Philosophers, Cynics, Dervishes: An Inquiry

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Philosophers, Cynics, Dervishes: An Inquiry 

Peter Wright, N.D.


While philosophical and mystical inquiries proceed in distinct and contrasting cultural and discursive settings, they address similar questions of fundamental human experience. The ostensible grounding of continental philosophy in a secularized European academic tradition belies deep thematic and historical connections with venerable streams of Eurasian spirituality. A personal exploration, documenting an attempt to bring these discourses into proximity through a lighthearted yet tendentious inner dialog, reveals recurring elements of both conflict and convergence.

Inquirer: There wasn’t one voice, but three or four, at least, who showed up for the invitation to pursue a bit of inquiry on matters of phenomenology and spirituality. Whose voices? Whose questions?  

Cynic: And who the hell cares about this kind of talk? Check out this crew here, for starters:

Me: Phony sincerity, pretense, and show—that’s the coin of the realm in what passes for mainstream culture, so naturally “cynical” is about the worst put-down you can lay on someone these days—or any other days, really, nothing new about that. To openly profess a stance of Cynicism, as I do, puts me and my kind well beyond the pale.

Philosopher: Ordinary people consider philosophers pretty lame, as well: it’s not science, it’s not business, there’s no money to be made, you can’t prove anything, you can’t understand what these people are saying most of the time—it hurts your head to try to read what they write. They keep coming up with their own ways to answer thousand-year-old questions, and inventing new ways to twist the language in order to mystify the poor reader enough to veil the fact that these are the same old problems that can’t be solved. Jargon, headaches, confusion—no wonder your books don’t sell!

Dervish: Now we’re really talking marginal! In the West, people just use this word very loosely for someone spinning more or less out of control, some kind of human whirlwind, a mindless frenzy of motion. In contemporary Muslim cultures, where there’s more context for the label, dervishes are viewed with suspicion by many, as heretics, posers, outcasts, relics, deviants, parasites, and worse.

All right, then. Set us around a table, stuck in a little room for awhile somewhere, say, or inside some poor fool’s head, to conduct some kind of inquiry, a dialog, trialog, tete-a-tete, whatever—I don’t know if this notion is more like a wretched “no-exit” nightmare, or some kind of cosmic joke. The philosopher seems to imagine some kind of light might be shed in the process. Like I say, who all out there is listening or reading? Who cares?

Philosopher: One is indeed hard-pressed to disagree convincingly that, however we may update our language, or attempt to reframe our discourse in the most up-to-date manner, the essential terms of the argument are little changed over time. Like it or not, however we may focus on our differences, we belong together, we are inseparable, stuck here like Beckett’s damned Didi and Gogo.1 We talk to each other, and to the like-minded—let the rest ignore us, they always have.

Now I’m talking like a Cynic! But Cynicism is by no means, as contemporary usage would have it, simply an attitude of jaded rejection, but rather an ancient, and one must even say, a respected philosophy. At the very headwaters of the Western lineage through which current philosophers trace their origins, we find the figure of Socrates, by many accounts the immediate forerunner of Cynicism—a seeker of virtue and truth at all costs, utterly indifferent to wealth and to conventional opinion—and one of his foremost disciples was Antisthenes, generally regarded as its founder.2 If philosophy is truly about the love of wisdom, then, the Cynics are the embarassingly love-sick ones.3 Dervishes, similarly, are supposed to be all about love and wisdom, in varying proportions. Some challenge the purity of their faith, objecting to the presence of Greek elements in their doctrines—as if purity were possible, among the tangled roots of Eurasian philosophical and spiritual formulations.

Inquirer: Anyone here concerned about purity? [Pause.] Thought not!

Philosopher:  And some see the marks of the Cynics’ influence in pre-Gospel accounts of Jesus, and in many practices of the ascetic early Christians, who provided great inspiration in turn to the proto-dervishes of early Islam.4

Inquirer: You’re here as a philosopher, or a historian? Or is philosophical innovation—as the cynic here would have it—largely a matter of repackaging the terminology of previous phases, in order to sell the update as a novelty?   

Dervish: Pursuing the historical assertions of the 20th-century Afghan trickster/scholar Idries Shah in his book The Sufis,5 we may discern the archetypes of philosopher, dervish, and Cynic, united as one, in the old European figure of the court jester or Fool, the joking truth-teller whose motley garb recalls the dervish’s patchwork cloak. (Shah also published a number of books retelling the traditional Near Eastern folk tales/teaching stories of Mullah Nasruddin, the sly buffoon whose follies and malapropisms reveal a trenchant wisdom.6) On the other hand, this talk about dervishes and philosophers reminds me of an old story7 that underlines the distinctions between these two groups…

They say there was once a king whose court included—as was customary—both a distinguished philosopher and an esteemed dervish. One day he posed a question to the two of them. “If, as it is said, the point of wisdom is to attain happiness, who is wiser and happier: the philosophers or the dervishes?” The philosopher answered, of course, that the philosophers were superior in both regards. The dervish disagreed, and suggested that the king might resolve the question by offering two feasts at his palace, one for the philosophers and another for the dervishes. The king assented, scheduling two lavish dinners, and asking each of the men to invite his colleagues to come.

