Sun Yourself Like a Cynic

The following is an essay/meditation from my sister project, Pneuma. If you’d like to listen to the podcast, visit pneumameditations.com, or search Pneuma By Daniel Finneran on any of your favorite podcast platforms.

Hello all you beautiful people, and welcome to this episode of Pneuma.

Before delving into this episode (with which, I should say, we’re going to have a lot of fun) I’d first like to take the opportunity to thank you. This humble little channel of mine, for which I have neither a social media presence nor any kind of concerted marketing scheme, and in which, aside from a modest USB microphone, I’ve invested very little money, has amassed over nine thousand downloads during its short lifespan.

Needless to say, I’m both shocked and delighted by this number, and am looking forward to more growth in the months to come, and to the stronger bonds I’ll continue to knit with you. That said, I’m so grateful for your patronage and your time–sincerely grateful–and I want nothing more than to continue to be deserving of your viewership–and your friendship.

So, again, thank you.

Depending on the part of the globe from which you’re listening to me, I hope that you’re enjoying, on this fine, late July day, the high noon of your summer–the very summit of life.

I hope, like me, you’re dedicating some of your hours of leisure to the joys of literature; spending your balmy evenings in the company of close family and intimate friends; immersing yourself in the splendor of nature; walking all around this diverse and marvelous earth; traveling to novel and memorable places; meditating on all the subtlety, and engaging in all the vitality by which you’re surrounded; and, most important of all, basking, every single day, as often as you can, in the sun–that magnificent, distant, luminous ball of gas, that radiant orb of inextinguishable heat, by which all life on this planet is raised, warmed, enlivened, and sustained.

Wait a second…isn’t “basking” in the sun an activity you’ve been advised against? Has it not been, by and large, condemned? —deemed unhealthful for an ailing population, and unhelpful to its remaining intact part? Has it not been met by the orthodox medical community with general discouragement and strong disapproval? Is it not something about which, each and every day, before taking a single step outside, we’re most solemnly warned?

In fact, it is.

But I think this advice, however sincerely offered, and credulously received, is rather destructive than conducive to health. Such is the nature of health, and health advice, in particular, on which not only science, but experience and wisdom—life’s more intelligent teachers—must be given the room to dilate, opine, give their “two cents”, and, ultimately, have their impact. The latter shows us that an assiduous avoidance of the sun, a deliberate and thoroughgoing withdrawal from the light of day as though it were a contagion itself, is not best for human flourishing and wellness—the lofty ends toward which we, all of us here, are forever directing our strivings.   

I think many people are beginning, albeit slowly, to reconsider their strained relationship to the sun. In a hopeful and invigorating way, their reconciliation has begun. I hope to see it continue.

That said, I offer you the following: 

My advice is to sun yourself like a Cynic.

That’s right: Sun yourself like a Cynic.

Like a Cynic?

Like someone disillusioned by, discontent with, and weary of the world? Like someone who knows, to borrow from the Irish playwright and wit, the inimitable Oscar Wilde, his most famous quote, “the price of everything and the value of nothing’? Like someone, frankly, whom you’d prefer not to be around? Whose mannerisms and outlook on life you’d rather not imitate or adopt?

What do I mean by this?

What do I mean by telling you to Sun yourself like a Cynic?

Let me remind you of a tale from classical antiquity, one about which, if only in passing, you probably heard at some point in your academic career, but have likely since forgotten.

It involves two extraordinary men: Alexander the Great and Diogenes the Dog.

The former, as you know, was the dashing, intrepid, youthful king of Macedonia (and student of Aristotle) by whom a vast swathe of the Eurasian landmass was, within a startling brief period of time, conquered. His empire, the largest then on record, extended from India to the east, Greece to the west, and Egypt to the South (indeed, one feels his immortal presence today as he walks through the bustling streets of the coastal city of “Alexandria”, upon which the great Macedonian monarch bestowed his heroic name). Although it came at the cost of many lives, Alexander, in his conquest of this sprawling realm, disseminated Hellenism all across the world. That Homer was able to penetrate the East, Sophocles the south, and Plato the west, long after the fall of Ilium’s insurmountable walls, is a result of Alexander’s ambition. We are, whether we admit it or not, the beneficiaries of his grand imperial project.

