In search of lost cheekiness: Cynicism, kynicism, the Flying Spaghetti Monster, the Padstow ‘Obby ‘Osses and the Rebel Clown Army

Diogenes of Sinope
Readings: Ecclesiastes 8:14-15

There is a vanity that takes place on earth, that there are righteous people who are treated according to the conduct of the wicked, and there are wicked people who are treated according to the conduct of the righteous. I said that this also is vanity. So I commend enjoyment, for there is nothing better for people under the sun than to eat, and drink, and enjoy themselves, for this will go with them in their toil through the days of life that God gives them under the sun.

Some Anecdotes of Diogenes of Sinope (fourth century BC)

Seeing a child drinking from his hands, Diogenes threw away his cup and remarked, “A child has beaten me in plainness of living.” 

To Plato’s definition of a man as an animal, bipedal and featherless, Diogenes plucked a chicken and declared, “Here is Plato’s man.”

Alexander the Great was reported to have said, “Had I not been Alexander, I should have liked to be Diogenes” and, once, while Diogenes was sunning himself, Alexander came up to him and offered to grant him any request. “Stand out of my light,” he replied.

When asked why he went about with a lamp in broad daylight, Diogenes confessed, “I am looking for a [honest] man.” 

Why do people give to beggars, he was asked, but not to philosophers? “Because they think they may one day be lame or blind, but never expect that they will turn to philosophy.” 

To a young man who complained that he was ill suited to study philosophy, Diogenes said “Why then do you live, if you do not care to live well?” 

Of grammarians, he was astonished that they desire to learn everything about the misfortunes of Odysseus but nothing about their own. 

Of mathematicians, that they keep their eyes on the heavens and overlook what is at their feet. 

Of orators, that they speak of justice but never practice it. 

When asked why he alone praised an indifferent harp player, Diogenes replied “because he plays the harp and does not steal.”

When asked what wine he found most pleasant to drink, Diogenes replied, “That for which other people pay.” 

Once, eating some dried figs, he offered some to Plato, which prompted Diogenes to remonstrate “I said that you might have a share of them, not that you might eat them all.” 

Once when Diogenes was in a crowd of people, a certain youth farted. Diogenes poked him with his staff and said, ‘And so, vile wretch, though you have done nothing that would give you the right to take such liberties in public, are you beginning here and now to show your scorn of opinion?’” 

As to when was the proper time to eat, he replied that for the rich, whenever one pleases; for the poor, whenever one can. 

Asked why he begged in front of a statue, Diogenes replied that he did so to get used to being refused. 

Reproached for masturbating in public, he lamented only that he wished it were as easy to relieve hunger by rubbing one’s stomach. 

Criticized for drinking in a tavern, he said that he also had his hair cut in a barber’s shop.

Seeing a bad archer, he sat down beside the target so get out of harm’s way. 

Asked why he anointed his feet with scent, he replied that he then would be able to smell it; if on his head, it only would pass into the air above him.

To someone who declared life to be an evil, he corrected him, “Not life itself, but living ill.” 

When asked from where he came, Diogenes said, “I am a citizen of the world” (cosmopolitan). 

And, lastly, when someone was queried as to what sort of man Diogenes was, the reply was given, “A Socrates gone mad.”


Alan Lomax's film about the Padstow 'Obby 'Oss festival — Oss Oss Wee Oss! (1953)


The Address:
In search of lost cheekiness: Cynicism, kynicism, the Flying Spaghetti Monster, the Padstow ‘Obby ‘Osses  and the Rebel Clown Army

A few weeks ago, when I noticed that the last Sunday before my sabbatical fell on May 1st, I had the thought that I might incorporate into the address something about the Padstow ‘Obby ‘Osses and the town’s famous May Day Festival. However, when I came to sketch out some initial ideas, I could not find a theologically/philosophically relevant enough strand that would warrant introducing it to you on a Sunday. That was until last week when I read an article in the Guardian by my namesake, Andrew Brown, connected with the “Flying Spaghetti Monster” (FSM) and His Noodly Appendage.

The FSM was introduced to the world in 2005 by Bobby Henderson, then an unemployed physics graduate from Oregon, who wrote a satirical open letter to protest against the Kansas State Board of Education’s decision to permit teaching intelligent design as an alternative to evolution in public school science classes. In his letter Henderson satirized creationism by professing his own belief that whenever a scientist carbon-dates an object, a supernatural creator that closely resembles spaghetti and meatballs is there changing the results with His Noodly Appendage. Henderson concluded his letter by saying:

“I think we can all look forward to the time when these three theories are given equal time in our science classrooms across the country, and eventually the world; One third time for Intelligent Design, one third time for Flying Spaghetti Monsterism, and one third time for logical conjecture based on overwhelming observable evidence.”

