To some the word myth means lie. It’s a myth. To others like Jung and Joseph Campbell the word myth means a collective and universal truth. The myth of diogenes is a story of a real Greek philosopher named Diogenes from Sinope on the Black Sea who lived in Athens in extreme poverty and asceticism and taugh that man should live by satisfying his natural needs in the easiest practical way, ignoring conventions. He is known as one of the most negative philosphers. According to the myth, he was seen wandering the streets carrying a lantern looking for an honest man.
This myth has become symbolic for many writers. The lantern is light or symbolic of truth in an otherwise dark, or dishonest world. Hamlet in Shakespeare’s play seeks honesty from his parents, his friends, and women. It is significant to note that while Diogenes never found his one honest man, Hamlet does have Horation who represents one honest man in the rather rotten and dark Denmark of Shakespeare’s play. Others have suggested that perhaps what the myth suggests is that we all must find an inner light in order to walk through the darkness of the world. In this interpretation, the search for the light of truth is an inward one rather than an outward one as the more traditional interpretation of the myth suggests. In this sense of the myth, Hamlet’s outward dishonesty would not be a betrayal of his inner truth, and he would become a figure of light seeking to maintain that light in a dark and dangerous world.
The myth of Sisyphus like the myth of Diogenes has been a symbol to many writers including Albert Camus who wrote an essay entitled “The Myth of Sisyphus.” According to the myth, he was a king of Corinth and ancestor of Bellerophon. In Homer he was seen as a trickster in Heades for crimes which are variously explained. His punishment for these crimes was to roll a huge stone uphill, through it always rolled down again. Titian painted him with the stone on his back. A sisyphean task demands endless and often fruitless labor. Camus uses him to depict the absurdity of life and the futility of man’s endeavors. In another account, he is given this task simply to keep him busy and out of trouble. Clearly, the stone can represent the burden or burdens man must carry. Yet it can also represent the goals man seeks to achieve in his life. The top of the hill then represents achievement.
The stone can also represent man’s questions and the top of the hill understanding. Yet the stone does not remain where it is carried; it rolls down again followed by Sisyphus who must begin again. We think we understand and then discover that we indeed do not. The stone is traditionally seen as a punishment and a curse. The stone can also be seen as the burden of life or death in a world without meaning. (Mersault in Camus’s “The Stranger”.) Sisyphus (man) fails again and again for all eternity. Yet if the carrying is seen as the struggle, then it is also possible to see Sisyphus as heoic and noble, ennobled by the struggle itself. This non-traditional interpretation seeks to ask what would happen if Sisyphus (man) simply carried the stone to the top of the hill and put it down and it remained there. If man attains all he seeks, what happens next? As Voltaire suggested, boredom is one of the great ills of the human condition: we need to be about our work.