Alexander III of Macedon, commonly known as Alexander the Great, is one of the most famous and successful military leaders in history. By age thirty, he had created one of the largest empires of the ancient world, stretching from Greece to northwestern India. He was someone who had fame, wealth, respect, and power.
Diogenes of Sinope was a founder of Cynic philosophy, which contributed to the development of Stoicism. Diogenes was (in)famous for his avoidance of earthly pleasures. He put himself at the wit of the weather by living in a large, clay jar. He destroyed his single bowl after seeing a peasant boy drink from his hands. He was someone who had and wanted nothing.
When Alexander visited Corinth, the city that Diogenes was in, many statesmen and philosophers went to pay their respects to Alexander. Alexander had heard about Diogenes, and was surprised that Diogenes did not come greet him. Out of respect (or perhaps curiosity) for the man who was not moved by earthly pleasures, he decided to visit Diogenes and offer to grant him a wish. Diogenes, who was sitting in his jar under the sunlight, replied that his wish was for Alexander to stand out of his sunlight. Alexander was shocked by this response, and those with Alexander laughed and looked down upon Diogenes. Yet Alexander told his followers, “But truly, if I were not Alexander, I would be Diogenes.”
This story shows the two paths to bliss. What is bliss? When we think about most people’s lives, they usually want to attain or achieve things so that they can be happy, such as a good career, financial stability, a good marriage, etc. Because there are more things to attain and achieve, they have not attained full and complete happiness. That full and complete happiness, the state of no more desires, is bliss. With this definition, there are two paths to bliss. The first is to attain everything you want. The second is to eliminate your wants.
The traditional path that people think of is to get everything you want, until there is nothing more to want. The problem with this path is that there is always more to desire: a better job, a nicer house, more fame, etc. And with attainment of our desires, we then desire to keep our possessions safe. We want our money to be safe, our children to be good, etc. As people satisfy their desires, they get even larger desires, making the achievement of bliss impossible by this method.
The second path is to reduce desires. Once our life equals our desires, we will have attained bliss. Reducing our desires is a skill that can grow like a muscle. I used to have many clothing in my closet that I did not wear. I started to donate some of the clothing that I did not like. After a few times of donating clothing, I decided to donate some good, newer clothing that I could see myself wearing, but decided to give away to those who could benefit more from them. As we start to reduce our wants and attachments, we will find that we can get better at it.
The second path is the virtuous one. To want less, to reduce our selfishness, is a virtue. We can reflect on why we want more possessions, like that bigger house, nicer car, newer phone. If the reason is selfishness, we will be imprisoning ourselves into the first path. But if what we want are the basics of life, such as basic clothing, food, and shelter, then that is fine because we are helping others to not worry about us.
Alexander the Great, took the first path to bliss: he had almost conquered the world. Diogenes of Sinope took the second path: he had almost no desires. Alexander would have to worry about maintaining his empire and protecting his life, while Diogenes did not have to worry about anything.