After Henderson published the letter on his website along with a delightful, crudely drawn picture of the deity “creating a mountain, trees and a midgit [sic]”, the FSM went viral and quickly became a symbol of opposition to the teaching of intelligent design in public schools.

To accompany this fictional, satirical deity a fictional, satirical “religion” has also sprung up called “the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster or Pastafarianism (a mix of pasta and Pastafarian)”.

So far, so satirical, but I confess to being surprised to learn that Pastafarianism has been legally recognized as a religion in Poland, the Netherlands and in New Zealand – where where the first legally recognized Pastafarian wedding was performed just last month.

Despite these examples, also just last month, a Federal Judge in the US state of Nebraska ruled that the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster is not a real religion. The decision came about after a prisoner requested special dispensation to practise his Pastafarian religion by being given permission to wear certain, special, religiously required clothing, a pirate costume, possibly a colander (for draining spaghetti) on his head and regularly taking “communion” consisting of “a large portion of spaghetti and meatballs”. The judge’s ruling reads, in part, that:

“This is not a question of theology: it is a matter of basic reading comprehension. The FSM Gospel is plainly a work of satire, meant to entertain while making a pointed political statement. To read it as religious doctrine would be little different from grounding a 'religious exercise' on any other work of fiction. A prisoner could just as easily read the works of Vonnegut or Heinlein and claim it as his holy book, and demand accommodation of Bokononism or the Church of All Worlds.
Of course, there are those who contend — and [the prisoner] Cavanaugh is probably among them — that the Bible or the Koran are just as fictional as those books. It is not always an easy line to draw. But there must be a line beyond which a practice is not 'religious' simply because a plaintiff labels it as such. The Court concludes that FSMism is on the far side of that line” (Source: https://www.scribd.com/doc/308299698/Cavanaugh-v-Bartelt).

I imagine that most of us here would not only be supporters of Henderson’s marvellously inventive and very funny fictional deity but also of the Nebraskan judge’s decision to draw the line where he has and not to allow Pastafarianism to be accepted, in law, as a religion. Surely, common sense makes it clear that the judge is right?

But my namesake in the Guardian last week rightly points out that “the case of Pastafarianism does raise the question of what makes a religion religious” and Brown begins by pointing out that, although we may like to think we can appeal to common sense, it, in fact,

“. . . turns out to have quite strict limits. Almost everything that modern science tells us is intuitively untrue, and much more interesting than common sense can imagine. If the defence of scientific knowledge is that it can be supported by evidence, this too turns out to be more complicated and much less secure than seemed obvious 150 years ago. The things that we take for granted – democracy, equality, human rights, and so on – turn out to be very easy to deny, in theory, as well as in practice, and impossible to justify except by their fruits. They are just as vulnerable to the charge of absurdity as most religions are” (Source: The Guardian).

In the end, Brown is forced to conclude (as do I), that

“It’s not theology but ritual that makes a religion, and the strongest rituals are those performed without any clear idea of what they mean. The real future for Pastafarianism is not to be found in Nebraska, but in New Zealand, where a couple have just got married in the first Pastafarian ceremony. Weddings, however frivolously entered into, do end up meaning something, but the meaning is not in the vows. It emerges, for good or ill, out of the subsequent marriage” (Source: The Guardian).

It is Brown’s point that “the strongest rituals are those performed without any clear idea of what they mean” which took me back to the Padstow ‘Obby ‘Osses which seem to many people to have embedded within it some real religious meaning.

For many, many years the Padstow festival was simply assumed by participants, antiquarians and scholars alike to be continuous with some form of pre-Christian pagan religion but, as we have entered into the twenty-first century and continued to carry out extensive historical, archeological, sociological and anthropological research, it has become increasingly clear that we have no idea about the theological origins of the celebrations in Padstow and, although there is documentary evidence of May Day celebrations in the 16th century, the earliest mention of the Obby ‘Oss at Padstow dates only from 1803. So if it is today a religious event — it’s certainly a strong ritual — we can’t root it in any ancient theological beliefs.

So let's return to Brown’s point that “It’s not theology but ritual that makes a religion, and the strongest rituals are those performed without any clear idea of what they mean.”

This, Brown thinks, is becoming true of Pastafarianism and it is clearly true of the Padstow festival, the meaning of which today is to be found, not in ancient belief or theology, but in the complex totality of doing of the rite; of drinking, dancing and singing with one’s neighbours and friends and, without any cynicism, irony or distance, truly singing together:

“Unite and unite and let us all unite,
For summer is acome unto day,
And whither we are going we will all unite,
In the merry morning of May.”

It seems to me that key here is the phrase I have just used, “drinking, dancing and singing with one’s neighbours and friends  . . . without any cynicism, irony or distance”.

