Free as Diogenes: a fantasy


One of my idols–and everybody has many and mutually contradictory idols–is Diogenes, the ancient Greek sage famous for living with no material possessions in a barrel.

I have to be careful about saying that because it might be misunderstood. Diogenes lived, quite deliberately, like a dog. Above, you see him with dogs. The Greek word for doglike, kynikos (as in, via Latin, the English canine) is the root of our word cynical. Diogenes was a cynic in the original and pristine sense.

So, yes, Diogenes defecated in public, masturbated in the marketplace and generally displayed the same unapologetic honesty towards others as, well, dogs do. I don’t intend to do any of those things, you’ll be reassured to know. So….

What’s the point?

My point, and the point of original cynicism, is to live a life that is:

  • simple
  • virtuous
  • honest
  • free

And there you have them, my favorite themes, especially simplicity and freedom.

Put differently, Diogenes and his crowd reacted against the complexity and dross of human society, something that I have been criticizing especially in American life.

The goal, you might say, is no entanglements; no bullshit; no striving for success as defined by the consumer society or power politics, because all of that only causes … suffering.

And with that last word, you see the connection that I make between Diogenes and the Buddha, Patanjali and Laozi (all of whom lived very roughly during the same ‘axial age’). They all believed in radical uncluttering and simplification as a way out of human suffering and into a higher form of freedom.

And so I hereby include Diogenes in my list of the world’s greatest thinkers. He was really a …

Greek Buddha

Calling Diogenes a Greek Buddhist is funny, of course. The three Asians I am comparing him to above (and others have made the same connection) communicated their insight in an Asian way: They retreated to some banyan tree or rode off on some water buffalo, kept themselves very clean, remained resolutely gentle towards others and wore that perennial smile that we Westerners eventually find somewhat annoying. (We do, don’t we?)

The ancient Greeks, by contrast, were confrontational, in-your-face, bring-it-on types. That was as much part of their Hellenism as their great art and culture. And in that way, they are recognizably Western–ie, like us.

But I believe the message of the cynics was the same as that of the Buddhists, Yogis and Taoists. And Diogenes delivered that message without ever preaching it, by simply living the example.

Diogenes looked past the vain and venal veneer of ‘civilized’ people around him and sought honesty instead–he carried a lamp around (in the picture above) to symbolize his search.

To stay simple and free, he volunteered for blissful poverty because he only wanted what he needed and we humans, as it turns out, need almost nothing. He had a wooden bowl to drink but then saw a boy drinking with his cupped hands and realized that he did not even need his bowl; so he threw it away and was happier for it. When Alexander the Great came to him (Diogenes being something of a celebrity by this time) and granted him any favor, Diogenes replied: ‘Yes, please, step out of my sunlight.’ (Alexander, being great indeed, was not offended but impressed. The two great men would die in the same year.)


Sounding like Einstein, Diogenes once said that

Humans have complicated every simple gift of the gods.

When asked where he was from, Diogenes was also the first person ever to say

I am a citizen of the world (cosmopolites)

Cosmopolitan, eccentric, cynical (in the good way) and free: That was Diogenes. Wouldst that I had the same courage to bid all this crap in life adieu to live merrily in a barrel somewhere. Perhaps someday I will.

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Tax day thoughts on complexity in American life


April 15. Tax day. All over America today, people are amusing themselves with “tea parties“. And that is great fun, to be sure. Part of our creation myth is that the country started with a tax revolt, as we rugged individualists stood up to those imperial tyrants. So let’s put on our costumes and play.

But let’s then talk seriously about taxation as part of our ongoing ‘freedom lover’s critique of America‘. To do that intelligently, I feel I must remove one important distraction upfront:

I don’t believe we are overtaxed in America. I believe that some of us could pay even more. But the amount or rate of American taxation is not the problem.

What, then, is the problem? Make no mistake that there is a problem. America’s tax system is a scandal. It is incompatible with freedom.

The problem is complexity, and its effect, opacity.

Today I heard the IRS commissioner say on NPR that America’s tax code is four times as long as War and Peace. 5.5 million words, apparently. The wordcount, however, is a very abstract and bad way of grasping the complexity of the system. We don’t read the code.

