It’s 5:20 on a Thursday night and unfortunately for me the bar at Cricket’s or Lily’s or whatever the hell yuppie watering hole in Quincy Market I’m sitting in is beginning to fill up. I’m waiting for Antisthenes, Cynical-with-a-capital-C philosopher, to emerge from the Sumner Tunnel underneath Boston Harbor after a long trek from Hades, the Greek underworld. I’m trying to save him a seat at the bar–he said he didn’t want to have dinner.
I’ve invited him up to the surface of the earth for a drink so I can apologize for the abuse, the scorn, the obloquy I’ve been heaping on him for the past–let’s see, it’s got to be–forty-five years. Back in the early 70s I was a waiter at the faculty club at the University of Chicago, and while I was waiting for the lunch rush to start one day I plucked Volume 1 of “Lives of Eminent Philosophers” by Diogenes Laertius off the bookshelves in the main dining room. There I stumbled upon one of the Great Wisecracks of Western Civilization, as Mortimer Adler might put it. It’s somewhere around 350 B.C. and Antisthenes is wearing a cloak with holes in it, much as undergraduates since the sixties–and I do not exclude myself from this contemptible group–have worn blue jeans with little windows onto their flesh in the knees and seat. Socrates sees Antisthenes and says something (translations differ) like “Your vanity shows through the holes in your cloak.” I broke out laughing when I read it. If that didn’t sum up the faux bumpkinism of my generation, dressing like sod-busting farmers while their parents spent tons of money to send them to college and prepare for white-collar jobs–nothing did.
It’s a line that, quite frankly, I’ve used more than once since, never, or course, crediting Socrates, who was a major pain in the neck philosopher–as I had once hoped to be. But then, not too long ago, I decided to track down the quote and discovered, as I read a little more about Antisthenes, that he wasn’t the shallow superficial type I’d thought.
There was the contempt he felt for the airs of the Athenians, a sentiment that I–an immigrant to Boston, the Athens of America–could relate to. There was the gluttony for punishment; he disdained comfort–the way I like hard mattresses and hate sitting on seat cushions. He was insensitive to feelings–both others’ and his own. He thought that pain was a good thing, like I was taught by the nuns back at Sacred Heart Grade School; you offered it up to the poor souls in Purgatory, thereby helping them get to heaven faster. As they say, Greece is the birthplace of our culture–which helps explain why our culture is so totally whack.
I glance at my watch; it’s 5:30, and the junior investment bankers are circling the open seat next to mine at the end of the bar–which affords one a panoramic view of eligible females as they enter–like sharks who smell a chum bucket aboard a Boston Whaler. “Anybody sitting here?” one of them asks. He’s wearing all the latest styles; too-tight Peewee Herman suit, brightly-colored “whimsical” socks–the only touch of creativity his job allows, or perhaps that he is personally capable of–and those God-awful catshit brown WASPy shoes.
“If you don’t mind, I’m saving it for a friend,” I say. “You probably won’t want to be around when he comes, he’s been dead for 2,050 years.” The kid looks at me as if I’m crazy–he may have a point–and I give him the smarmiest grin I can muster as he moves off, his blueberry-oyster-chive IPA in his hand.
“Excuse me,” I hear someone say lightly, and I can guess from the supercilious tone that when I turn around I will find Antisthenes.
“Are you . . . ” he begins, but I cut him off with a blast of overdone bonhomie. I hope he can tell from my apparent sincerity–at least I hope its apparent, since I’m out of practice being sincere–that I’m genuinely sorry.
“Antisthenes–so nice to finally meet you!”
“Then I am horribly afraid I have done something wrong,” he says, true to the form I’d read about in Live of Eminent Philosophers; always keeping people off balance, never abiding small talk or suffering effusively sloppy thinking masquerading in a costume of social graces. Just like–I hope in my heart of hearts–me!
“You knucklehead, you!” I say, shaking his hand and guiding him to his seat. “What’ll you have,” I say expansively, “a zytum?“–using the ancient Greek term for beer.
“Actually, a light zytum if you have it,” he says as the bartender wipes down the counter with a rag that looks old enough to have mopped the sweat off the brow of Phiddipides, the first marathon winner. “I’m trying to lose some obols,“–that’s the Greek unit of weight.
“Comin’ right up,” the publican says, and we’re left alone–or as alone as one can be in a singles bar in Boston on the first official night of the weekend.
“How was your trip?” I ask, and immediately regret it. The A-man is a classic conversational counterpuncher, and he slips his jab under my defenses.
“Not so great, but then that’s great, since I’d rather be mad than feel pleasure. How are you?”
I tell him my woe-is-me story. Just last night we had another meeting on a charitable project I’ve been working on for more than a decade. Some very ignorant people called me a liar, a cheat, a thief. If they’d only read “30 Days to a More Powerful Vocabulary” they’d have thought to throw in “knave” and “brigand.”
“Well,” he says, as he takes his first sip of Olympia Lite Zytum, “it is a royal privilege to do good and be ill spoken of.”
