The Lantern of Diogenes


I’ve been studying Dr. Jenny Lind Porter-Scott’s poem The Lantern of Diogenes, published in her book of the same name[1]. The text follows:

The Lantern of Diogenes

All maturation has a root in quest.

How long thy wick has burned, Diogenes!

I see thy lantern bobbing in unrest

When others sit with babes upon their knees

Unconscious of the twilight or the storm,

Along the streets of Athens, glimmering strange,

Thine eyes upon the one thing keeps thee warm

In all this world of tempest and of change.

Along the pavestones of Florentian town

I see the shadows cower at thy flare,

In Rome and Paris, in an Oxford gown,

Men’s laughter could not shake the anxious care

Which had preserved thy lantern. May it be

That something of thy spirit burns in me!

Diogenes the Cynic was an ancient Greek philosopher who is said to have wandered about Athens with a lit lantern in broad daylight looking either for “an honest man” or simply looking for a man, depending on which version of his life one reads. Despite the story about his search for an honest man, you can find accounts of him being accused of either stealing from the mint in Corinth or defacing its coinage. He taught that man should live by reason and lived a very ascetic life. He was eccentric and provocative. He was reported to have masturbated in public and when censured, remarked that he wished it were as easy to allay hunger by rubbing one’s belly. He’s said to have lived in a tub after an apartment could not be found for him expeditiously.

He has been called a practical philosopher who preferred to live his convictions and principles rather than write about them.

I’m not sure how he came to be a subject for Dr. Porter’s poem. I wonder if the lantern is a symbol of reason. Another association for me was something I recall from Sunday school in my early childhood. Its a little song called This Little Light of Mine.  I gather even Bruce Springsteen has recorded a version. Just to jog your memory, the first few lines go:

This little light of mine,
I’m going to let it shine.
This little light of mine,
I’m going to let it shine.
This little light of mine,

I’m going to let it shine,
Ev’ry day, ev’ry day,
Ev’ry day, ev’ry day,
Gonna let my little light shine.

There’s even a web page that links Diogenes to the mystical, linking him to a search for wisdom, which is plausible because Dr. Porter had an interest in the metaphysical.

I think she connected with a sanitized version of Diogenes and there can be a contemporary message in it for those of us who are trying to teach doctors, nurses, and hospital administrations about delirium and the importance of recognizing and treating this acute syndrome that mimics many primary psychiatric illnesses but is actually a medical emergency that kills and disables many patients, especially the elderly who are frail in some way, such as suffering from dementia.

There’s a steadily growing awareness that delirium represents a major failure in the mission of hospitals to provide the best medical care to elderly patients. The following information is obtained from (The Hospital Elder Life Program (Copyright, 2000. Sharon K. Inouye, M.D., MPH):

Hospitals are hazardous for them, with delirium affecting 25%-60%. It is “The leading complication of hospitalization in older persons”. At least 40% of delirium cases may be preventable. 7% of all persons over the age of 65 years will develop delirium annually and estimated costs are greater than $8 billion annually. Post-hospital costs are greater than $100 billion a year and these patients are more likely to be institutionalized or sent to rehabilitation centers instead of back to their homes. Delirium is an indicator of quality of hospital care of older persons because it’s frequently iatrogenic (meaning inadvertently caused by medical interventions), linked to processes of care, and its common and associated with bad outcomes. So it makes sense to examine delirium in order to improve the quality of hospital care in general.

This is just a sample of what many health care providers and hospital administrators don’t know about delirium.

This is why we must carry the lantern of knowledge and wisdom, which is knowledge, guided by reason, about delirium into every nook and cranny of hospitals and other health care institutions all over the world.

1.            Porter, J.L., The Lantern of Diogenes and Other Poems. 1954, San Antonio: The Naylor Company Book Publishers.


Author: Jim Amos

Dr. James J. Amos is Clinical Professor of Psychiatry in the UI Carver College of Medicine at The University of Iowa in Iowa City, Iowa. Dr. Amos received a B. S. degree in Distributed Studies (Zoology, Chemistry, and Microbiology) in 1985 from Iowa State University and an M.D. from The University of Iowa in Iowa City, Iowa in 1992. He completed his psychiatry residency, including a year as Chief Resident, in 1996 at the Department of Psychiatry at The University of Iowa. He has co-edited a practical book about consultation psychiatry with Dr. Robert G. Robinson entitled Psychosomatic Medicine: An Introduction to Consultation-Liaison Psychiatry. As a clinician educator, among Dr. Amos’s most treasured achievements is the Leonard Tow Humanism in Medicine Award.