The complexity begins hurting, and enslaving, us as we live–that is, as we participate in our society and economy, have children, work and save, and so forth. Young Americans probably don’t know what the fuss is about. That’s because they are not yet participating fully in society. Some adult Americans–probably the spouses of the one “doing the taxes” in any given household–might also feign surprise. That is because they have chosen not to inquire into this scandal. But they are fooling themselves.

The only legal American way to keep things simple in matters of tax paperwork and hassle is not to live. That’s the only way. Don’t work, save, have children, move, and so forth. (Above all, never ever contemplate hiring a nanny!) So I think we can agree that a country that torments its citizens just for trying to make their dreams come true (might I say, for “pursuing their happiness”?) is not … free!

Short meditation on complexity and simplicity

Regular readers of The Hannibal Blog already know how important simplicity is to me, in all things aesthetic, creative, or administrative. Simplicity to me accompanies freedom. I feel free when I am free of clutter.

But I also recognize that nature is full of complexity. and that complexity can be beautiful. However, it comes in three very different kinds:

  1. Natural. Our bodies, for example, are extremely complex. The two nervous systems, the immune system, each organ, each cell, each organelle within each cell–all these are beautifully and mysteriously complex. However, this complexity has evolved, and comes with a “user interface” that remains extremely simple. We do not compute how to attack a virus in our body or how to inhale, we just do it. The complexity is hidden.
  2. Manmade, but following the path of nature: Our cars, for example, are constantly getting more complex. I might have been able to fix a Model T, but I can’t begin to comprehend the 20-odd computers that together represent my Prius. However, just as our bodies hide their complexity from us with a simple user interface, my Prius hides its complexity, so that driving (and bluetoothing, GPSing, etc) is simpler than it was in a Model T. Such complexity is actually sophistication. It works for us, and thus is humane.
  3. Manmade, and going against the path of nature. This is the bad one. This is where our bureaucracies reside. They get inexorably more complex, as surely as entropy increases anywhere in nature, but away from sophistication and toward oppression. They are inhumane. Our tax system is the best (meaning worst) example.

Symptoms of denial

So they arrive, the W2s, W4s, W8s, the 10this and 10thats, the Schedules A, B, C, D, E, F, the worksheets and other papers, and above all, those truly weird, out-of-nowhere, can’t-even-indentify, forms of the sort that we just got and now have the pleasure of disputing and investigating.

People respond in one of three ways.

  1. Take deep breaths, fire up TurboTax and just do it. Those of us who are youngish tend to do it, because we are the do-it-yourself generation, or don’t trust that a tax preparer would do it as meticulously as we will, or actually want to understand (gasp) our affairs.
  2. Get an accountant, forward all that dreadful crap to him, sign whatever he produces, and push the whole thing out of our consciousness.
  3. Break down and give up completely, not filing at all.

In my opinion, 3 is the worst, 2 is the second-worst, and 1 is merely bad. Why? Because all those in Number 2 are fooling themselves. They are accepting that they cannot, and never will, understand their own relationship to government. They are acquiescing in a subtle form of serfdom.


We can say, speaking for adult Americans who participate fully in life, society and economy, that:

Nobody truly understands why they pay what they pay

The tax system, in short, has become a black box.


Black boxes are profoundly and inherently illiberal. Propaganda about “lands of the free” is empty when you’re shouting it over black boxes. (And there are other black boxes in American life, to which I will get.)

Finally, recall my two comparisons to Hong Kong: 1) There, my tax return was two pages, counting the bilingual translation, and I understood exactly what it contained. 2) This despite Hong Kong not being a democracy. How intriguing. As it turns out, it is our peculiar American brand of democracy that has caused this mess.

Of that, and of the possible ways out of this mess, more in posts to come.

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Greatest thinker ever: Patanjali


And so: the winner. The Hannibal Blog‘s search for what makes great thinkers great, and what does not, took ten posts. My nominee is Patanjali.


Those of you who have been checking in regularly might have had your suspicions that something yogically-themed would come up again. But do not make the mistake of thinking that Patanjali is “only” about Yoga! Yes, he wrote (or so we think) the Yoga Sutras, which is, along with the Bhagavad Gita and the Hatha Yoga Pradipika, one of the three great texts of Yoga. But what he said–with masterly economy, in 196 aphorisms that form a single logical thread (sutra)–qualifies not only as the earliest but also as the greatest thinking yet on the human mind.

