Ancient Greece was home to dozens of different ways to live a good life.

Among them were the Cynics and the Stoics.

In this article, I’ll get right to it and explain the differences between the two philosophies, and for those of you who want a bit more meat on the bone, I’ll continue on to outline a more detailed summary for each, some more information about their key differences, and how we can apply the best ideas to daily life.

What is the difference between cynicism and stoicism?

Cynicism and Stoicism are two distinct philosophical schools of thought that emerged in ancient Greece to answer questions on how to live a good life, how to treat others, how to view the world around us, and what behaviours we should display to find peace and happiness.

Despite having similar origins, the two schools of thought have very different beliefs and practices. This means they shape very different worldviews and approaches to life.

Cynicism

Cynicism was founded by a philosopher called Antisthenes in the 4th century BCE.

The Cynics advocate for a life lived in accordance with nature and a rejection of conventional desires for wealth, power, health, or fame.

Cynics strive to live a life of self-sufficiency, in accordance with nature, often practicing extreme simplicity and asceticism.

The most famous Cynic, Diogenes of Sinope, is known for his extreme embodiment of these principles, including living in a barrel, wearing threadbare cloaks, and openly criticizing social norms. He epitomized this philosophy through his ascetic lifestyle.

Diogenes was known for living naturally; he was often depicted as looking like a beggar living in a tub on the streets of Athens.

He was once said to have seen a child drinking water from a fountain using only their hands as a cup. Diogenes was said to have thrown away his cup after seeing this, stating that the child had beaten him in the art of simple living.

Cynics believed that virtue was the only good and that it was sufficient for happiness. They view societal conventions as corrupt and advocate living a life of poverty and simplicity.

Cynicism’s core message is that true happiness and freedom come from living a life unencumbered by unnecessary societal pressures, external events, and material desires.

Key Tenets:

  • Virtue is the only necessity for happiness.

  • Rejects conventional desires for wealth, power, and status.

  • Views societal conventions and societal expectations and norms as corrupt and unnecessary.

Stoicism

Stoicism, on the other hand, was founded by Zeno of Citium in the early 3rd century BCE.

However, Zeno began his journey into philosophy as a student of Crates of Thebes, who was himself a student of Diogenes of Sinope.

It teaches the development of self-discipline (temperance) and the use of understanding, reason, and logic as a means to overcome destructive emotions.

These things allow for emotional maturity, emotional resilience, and personal freedom as a result of preventing desires and impulses from controlling our actions.

The philosophy holds that becoming a clear and unbiased thinker allows one to understand human nature, the universal reason of the external world, and the natural order of things (logos).

They focus on what is within an individual’s control, encouraging detachment from the uncontrollable aspects of life.

Stoics also believe that virtue (such as wisdom) is the only good, and that external things like wealth or health are not good or bad in themselves, but have value as “material for virtue to act upon.”

That is to say, we can use money for both good and bad; it’s the person who adds the goodness or badness, not the money itself.

Key figures in Stoicism include Seneca, Epictetus, and Marcus Aurelius, each contributing to its rich legacy of teachings on ethics and personal growth.

The philosophy’s enduring appeal lies in its practical approach to dealing with life’s challenges, emphasizing resilience, inner peace, and the development of moral character.

Key Tenets:

  • Virtue, and the pursuit of a virtuous life, particularly wisdom, are the sole good.

  • Teaches that external things (wealth, health, etc.) are indifferent; they are not inherently good or bad.

  • Emphasizes self-control, acceptance of what we can’t control, resilience, and personal ethics.

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Key Differences:

  1. Approach to Material Possessions:

    • Cynics often practiced extreme poverty and asceticism, believing that needing nothing from the material world was the way to freedom and happiness.

    • Stoics, while also emphasizing the unimportance of material wealth, did not necessarily prescribe poverty. They believed in using what one has wisely and justly.

  2. View on Society:

    • Cynicism is critical of social conventions and often rejects them outright.

    • Stoicism is more accommodating of societal norms, seeing humans as a social animal and focusing on how an individual can maintain virtue within the existing social framework.

  3. Emphasis on Nature:

    • Cynics emphasize living in accordance with a natural way of life, often eschewing the trappings of civilization.

    • Stoics also value living in harmony with the natural world, but their understanding of nature includes the nature of human society and rationality.

  4. Attitude towards Emotions:

    • Cynics can be seen as embracing emotions that align with nature, even if they are socially disruptive.

    • Stoicism encourages a mastery over emotions, promoting a life led by rational thought and inner tranquility.

Key Similarities:

So, it’s clear that the Stoic and the Cynics would have clearly debated a lot about how to live a good life, however the philosophies do share a few similarities

These similarities highlight the common philosophical heritage from ancient Greece and they offer insight into their shared objectives and underlying ethical perspectives for what it means for human beings to thrive.

Shared Philosophical Roots

Both Stoicism and Cynicism find their origins in the teachings of Socrates.

They inherit a strong emphasis on ethics, personal virtue, and the pursuit of a good life defined by moral character rather than external success, social status, or societal approval.

Emphasis on Virtue and Personal Ethics

  1. Virtue as the Central Good: Both philosophies hold that true happiness and a good life are achieved through personal virtue. They deem external factors like wealth, status, and physical pleasures as irrelevant to genuine happiness.

  2. Self-sufficiency in Happiness: Cynics and Stoics alike believe that true happiness is a state of mind that can be achieved independently of external circumstances, relying solely on one’s own inner resources.

Simplicity and Natural Living

  1. Living According to Nature: Both Stoicism and Cynicism advocate for a life in harmony with nature. They interpret this as living in accordance with human reason and nature’s laws.

  2. Disregard for Material Wealth: While Stoicism is not as extreme as Cynicism in this regard, both philosophies view material possessions as insignificant for achieving a good life. They promote a lifestyle in such a way that one has freedom from material desires.

Critical View of Societal Norms and Conventions

  1. Critique of Social Values: Both Stoics and Cynics often critiqued the values and norms of society. Stoicism does this more subtly, while Cynicism is direct and radical in its approach.

  2. Focus on Inner Life Over External Approval: They emphasize the importance of inner moral and ethical standards over societal or external validation.

Personal Autonomy and Freedom

  1. Independence from External Influences: Both philosophies stress the importance of maintaining personal autonomy and not being controlled by external circumstances or societal pressures.

  2. Mental and Emotional Resilience: Stoicism and Cynicism both teach the cultivation of mental and emotional fortitude, enabling one to remain unaffected by external changes and challenges.

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FAQ

Q: Can Cynicism or Stoicism be practiced today?

A: Absolutely. Both philosophies have modern followers who find their principles relevant to contemporary life.

Q: Do Cynicism and Stoicism require religious belief?

A: No. Both philosophies are more focused on ethical and practical ways of living than on religious doctrine.

Q: How do Cynicism and Stoicism approach happiness?

A: Cynicism finds happiness in rejecting societal norms and living simply, while Stoicism finds it in living virtuously in accordance with reason.

Q: Can someone be both a Cynic and a Stoic?

A: While there are similarities, the core tenets of each philosophy diverge significantly, making it challenging to fully embrace both simultaneously. However, elements of each can be integrated into a personal philosophy.

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