Today's Paper

Philosopher in a barrel

Julian Baggini

Without the trappings of modern life

After Diogenes, who said civilisation was sham Some join Hoekstra in his spacious drum

London: Don't you sometimes wish life were simpler? The Dutch philosopher Eric Hoekstra does, which is why he is living in a barrel during the Netherlands' Philosophy Week. The idea is to emulate the ancient Greek philosopher Diogenes and show how it is possible to do without many of the trappings of modern life.

Diogenes (circa 412-323) believed civilisation was a sham and that we would do better to live like dogs, trusting our instincts in a morally superior state of nature. Mocking ideas of custom and propriety, he performed all his bodily functions in public. He was so feral he even threw out his bowl, preferring to use his cupped hands instead.

Intrigued by Hoekstra's renunciation of technology-obsessed modernity, I rang him this week on his mobile phone to find out how cask life in Leeuwarden, Friesland, was going. "I'm actually at home now," he replied. "I'm only in the barrel during shop opening hours." Considering that the Van de Velde bookshop, which is hosting the stunt, shuts on Sundays and has half-day opening on Mondays, this does seem like the mother of all cop-outs.

"Diogenes was against all luxury," he told me by way of explanation. "I don't think that." Evidently. He is even allowed out for toilet breaks.

To be fair, Hoekstra, who turns 47 on April 6, is not so much advocating Diogenesian renunciation but Epicurean moderation.

"If you have a cigar, it's very nice, but if you smoke every day your pleasure ends up at level zero."

Many shoppers passing the barrel in Leeuwarden just smile and continue walking, or wish him good luck. But others join him in his spacious drum for deep philosophical chats. "You can get four people in if you sit in the lotus position."

Next year he should perhaps try copying some other Greek thinkers, such as Crates, who would turn up uninvited at people's homes and insult them. Pythagoras followed such a weird brand of vegetarianism that, when he was chased by an angry mob, he let them catch and kill him rather than trample on a field of beans.

It seems that emulating Hellenic philosophers would primarily involve not doing very much, grossly offending people and being lynched by the public.

Perhaps he should just enter Big Brother.

Guardian Newspapers Limited 2006