Mind matter

And that says it all: This is about the mind, or psyche in Greek. So he was, with the Buddha (who might possibly have been a contemporary), one of the first psychologists. That said, the ancient Indians put our psychologists to shame.

We Westerners have one word for mind (not counting breath or spirit, which the ancients conflated), just as we have one word (give or take) for snow. The Yogis had hundreds of words for mind, just as the Eskimos have many words for snow. That is because they observed it with so much more nuance. For example, the Bhagavad Gita is about a war between the five Pandava brothers against their cousins, the one hundred Kaurava brothers. The five Pandavas represent the five positive minds, including Arjuna, who represents buddhi, or clear intelligence. The one hundred Kauravas represent all the negative minds (fear, anger, envy,….)

Stillness and …

Let’s cut to the chase. The first sutra simply says Now we start this exposition on Yoga. But in the second sutra Patanjali essentially says it all. (Talk about simplicity!) It is famous, so here is the Sanskrit:

Yogah cittavrtti nirodhah

This is the E=MC² of the mind. It means (using Iyengar’s translation):

Yoga is the cessation of movements in the consciousness.

There is a lot of important precision in that slightly clunky-sounding phrase, but we would be oversimplifying only slightly by reducing it to my phrase:

Yoga is a still mind

A reader who grasps all the ramifications could stop reading there. Most of us do not. So Patanjali elaborates…

… Motion

The trouble is that the mind is almost never still. It moves, pulled by thoughts as wild as bucking broncos. And this is what confuses and torments us. Patanjali’s greatest (and most overlooked) contribution is his analysis of these naughty ones that we call thoughts or emotions.

You know them all: anger, fear, envy, greed, lust, anxiety and so on. They show up and take your mind captive. You think they are you, and you suffer and make others suffer.

Patanjali proves that they are not you. You can, with the techniques that he describes, let them go. A naughty one shows up in your mind stage left, you say, ‘Oh Hi, Mr Anger’ and label him, then allow him to exit again stage right. And you keep doing that.

Over time, you make a discovery. Who is saying Hi and doing the labeling and letting go? It can’t be Mr Anger. So anger is not me, it’s just some schmuck passing through. See you!

I am therefore something else. Patanjali calls this I the seer. As the seer sees more clearly, the mind comes to rest.

And for all those who are still with him at that point, he sketches out how to unite (=Yoga) with this seer in order to feel whole and free. Non-trivial, as I’m sure you’ll agree.

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Great, if not greatest, thinker: Ricardo

Not an absolutist

Not an absolutist

We’re still in the sub-series of posts on “honorable mentions” in our wider search for the world’s greatest thinker ever. To remind: in this sub-series I commend great thinkers who made a huge contribution, but in a circumscribed area of expertise. Today: David Ricardo.

Area of interest: Trade (not necessarily between countries!)

Why great: Because he demonstrated with simple logic something non-obvious, which is that two individuals (or households, or countries…) can both benefit from specializing and exchanging their wares even if one side is better (more efficient) at producing all the wares.

The key insight is that there is a difference between absolute advantage and relative advantage, or comparative advantage, as Ricardo called it. Let’s say that A is better at making guns and butter than B, but its advantage is greater in guns. If A makes the guns and B the butter and both trade, both will have more guns and butter than they did before.

Comment: At first glance, Ricardo’s idea may seem very geeky. But actually it has far-reaching implications about interdependence in a harmonious society, which includes a household and a global society. For all its simplicity, the idea is also astonishingly hard to grasp. People keep getting it wrong. You hear politicians and journalists saying things like: “What if China has a comparative advantage in everything…” Well, that’s logically impossible. It means that the speaker does not understand the idea.