“Hmm,” I hmm. “I hadn’t thought of it that way, but it fits right in with your cynical . . .”
“That should be initial cap ‘C’ Cynical . . .”
“sorry . . . philosophy.” We are momentarily at a loss for words–it was bound to happen when two guys who hate small talk get together–and both of us look around the room with sidewise glances, like the dogs that the Cynics were named after. The Cynics avant la lettre used to hang out at the gymnasium of Cynosarges (white hound), and a cynic today is someone who’s dog-like in his suspicion of anything and everything but the next bone he’s looking to gnaw on.
Then my ancient predecessor gives tongue to the thought he’s been thinking as he watches all the upscale hipsters cruise about us, like brightly-colored tropical fish in an aquarium.
“Where the hell do they get those clothes?” he asks, his lips curling into a mocking little smile.
“When you’re young, pretty much all your income is disposable since you have no family responsibilities. Plus some of these kids are living off trust funds.”
“What’s that?” he asks, being unfamiliar with the wealth-preservation scheme devised by the China-trading ancestors of Boston yuppie scum.
“You give your money to a wise elder to hold for the benefit of your improvident kids until they’re old enough to spend it less foolishly.”
“How does the kid get the money?”
“It’s like Presbyterian foreplay.”
“Three months of begging.”
He takes all this in, then says “That’s a good idea. It’s important that you don’t spoil your children, lest they become weak. Like I always say when I want to bestow my highest blessing on somebody, May the sons of your enemies live in luxury.”
I nod gravely at the wisdom of this little apothegm. There’s another lull in the conversation, so I figure it’s a good time for me to break the ice and eat some crow, to mix my metaphors. I gulp and begin: “Say, I want to apologize for all the jokes I’ve made at your expense all these years.”
His eyebrow inches up his forehead, as if he’s going to say either: (a) one of his patented reverse double-twist counter-intuitive quips like “To be insulted by a fool is high praise for a wise man,” or (b) “Fuck you.” Instead, his face relaxes, he shrugs his shoulders and says “Don’t mention it.”
“Like water off a duck’s back.”
“I’m really relieved to hear that,” I say, but I keep my hands to myself. Something tells me he’s not the glad-handing, back-slapping type.
“Why should it bother me?” he says as he takes a sip. “I won in the end.”
“What do you mean?”
“Look around,” he says, his eyes sweeping the room. “How many of these goofballs do you think has the faintest idea of who Socrates was?”
“Let’s see,” I say. “Including myself?”
“You don’t count. The answer is–not a one. And yet on the other hand, every one of them considers himself to be a Cynic, and doesn’t think that’s a bad thing.”
“I hadn’t thought of it that way, but you’re right.”
“Even if they have nothing in particular to be cynical about–yet.”
The bartender lays down our tab and, in my usual Pointer Sisters s-l-o-w h-a-n-d manner I begin to extend my arm towards it as if I’m pushing my hand through cement, but this time there’s a reason other than my native cheapness. I want to get a look at Antisthenes’ wallet.
“I’ve got this,” he says, and pulls out an ancient cowhide billfold.
“So that’s it?” I ask, pleased that my little ploy–and try saying that five times fast–has worked.
“The original wallet! It says in Diogenes Laertius you were the first man who ever used one.”
“Looks like your reading comprehension hasn’t improved since you bombed that test in fifth grade,” he says.
“What are you talking about?”
“If you’d read a little closer, you would have seen that Sosicrates, in the third book of his Successions of Philosophers, says that Diodorus of Aspendus beat me to it.”
“I stand corrected,” I say, and I have to admire his self-effacing modesty. But I want to divert the conversation away from men’s fashion accessories and back to philosophy, so I say “You seem to be . . . slightly cynical about Cynicism.”
“I’m entitled–I wrote the freaking owner’s manual. No, the best cynics are the ones who see through everything, including their own cynicism.”
“Like Oscar Wilde?”
“A favorite of mine. Nineteenth century playwright and poet who said ‘A cynic is a man who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing.'”
“That’s a good one. So what did he value?”
“Some good stuff, like food and wine and beauty.”
“Any bad stuff?”
“Uh . . . working class male prostitutes.”
That causes a few ears to perk up around us as “working class” and “male prostitutes” are two verboten categories of conversation among the Beautiful Young Things who swirl around us.
“Well, you would know,” Antisthenes says, giving me a rather haughty glare of mock disapproval. Since he’s said this just as there was a lull in the thumpa-thumpa-thumpa of the music from the stadium-quality loudspeakers in the place, all of a sudden I’m the object of a lot of curious and disapproving stares. I smile weakly at a dirty-blonde woman in a little black cocktail dress who’s looking at me like I’m an entrée she wants to send back.
“Why’d you say that?” I say through clenched teeth as I look nervously around the room, fearing the vice squad may arrive at any minute to read me my Miranda rights.
“Aren’t you the guy who wrote ‘A Little Evil Will Do You Good’?”
Italicized text guaranteed verbatim Antisthenes.