According to the German philosopher Peter Sloterdijk, “Cynicism is enlightened false consciousness” (Sloterdijk, Peter: Critique of Cynical Reason, translation by Michael Eldred, Minneapolis, University of Minnesota Press, 1987, p. 5) and for him a cynic (be aware that cynicism is here spelt with letter “c”) is someone, who is part of a social group or institution whose existence and values that same person no longer feels are truly grounded and trustworthy because the process of Enlightenment has shown them that their existence and values are not absolute, necessary and unconditional. Sloterdijk points out that many such people (most?) are miserable because they are now forced to stick to principles in which they do not truly believe. The only thing left for a cynic is their trust in reason but, alas, this cannot provide them with a truly firm basis for committed action, and this is yet another reason for being miserable.

(Although I have read Sloterdijk's book I'm indebted here to the excellent critical overview of the book's contents by Stefan Lorenz Sorgner found at the following link http://www.tabvlarasa.de/20/sorgner.php which helped me both to refresh my memory and which offered me a number of helpful new insights.)

Now a problem for someone like me, and almost certainly for many others in Western European cultures (and perhaps you, too?), is that my whole education within our Enlightenment tradition has done a pretty good job at giving me a false consciousness of enlightenment and making me a (letter “c”) cynic. So, for example, I almost cannot but help look at, not only at the FSM and the Padstow ‘Obby ‘Osses, but also my own inherited Christian religion and most other extant axial and post-axial religions, and see in them all only fiction and this means that, from them, I am truly distanced and this distance can, of course, at times, make me very miserable.

Although the skeptical side of all this is vitally important and goes a long way to help stop someone like me from being drawn into adopting spurious ideas and beliefs it is also true that it also threatens to stop me from engaging joyously and fully with things such as the liberating lunacy expressed by those who promote the FSM to protect the teaching of good science in our schools and who want to get married according to it’s rites, with those who, once a year, throw themselves fully into the wonderfully social madness of the Padstow festivities and, of course, a certain kind of full involvement with my inherited Christian culture.

In saying all this neither I nor Sloterdijk are seeking to attack the Enlightenment — its real gains are way too valuable to lose — but it is to realise the need to critique the state of false consciousness which all too easily follows on from enlightenment and which so often results in the development of “cynical reason”.

Fortunately Sloterdijk sees that there is a different, more positive, potentially freeing and life-affirming way of being a cynic, one which recovers in some fashion the older kynicism (now spelt with a “k”) that we find in the wonderfully provocative figure of Diogenes of Sinope (412 or 404 BCE-323 BCE) some anecdotes about whom you heard in our readings. It should be clear from them, as Sloterdijk points out in his very influential book “Critique of Cynical Reason” published in 1983:

“Ancient Kynicism, at least in its Greek origins, is in principle cheeky . . . In kynismos a kind of argumentation was discovered that, to the present day, respectable thinking does not know how to deal with” (p. 101).

Commenting on Sloterdijk’s book, Stefan Lorenz Sorgner, points out that just like cynicism

“. . . kynicism is a realist position one which rejects idealism, absolutes, and unconditional truths, however, in contrast to Cynicism, which makes people miserable because cynics are still part of higher orders in which they themselves do not believe any longer, the kynics are happy, cheerful, and cheeky and kynics do not belong to hierarchically ordered systems or normal social institutions” (Source: http://www.tabvlarasa.de/20/sorgner.php)

Sloterdijk thinks that there are three sites where this cheeky, joyously subversive kynicism is still, at times, practised: the carnival, the universities, and in Bohemian circles (p. 117). I’d also add that I see it exist in certain non-violent protest groups such as the wonderful “Clandestine Insurgent Rebel Clown Army” who dress in military-style camouflage clothes with clown faces, brightly coloured trimmings and badges and whose “weapons” are generally limited to feather dusters although, I’ll admit, some push the boundaries by carrying water pistols. It’s the only army I’d be prepared to join!

Anyway, in the Padstow ‘Obby ‘Oss festival we are clearly in the circle of carnival; in the religion of the FSM we are clearly in the university, or at least in the circle of formal learning.

But what about Bohemian circles?  There are many of them, particularly to be found in the arts but, today, speaking as much as a jazz musician as a minister in an Enlightenment inspired religious tradition that values reason highly, I would like to think that here we are also creating a kind of Bohemian circle which is able to develop, not its cynical reason but, instead, its kynical reason and, with the cheeky, noodly help of fictions such as the FSM, is able fully to throw itself into, not only the necessary critical joy of laughing at the absurdities of so much religion, but also, now and then, fully to throw itself into the embodied joy of religious carnivals that are not trapped by the always dangerous need to offer the world any absolutizing theological beliefs.

So, on this happy note of rebellious freedom, my last act before going on my sabbatical is to wish you all a Happy May Day:

Unite and unite and let us all unite,
For summer is acome unto day,
And whither we are going we will all unite,
In the merry morning of May.

‘Oss, ‘Oss, Wee ‘Oss! 
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