The palace was beautifully prepared for the occasion of the philosopher’s feast. The surface of the lovely sand garden at the entrance to the grounds was raked and smoothed, and the tables were set with lovely bowls and long-handled wooden spoons for the delicious soup served as the first course.

The philosophers began to arrive. As they walked through the sand garden, each one took a different route, so that by the time all had appeared, the smooth surface had become completely trampled, as if a herd of animals had galloped through.

Tradition dictates that the most honored guest is seated at the head of the table, and so as each one showed up, he was asked, “Who is the greatest among you?” The first one to come answered, “I am, of course!” and so he was seated at the head of the table. Each one thereafter said the same, and so each was seated as close as possible to that end, and the arriving philosophers grew more indignant as their assigned positions at the table were successively further away from the place of honor.

When the soup was served, the very long handles of the spoons made them impossible to use without hitting other diners with the ends of the handles. Complaints and commotion filled the room as they struggled to cope with the resulting difficulty. At length, the philosophers dealt with the problem by breaking off the handles of the spoons and casting them aside, so that they could feed themselves without hindrance. The meal was generous; the guests ate their fill, thanked their host, and left in due course. Again, each one again took a separate path across the sand garden, redoubling the chaos on its surface.

When the time came for the dervishes’ feast, the palace was prepared in exactly the same way as before: the sand garden raked smooth, the long-handled soup spoons set out on the table, the fine dinner prepared.  The first of the dervishes showed up, and when asked who was greatest among them, he replied, “He’s coming later,” and humbly took a place at the far end of the table. As the rest of the dervishes arrived and proceeded through the sand garden, each stepped carefully into the footprints of the first, so that when all were seated, it looked as if only a single person had walked through the sand. Each in turn responded to the question of who was greatest among them in the same way as the first, until the last one arrived—and he answered, “He’s already here.” None claimed the place of honor at the table. Rather than breaking off the long handles of the spoons in order to eat the soup, the dervishes used them skillfully to feed each other across the table, leaving the spoons intact. After a friendly, peaceful meal, they thanked their host and departed, walking out through the garden, all within the same single set of footsteps.

Therefore the king saw that the philosophers had all walked separately through the garden and so disturbed its surface immensely, had all claimed the place of honor at the table, and had all broken the soup spoons in order to feed themselves. In contrast, the dervishes had all followed the same path, leaving its surface nearly unmarked, had all deferred from claiming the place of honor, and had all fed each other harmoniously rather than break the spoons. And he drew his conclusions about the two groups accordingly.

Cynic: Nice story! But who’s keeping it real here? The philosophers each claim to be original and superior: their competition is right out in the open. The dervishes’ competition is a little more veiled: instead of who gets the place of honor, they’re playing at who can act the most humble and self-effacing—a little subtler variation of the same dance, no?

The Greek Cynics were so named for their doglike behavior: scratching where it itches, as it were; eating, sleeping, defecating out in the open. The corresponding groups in early Islamic culture, known in some of those places and times as kalandars—they never got invited to palaces.8 They were wandering outside the walls, some of them wearing animal skins, some of them pierced or tattooed, some eating grass or carrion (today they’d be dumpster diving), some sleeping in graveyards, some drinking wine, maybe using hemp or poppies, as they might please, avoiding normative work and family life—no fixed address, no respectability, no pretense, no excuse—not unlike the sadhus who still wander in India.9 The Qur’an is clear on the point that one’s relationship with the Creator is no one else’s business. There are no generally recognized authorities in this tradition to issue rulings on what that’s supposed to look like (though many rulings are made, to be sure). Following socially prescribed modes of scholarship or ritual is no substitute for the authentic experience of Reality.

Philosopher: And how does this sort of lifestyle represent anything less of a pose, a costume, a pretense, than the accoutrements of my position as a teacher or intellectual, or the hat and robes of the dervish? Flaunting stylized displays of unconventionality, of membership among the outcast, no less than philosophers or dervishes may preen our superior intellectual or spiritual attainments… your pose of letting the freak flag fly is no more indicative of genuine authenticity (if you’ll pardon the redundancy) than mine, or his—

Cynic: [Audible release of flatulence.] Outta here!

