’t stand up and acknowledge him, and he said to Diogenes, “aren’t you afraid of me?”
To which Diogenes replied, with the question, ” are you a good thing or are you a bad thing?”
Of course Alexander answered, “a good thing”.
Diogenes then went on to say, “well I have nothing to fear from a good thing”.
Alexander realising that he had been caught out by some very clever reasoning responded to Diogenes, “oh Diogenes! Is there anything I can do for you?”
Diogenes just replied, “don’t stand in my light”.
Instead of being insulted, Alexander realised that Diogenes was somebody who was indifferent to the power that Alexander wielded, so he replied to Diogenes, “Were I not Alexander, I would be Diogenes.”
When I told Pierre the story of Diogenes and Alexander, he laughed and said that his favourite story about Diogenes was about when Diogenes was asked about how he would like his body to be treated when he died, and he responded that he wanted his body to be left outside the city walls so the wild animals could eat it. Horrified when they were told of what Diogenes wanted, his friends asked how would he feel about that. Diogenes replied, “just leave stick a with my body so I can chase away the animals that want to eat me”. His friends said, “how can you use the stick if you don’t have the consciousness to use it, because you’re dead”? To which Diogenes replied, “in that case I won’t have any consciousness to care about how I’m treated”. Pierre then went on to say that is one of the reasons why he is not afraid of death, because when you die you have no consciousness of the fact that you are dead.
I spent about 45 minutes speaking to Pierre and I feel it was time well spent and I think that quite often in the hustle and bustle of our busy lives we pass by people, particularly older people, who have some very interesting things to say. Sometimes I think that we of the Anglo Celtic background that I come from, show no respect older people and I always find it charming when I see young people from other cultures, like Greeks for instance, who show respect and listen to their elders.