That’s Alexander the Great.

His counterpart in this story, Diogenes the Dog, was extraordinary for very different reasons.

Diogenes didn’t quite play the role of pauper to Alexander’s prince (Alexander, as you know, was the royal issue of King Philip of Macedon, behind whose assassination, Olympias, the boy’s ruthlessly ambitious mother, likely stood). Diogenes was the son of a corrupt minter and banker in Sinope, a prosperous merchant city at the fringe of the Greek world on the Black Sea Coast (in what is modern-day Turkey). You can imagine the type: his father works at Goldman Sachs, into whose upper echelon of high-stakes bidding the upstart boy is able to insinuate himself. He does so with a dangerous combination of lucrative but immoral investments and indomitable charm.

In time, after a succession of unscrupulous practices (including the adulteration of the state’s coinage, on which the IRS, had it existed back then, surely would’ve pounced), Diogenes’ reputation as a financier was damaged. Irreparably so, as it turns out. Indeed, his name was so permanently blemished that the young man, aside from suffering the disgrace of bankruptcy, was exiled from his home, forced to flee his country, settle in Athens, and change what had been, heretofore, a profitable and comfortable career.

And to what profession did he turn?

To that of Philosophy, what else?

In Athens—that eccentric, democratic, vibrant city-state to which all free-thinkers the world over flocked—Diogenes stood out. Now that’s really saying something! It’s as though he were to be deemed too radical for San Francisco or Asheville, two cities, in our own time, abounding in so many strange and fascinating creatures. Not unlike a friar, he became something of an urban ascetic—though without the redeeming refinement of a chaste and beautiful theology to espouse. Long before Christ, he cast himself in the divine mold of Socrates, the great philosopher (only recently executed by the state) from whom he, and everyone in his generation, had taken his intellectual “lead” and moral code.

As it happens, Plato, a contemporary and fellow Socratic pupil, referred to Diogenes as “Socrates gone mad”. I think Diogenes would’ve relished the epithet and tattooed it on his chest.. And, more in keeping with his character, he likely would’ve rejoined Plato by calling him “Socrates gone bad”, judging by the perceived corruption of the master’s thoughts by his most famous pupil’s foggy, puzzling, impenetrable, metaphysical doctrine. Some accuse Plato of having manipulated Socrates’ teachings in service to his own sophistic purposes. Thomas Jefferson held to this view, on which we’ll suspend our judgment for now. 

Unlike those of Plato, the tenants of Diogenes’ philosophy were simple and straightforward:

To live in accordance with nature

To reduce the things of the flesh to bare necessities in order that the soul may be as free as possible.

To speak freely.

To live austerely.

And, in living out his philosophy before the eyes of the Athenian public, he made a shocking display of his unwavering, and somewhat indecent commitment to this unusual lifestyle.

It’s unsurprising, then, that Alexander, upon entering Athens, harbored a keen interest in meeting this extraordinary man. After all, Diogenes had become something of an urban celebrity, a living legend, not unlike the “Naked Cowboy” whose barren chest and bleating guitar electrify the streets of New York City.

Their first interaction comes down to us from Cicero, the great Roman orator, in the following way:

The king, Alexander, walked right up to Diogenes, who was (probably with his genitals exposed) lying on the ground sunbathing, and said, “I am Alexander the Great”, to which Diogenes irreverently replied, “I am Diogenes the Dog”.

The king, apprised of the philosopher’s steadfast disdain of all worldly goods, and his commitment to an austere and ascetic life, decided to have a bit of fun and tempt him. After examining the lean, ill-clad man before him, he said, “Ask of me any favor you choose, and it shall be done. I can clothe you in the finest oriental fabrics, elevate you to the highest rank, confer upon you the greatest prestige, and shower you with barrels of money. Just tell me what it is you’d like, and yours it shall be.”

Diogenes, evidently unmoved by the offer and impatient with the king, squinted at his majesty and said, ‘For the present, all I desire is that you should stand a little out of my sun’.