But the moment I realized that this was a truly great idea came when I read about research that showed that the Neanderthals succumbed to us, ie Homo Sapiens, because they did not have a division of labor whereas we did. Neanderthal women joined the men in the hunt. Cro Magnon women looked after the children and gathered, whereas the men went off to hunt. Even if women of both species had been better at hunting in absolute terms than men, their relative advantage would have been greater in caring and gathering, so that specialization and trade gave us the edge. Put differently, Smoot and Hawley were … Neanderthals. 😉

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Greatest thinker NOT: Hegel


Yesterday I threw down the gauntlet: to look for and find the greatest thinker in world history. Today I want to kick off this series of posts by laying down some criteria for our search, with the aid of a negative example: Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel.

Criterion: Simplicity.

You’ve read my opinion on the importance of simplicity before. We can go one step further and define thinking as simplifying something complex, bringing order to something unordered, uncluttering something cluttered, and thereby making it accessible and meaningful.

So thinking is not wowing everybody by making something simple complex, or something complex even more complex. It is not making long lists of ideas. If you cannot boil down all your thinking into a digestible morsel, you have not actually thought.

Hegel: Archetype of the Teutonic Windbag

So what does Hegel have to do with this? Well, he represents the archetype of every confused and pompous academic or intellectual snob out there who has ever used his students or the pages of his book as a garbage dump for undigested idea-snippets. He apparently once said that in order to understand anything he has ever written one must first read everything he has ever written. That pretty much says it all.

Am I being unfair? No. I did my fair share of suffering through his verbiage, in German and in English. So he tells you that “history is the dialectical process whereby spirit comes to know itself and realizes its Idea,” that “freedom is the idea of the Spirit and Spirit is Reason in-and-for itself,” and so forth. Folks, it is time to call his bluff.

The reason he got away with it for so long is that, like many of his ilk, he intimidates a lot of people. If you’re smoking Gitanes and wearing black turtlenecks in certain cafés, you cannot afford to poopoo Hegel, because you would not get laid again. If that is you, the answer is to get out of that particular café. (I did, thank god.)

White Knights of common sense

Fortunately, windbags cannot fool all of the people all of the time. Eventually, they will run into somebody who is both clever and confident. That’s when you get a refreshing Emperor-has-no-clothes moment. I will let Arthur Schopenhauer do this service (via Wikipedia). Hegel’s “thought”, said Schopenhauer, was

a colossal piece of mystification which will yet provide posterity with an inexhaustible theme for laughter at our times, that it is a pseudo-philosophy paralyzing all mental powers, stifling all real thinking, and, by the most outrageous misuse of language, putting in its place the hollowest, most senseless, thoughtless, and, as is confirmed by its success, most stupefying verbiage…

And so we have established our first criterion: Simplicity. Next time, let’s move on to contemplate another issue: Is it necessary for the winner to have been … right?

Brancusi, Einstein, simplicity and beauty

If non-conformity and “impudence” are the first ingredients in the astonishing creativity of a man such as Einstein, as I said here, are there yet other ingredients? Of course. And the most important, in my opinion, is an appreciation of simplicity.

More than most people I know, I yearn for simplicity in my life–on my desk, in my file folders, in my home decoration, in my writing, my sentences and of course my thoughts. Quite probably, that is because there is far too much complexity in all of these.

When I approach a new topic, as I did a years ago when I, who was a technophobe, took over the tech beat at The Economist, I first run it through my complexity/simplicity filter. At that time I came up with this.

If I had to choose a favorite sculptor, it might be Brancusi, who grasped simplicity as well as anybody. It is at heart an uncluttering. In Brancusi’s case, he strips a thing of all unnecessary detail in order to reveal its underlying form.

Simplicity is thus also a form of honesty. Once the underlying form of a thing is revealed, you know whether it has beauty or, in the case of writing, also substance. Some of you may recall my idiosyncratic way of reading, by copying and pasting a long document into my word processor, then deleting all extraneous detail as I go along. In effect, I force simplicity onto, say, a research paper. Often, this is how I realize that the boffin in question was a windbag and had nothing to say, hiding behind verbose complexity. Other times, I realize I have hit a treasure trove.

Back to Einstein. Isaac Newton in his Principia had already said that

Nature is pleased with simplicity.

Einstein extended his hunch, saying that

Nature is the realization of the simplest conceivable mathematical ideas.


I have been guided not be the pressure from behind of experimental facts, but by the attraction in front from mathematical simplicity.

What goes for sculptors, inventors, physicists and other forms of homo sapiens goes especially for writers.