Transcript: The Classics Unleashed

Narrated by Mark Usher

The book is about Diogenes the cynic philosopher cast literally as a dog to create what I would call a visual pun because the word "cynic" in Greek means doglike and so Diogenes was called doglike because of his shameless behavior, stuff that he did out in the open as dogs do, unconcerned about what people think necessarily, and he took this upon himself as kind of a moniker of honor.

I think that the notion of cynic is someone who stands outside of society and judges it so the modern usage of the word cynic is someone who is aloof, is all complaints and no solutions. That's kind of where that idea came from. I must say that Diogenes' own stunts and his own antisocial behavior served a higher purpose, he was illustrating a philosophical point when he did stunts like walk backwards until somebody says why are you doing that, why are you walking backwards and he says, `I'm not going backwards, you are going backwards. You are going in the wrong direction.' So those sorts of things were staged and he did those for a higher purpose.

I like the whole visual pun, the dog story is so much a part of children's literature. I like the idea that this is a good dog, Carl, gone wild, and in that vein I think my favorite illustration in the book is where we have a two-footed, a bipedal dog walking around with a stick and his begging cup for most of the book. And there's this one scene where his doggy instincts return where he's famously looking for a good man in the city in broad daylight carrying a lantern, and the way the illustrator Michael Chesworth treated that scene he's actually on all fours; he's got his nose to the ground like a bloodhound trying to sniff out a good man while these ghosts of philosophers are behind him and hard to see without the lantern. The illustrations in the book are very carefully plotted; there's a lot of cross-references and illusions from one illustration to the next if one looks closely, and kids do look closely, so they'll probably see them all.

I hope they can relate to the book and get the message that happiness lies in simplicity. You know Diogenes is cheeky, he's subversive, kids like dogs, they identify with animals as sort of alter egos so I'm hoping that by casting him as a dog and not as a crotchety old man that they'll latch onto, you know, his attitudes toward life which were freedom from desire, kind of a Buddhist notion where desire is the problem, people want too much, to see through the folly of ambition, to strive above all else to be a good person, to live as close to nature as one can. A cynic code of ethics was, "Is this according to nature?" So in that way I think that Diogenes is a hero for our time and especially for children who are surrounded by material pulls, material impulses. He's an immaterial character, unconcerned with gadgets and stuff.

One of the hallmarks of Diogenes' philosophy was this idea of self-sufficiency. In Greek that's autarkeia. The book intends to introduce children to that notion of being self-sufficient, not so much meaning going out and living in the woods and eating grass and berries and all of that but the idea of being your own master, being your own moral master, being above the herd mentality, to make decisions for yourself. And Diogenes takes off his collar and leash, gets up on two feet and heads to the city to find his way in the city and find his way in life, so that notion is also there and meant to encourage children to think for themselves.

I hope we can keep the classics alive amongst this generation. Every renaissance we've had in Western civilization has involved the rediscovery of the Greeks, especially. To re-present the classics to a new generation, it's always a challenge, but it's always one of the joys of being in this profession and really that's what I tried to do with the children's books, is that you can't get them any younger than that: new readers. You want them to read and to know where many of the ideas come from that we take for granted today and the more they know about the classics the more rooted they'll be in the origin and in the genesis of ideas and institutions and you'll see the world differently when you're trained that way. And it can't start too young.

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