Alexander, you see, was preventing him from sunbathing.

And, thus, my exhortation to you to ‘Sun Yourself like a Cynic’.

Following in the example of Diogenes, you should simplify your wants, detach yourself from worldly possessions, reconnect with nature, bask in the light, and treat the sun, that wondrous, radiant orb, as a gift than which there is none greater.

Diogenes, as he basked in its rays (while defying the king!) understood the sun’s manifold salutary effects:

The UV light, upon penetrating your skin, converts cholesterol into Vitamin D, that immeasurably important vitamin by which the bones are strengthened, your immune system boosted, and threatening viruses staved off.

The light stimulates feelings of happiness. It releases the floodgates of serotonin. Think of the terrible, annual bane from which so many of my northern neighbors suffer: Seasonal Affective Disease. SAD. Above a certain latitude, it afflicts a vast swathe of the population. As the sun drops lower and lower in the sky, and the hours of precious daylight shorten to a meager few hours, everyone’s mood collapses. People report feeling more tired, less energetic, hungrier, more impatient, less amorous, less alive. This is the effect of less sun. It’s extraordinary. It completely changes one’s psychology, one’s sense of worth and wellbeing, for almost six whole months. I know that, before moving to southern Florida (in which I urge you to join me and take up residence!) I suffered from this yearly affliction. No more. I thank my latitude and the sun for the cure.

As we discussed in a prior episode (in which we covered all aspects of sleep, to which I warmly refer you), the sun will set your Circadian rhythm. Expose yourself to it early in the day when, before it’s charted its glorious ascent, it’s still quite low. Your first encounter with the sun shouldn’t be when he’s already mounted his high meridian throne at noon. And when you’re exposed to the sun earlier in the day, your skin and eyes will receive the signals to prepare themselves for further, brighter light to come. It’s for this reason you should reduce your reliance on sunglasses, that fashionable heap of polarized plastic with which we obscure our eyes. For what it’s worth, in my opinion, the face can wear no finer accessory than a gorgeous smile, and a soft, friendly pair of eyes.

The sunlight, when converted to vitamin D in and by the body, increases the production of sex hormones. Levels of testosterone and androgen—important in larger concentrations for men, smaller for women—are shown to rise when the body is exposed to sunlight. To a lesser extent, this is seen when one supplements with vitamin D tablets. But nothing is quite as potent as the real thing—the sun.

In that way, it affects your endocrine system. You mustn’t forget, though, about your integumentary system, the largest organ by which your entire body is covered: your skin. It’s more than just a purposeless garb of flesh, a wrinkled, freckled, tauter or looser animal hide in which our viscera, bones, and muscles are enclosed. It is, in itself, an active organ, a vital part of our being upon which the sun showers its copious benefits. It leaves its imprint in the hue of a tan. A tan is good. It’s the imprint of a life vigorously lived. It becomes you. It adds comeliness, vitality, and vigor to the countenance, and an alluring glow to all parts.

But, like all things, the sun must be approached with moderation. Remember, moderation, or temperance, is one of the four cardinal virtues on which (with the exception, perhaps, of Diogenes) the followers of Socrates were insistent. The other three virtues are justice, prudence, and courage, or fortitude. So far as temperance concerns itself with the sun, you should exercise it when you feel yourself overexposed. You’ll know when this is. If you’re uninitiated to the sun, of a fairer complexion, or of a more sensitive build, lessen the time spent in the direct path of the sun’s rays. Seek your respite from the sun in the shade, first and foremost. Retire there for a brief while to cool down, shield yourself, preserve your skin, and recover. Add clothes, light and long, if you must. Your last resort should be to return inside.

Remember, for most of our species’ long history, from our distant dawn on the African savannah until now, we spent the majority of our days outside under the sun. Even when we migrated north from that communal  birthplace in the Great Rift Valley, and settled, over the course of many centuries, climates drastically different from that whence we set out, we were outside. Always we were outside. We were exposed to the elements. We were in communication with nature. We had few places of shelter to repair to. Indeed, reliable shelter is a somewhat modern convenience. More modern even than that is our spending a preponderance of the day completely removed from the outdoors and the sun (ask yourself: how many hours each day do you spend in your precisely-calibrated, personalized air-conditioned environment? Do you spend even one-eighth of that amount of time outside?)