Dervish: Please, my friends, surely there are more pressing issues before us! For instance, what are we to make of Peter Kingsley’s assertions? His interpretations of the Presocratics indicate that the discourses of key philosophers among the ancient Greeks have been radically misconstrued by Plato and the subsequent mainstream discourse following Plato’s lead… that in various ways, Parmenides, Empedocles, and others were referencing inner realities accessed through a practice of trance known as incubation, secluded in dark places… that Pythagorus was contacted by a Mongol messenger who transmitted secret teachings and initiatic blessings from the heart of Central Asia, a legacy that gave rise to a Western culture that remains wholly unaware of its mystical origins. The essence of this transmission, as he states it, is the necessity for the truth seeker to “die before you die”—precisely the key teaching of the Sufis.10 (The revered 12th Century master Ahmet Er Rifa’i, for example, is said to have admonished the dervish: “Always live with remembrance of death as though you are breathing your last breath.”11)

Of course, many Sufis locate their discourse strictly within the context of Islam (although many others claim otherwise), and Kingsley contends, rather, that essential elements of the tradition date back to much earlier periods, both in Greece and Iran (if such a distinction is even significant for two cultures whose histories are so intimately intertwined).

Philosopher: The tricky part is that Kingsley writes as both a scholar of philosophy, and as a mystic. He blurs the boundaries, describing these Presocratics as mystics, rather than the forerunners and architects of rationalism that their successors have made them out to be. And that makes many of us very uncomfortable. These are supposed to be separate categories!

Dervish: Certainly, he upsets some people: not only that he messes with their assumptions, but he also flags the dishonesty in their scholarship. Where the original texts don’t make sense to them, or point toward interpretations that they’d rather avoid, they simply change the translations. They break the spoons and trample up the sand garden.

Philosopher: Whether his interpretations of the Presocratics are correct or not (naturally many scholars disagree!) it seems that a lot of the wisdom that he attributes to them comes very close to basic phenomenology: mindfully attending to what’s around and inside of us, minimizing overlays of theory and explanation. Kingsley certainly dances between the academic philosophers’ concern for scholarship and textual analysis, and the dervishes’ focus on deferential protocol and etiquette, the discipline known in Arabic as adab. His evident isolation from the academy, as well as the tekke and ashram, speak to the marginality to which our cynical friend alluded earlier in the discussion.

In any case, the reference to death brings Heidegger to mind, with his notion of death as the touchstone of authenticity. And Heidegger’s thought is rooted as much in theology as in philosophy. Among his philosophical influences, again, we note the pivotal role of the Presocratics.12

Dervish: In Heidegger’s description of worlding we may find implications of something very close to the Sufi doctrine of wahdat al-wujud, “one body,” the single living entity that altogether comprises the Creator and all the worlds, all the creatures of Its creation, transcendent and immanent, wholly connected. Indeed, Henry Corbin, the peerless 20th-century western scholar of both Sufism and Islamic philosophy,13 began as a student of Heidegger, and considered his own explorations of the esoteric and angelic realms to be an extension of Heidegger’s hermeneutics. Corbin absolutely rejected the idea that he had in any way renounced that analytic in his turn toward the mysticism of the Near East.14

But again, how many—among either my colleagues or your own—are up to the challenge of wading through his tomes to dig out such treasures as may be discovered there?

Inquirer: Beyond the roiling, frothy clouds of sublime verbiage bequeathed by these esteemed figures, ancient and modern—as intoxicating as we may find our frolics there, far from the mundane banality of contemporary distractions—we are left with the challenge of confronting much more basic questions, questions about our fundamental identity, and addressing the many and pressing tasks that we face.

Who are you? What are you doing? When’s dinner?



            . Samuel Beckett, Waiting for Godot. (New York: Grove Press, 1953).

2          .

3          . Anthony Weir, “Diogenes.” Beyond the Pale website, accessed July 20, 2012,

4          . Tarif Khalidi, The Muslim Jesus: Sayings and Stories in Islamic Literature. (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2001).

5          . Idries Shah,The Sufis. (London: Octagon Press, 1964).

6          . Yannis Toussulis, Sufism and the Path of Blame. (Wheaton, IL: Quest Books, 2011).

7          . Sherif Çatalkaya, private discourses, trans. Cem Williford. (Seattle, 2002).

8          . Ahmet Karamustafa, God’s Unruly Friends. (London: Oneworld, 2006).

9          . Peter Lamborn Wilson, Scandal: Essays in Islamic Heresy. (Brooklyn, NY: Autonomedia, 1988).

10        . Peter Kingsley, Ancient Philosophy, Mystery, and Magic: Empedocles and Pythagorean Tradition. (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 1997). In The Dark Places of Wisdom. (Point Reyes Station, CA: Golden Sufi Center, 1999). Reality. (Point Reyes Station, CA: Golden Sufi Center, 2004). A Story Waiting to Pierce You. (Point Reyes Station, CA: Golden Sufi Center, 2010).

11        . Sherif Çatalkaya, unpublished manuscript.

12        . Martin Heidegger, Early Greek Thinking: The Dawn of Western Philosophy. (New York: Harper & Row, 1975).

13        . Henry Corbin, Creative Imagination in the Sufism of Ibn Arabi. (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1969).

14        . Henry Corbin, Association des Amis de Henry et Stella Corbin website, “From Heidegger to Suhravardi: An Interview with Philippe Nemo,” accessed July 20, 2012,