Learning to eat gruel

The title of this post is borrowed from an article by Arun Shourie in today’s Indian Express, “Conduct above all.” In it Shourie recounts a story told about an ancestor of mine, a fellow called Diogenes. Also known as Diogenes of Sinope, he was a cynic. Here’s that story:

A burning hot afternoon. Diogenes is sitting as usual beneath the tree, sweating, scooping pasty gruel from a weathered bowl. At a distance, the court philosopher is being carried home in a palanquin for his lunch and afternoon siesta. He lifts the curtain. “Who is that beneath the tree?” the richly robed philosopher asks his bearers. “No one of any consequence, Sir,” they answer. “A fellow called Diogenes. A waster. All he does all day is sit under that tree, and yap with whoever comes along.”

“Take me to him” the philosopher directs.

He is lowered. He addresses Diogenes: “What are you doing, Diogenes?”

“Why, I am eating this gruel” Diogenes answers.

“You fool. If only you would learn to get along with the King, you wouldn’t have to spend the rest of your life eating that miserable gruel.”

“My dear Sir,” answers Diogenes, “If only you would learn to eat this gruel, you wouldn’t have to spend the rest of your life trying to get along with the King.”

Shourie writes, “We must learn to eat that gruel. We must have no price. And everyone must know that we have no price.”

Perhaps eating gruel is something that cannot be learnt. Either you are born with the ability to do so or you are not. Most people don’t have the stomach.

But I am certain that the story is inaccurate. First, Diogenes would have been sitting in a tub in the town square, not under any old tree. Second, everyone and his brother knew who Diogenes was, the court philosopher included.

Here’s another story about Diogenes (from this blog in Oct 2004):

During a sea voyage in his old age, he was captured by pirates and brought to a market in Crete to be sold. When asked for what he was capable of, he answered, “I can govern men; so sell me to someone who wants a master.” Xeniades, a rich man of Corinth, heard this and bought Diogenes and gave him his freedom. Diogenes was in Corinth when Alexander the Great sent word through a messenger asking Diogenes to come see him in Macedonia.

Read the rest of the story. Renews one’s faith in humanity, however cynical one may tend to become.

[Thanks to The Acorn for the link to Shourie’s article.]

Related Post: Whoring, Amir Khan Style. (Mar 2008)