Try this: so far as it’s feasible and practicable, do most of your indoor activities outside. I guarantee, in their performance, you’ll feel significantly better. As an example, I notice this when I’m reading. Inside, under the gleam of artificial lights, I suffer strained and red eyes–especially on the left. I’m bothered by this after only a few hours. When I’m outside, however, and the words on the page are illuminated by the natural light, I never suffer eye-strain. It simply doesn’t happen. To this naturalness, I think, the human eye is agreeably disposed. If you normally exercise indoors, go outside at once. Do your lunges in the grass, your pushups in the field, your jumping jacks on beach. Feel the warmth of the sun on your sweaty skin as you exert yourself. It’s far more invigorating than if you were to do the same thing in a crowded, stuffy gym. Take your meals outside–al fresco. Doing so, in some small way, helps prevent overeating: you can’t, on a whim, rush back to the refrigerator for more!

A quick word on sunscreen, the product in which, from childhood, we were all urged to bathe ourselves but, as of late, around which there’s now a lively debate. There are two general types of sunscreen: chemical and mineral-based. The former, chemical-based sunscreen, appears to be protective against the sun, but destructive of the rest of your body. Not an enticing trade-off, if you ask me. Some of its more noxious compounds, such as oxybenzone and octinoxate, have demonstrated an ability to cross the blood brain barrier and to cause untold damage. Permission to cross the blood brain barrier isn’t something I’d grant to just anyone. The ease with which these chemicals are waved on through ought to be considered. Indeed, they ought to be avoided, so far as it’s possible. Safer are mineral sunscreens, to whose gentler foundation compounds like zinc oxide are added.

But, again, the best sunscreen is that provided by nature: the shade. Retire to it when you’re too hot and, in so doing, prevent yourself from burning.

That’s how Diogenes, seeking the sanctuary of his ceramic jar (or his tub), would’ve done it

…To whom, before ending this episode, we briefly return.

Plutarch, picking up where Cicero left off, described in his Life of Alexander the king’s reaction to the naked, insouciant, sunbathing philosopher.

Quoting now from Plutarch:

“It is said that Alexander was so impressed by this response, and by the arrogance and grandeur of spirit of a man who could treat him with such disdain, that he said to his courtiers, who were laughing and joking about the philosopher as they were walking away, ‘But I’ll tell you this, if i were not Alexander, I would be Diogenes”.

And yet, we know not if the philosopher, happily basking once again in the sun, returned the king’s compliment! I have a feeling that, now returned to his blissful state, now feeling his serotonin and testosterone rise, now fixing his circadian rhythm and tanning his swarthy Turkish skin, he withheld from his majesty the honor.

One more thing–legend has it that the two men died on the same day: Alexander in Babylon; Diogenes in Corinth. The former succumbed to some combination of fever (perhaps typhoid) and inebriation. Poisoning has also been suggested, albeit less convincingly. The latter, Diogenes, died under his own terms. He held his breath until he expired.

Back to the point:

For all these reasons, and many more unlisted, fear not the sun. Embrace it as warmly as it embraces you. You should, like Diogenes, prefer its daily, endless, free bounty to the conditional gifts of governments and kings.

Do not fear the sun.

Do not avoid the sun.

Follow the example of Diogenes:

Go out and sun yourself like a Cynic.

Thank you so much for joining me today on Pneuma. I hope you enjoyed this episode, and are excited to go outside and venerate the sun!

Before you do so, be sure to subscribe to this channel and leave a five-star rating. Let the algorithms know that sunbathing like a cynic is totally in vogue. Email me your thoughts about Diogenes, the sun, and this episode. Have you ever heard anything like it? Did you know much about Diogenes the Dog before listening to it?

Please, send me suggestions for topics you’d like to hear covered. With that, farewell, and enjoy your summer–the fairest season of life!

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