In a recent issue of the New Left Review I came across a delightful anecdote about Diogenes the Cynic. Meeting the Oracle at Delphi Diogenes is entrusted with the task of falsifying, or defacing, the common currency.
Upon further research of this story the details became murkier. Variations of the story run that Diogenes, or his father, were engaged in a literal defacing of coinage, and it was only afterwards – and after being exiled- that Diogenes was entrusted with his mandate by the oracle. Other readings go that Diogenes was supposed to “adulterate the political currency” but misunderstood and wrecked some money.
The version I like best is the one where Diogenes commits the crime (defacing a coin) is punished with exile but learns from the Oracle that his petulant act is symbolic of an entire life of philosophical pursuit. The act, undertaken in haste – perhaps rage, perhaps confusion- takes on a life of its own. Or we could say, why not, that Diogenes act retroactively creates the possibility of the Oracle’s command – or even of Cynic philosophy as such. What is inconceivable in philosophy – that is that falsifying or defacing would even have value as a philosophical pursuit- becomes possible after the act is undertaken by the philosopher.
In the aforementioned article – a review by Michael Hardt of Foucault’s last lectures- Hardt follows the story with Foucault’s interpretation of it – which takes the perspective that the slogan “falsify the currency”- is meant conceptually, playing on the similarity between the Greek words for currency and law. In other words the slogan means to revalue or “transvalue all values” so as to transform society.
As true as Foucault’s rendering may be it does downplay the irony of the narrative. This great transvaluing begins with a simple and petty crime – an act of defiance.
And in that small gesture we hear the voice of the gods.