Cynicism, alongside Stoicism, has been one of the most resilient philosophies from the ancient world, and whether we can see it’s influence or not, it has helped to shape the western world into what we see today.

It has formed how we think, how we question the world around us, how we problem solve, and even the path we’ve taken as a culture.

Cynicism is one of these schools, one that shares Stoicism’s Greek origin but predates it by about 50 years or so.

Zeno of Citium himself, the founder of the Stoic school, began as a Cynic. Having started his journey into philosophy under the teaching of Crates of Thebes, a respected Cynic philosopher in Athens and student of the renown Diogenes of Sinope (who we’ll discuss in a moment).

Today we’ll take a look at the core principles of the Cynic school of philosophy, its origins, and some of the most influential Cynics of the ancient world.

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What is Cynicism?

The Cynics found their roots all the way back in the ancient Greek classical period, having been founded by a student of the great Socrates, Antisthenes.

Antisthenes was born in 446 BCE, which gives us some indication of how old the Cynic school really is.

The term Cynic comes from the Greek words kynikos, meaning ‘dog-like’, and kyôn, meaning ‘dog’. It’s not the most flattering of names, and we’re not entirely sure of its origin. Two popular beliefs are:

  1. The Cynics were called dogs because the first Cynic, Antisthenes, began teaching in the Cynosarges gymnasium in Athens. Cynosarges translates to ‘the place of the white dog’.

  2. We know that the early Cynics were frequently called dogs for their rejection of social convention, material wealth, and affinity for living on the streets.

In the book A History Of Cynicism, Donald Dudley quotes the German historian of philosophy, Christian August Brandis, as saying the following of the Cynic name:

There are four reasons why the Cynics are so named. First because of the indifference of their way of life, for they make a cult of indifference and, like dogs, eat and make love in public, go barefoot, and sleep in tubs and at crossroads. The second reason is that the dog is a shameless animal, and they make a cult of shamelessness, not as being beneath modesty, but as superior to it. The third reason is that the dog is a good guard, and they guard the tenets of their philosophy. The fourth reason is that the dog is a discriminating animal which can distinguish between its friends and enemies. So do they recognize as friends those who are suited to philosophy, and receive them kindly, while those unfitted they drive away, like dogs, by barking at them.

What do the cynics believe?

The core belief of the Cynic philosophy is that people, you and me, are reasoning animals, and that, as reasoning animals, our life’s purpose is to use that reason to decide right from wrong, live with virtue, live in alignment with the laws of nature, and live ascetically while rejecting the social convention that conflicts with any of this.

The early Cynics were famous for rejecting fame, power, money, and possessions, and they openly rejected many of the things that their Greek countrymen valued. As we’ve seen, this was one of the reasons they earned the name ‘dog’.

Although there was no formally defined Cynic path to follow, it can be shown as the following core principles:

  • Much like the Stoics, the ultimate goal of a Cynic life is to reach eudaimonia and mental clarity. Eudaimonia roughly translates as flourishing and happiness.

  • Eudaimonia is reached through virtue, compassion, reason, resilience to emotional stress, the ability to speak freely, self-sufficiency, and indifference to the things in life beyond our control.

  • Eudaimonia is achieved through living in alignment with nature.

  • Arrogance pulls us away from eudaimonia and is defined by false judgments that result in negative emotions, unhealthy desires, and destructive character.

  • Eudaimonia can be found in rejecting material wealth, fame, power, etc. Through rejecting these things, we free ourselves from them and their ability to pull us away from reason and good judgment.

  • Parrhesia (frankness): This involves speaking the truth, no matter how uncomfortable. Cynics valued authenticity and directness in communication, often challenging established norms and beliefs.

Through this way of life, the Cynics believed that one would find happiness.

Perhaps the most well-known Cynic was Diogenes of Sinope. He took the Cynic principles to an extreme and even lived in a tub on the streets of Athens.

He was so devoted to living a Cynic way of life that, upon seeing a child drinking water with his hands, he threw away his cup, stating that a child had beaten him to living a simple life.

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The Founders of Cynicism

Antisthenes (c. 446-366 BCE):

The founding of the Cynic school of philosophy is most commonly attributed to a pupil of Socrates, Antisthenes.

Antisthenes was born in 446 BC, confusingly the son of Antisthenes, an Athenian, and his mother, believed to be a Thracian.

The mixed culture of his parents caused some people of the time to question Antisthenes’ true Athenian citizenship. Something he was known to reply to sarcastically.

As a young man, he was so keen to learn from Socrates that he walked the 9-kilometer road from the port of Peiraeus to Athens. He was even present at Socrates’ death after he was given a death sentence following accusations of corrupting the minds of Athenian youths. More on the death of Socrates can be found in Plato’s Apology.

Antisthenes never forgave Socrates’ persecutors.

As a philosopher, he believed in the virtue of living a simple life, teaching that virtue is not pre-determined in an individual and can be taught.

In a similar way to the Stoics, Antisthenes also believed that virtue was a path to true and lasting happiness.

However, unlike many of the people of the time, he believed in rejecting external wealth and good, and even social convention, and instead put greater importance on living a simple and ascetic life.

Diogenes Laertius, the biograpgher of the Greek philosophers, wrote the following about Antisthenes in the fantastic book Lives of the Eminent Philosophers:

“He would prove that virtue can be taught; and that nobility belongs to none other than the virtuous. And he held virtue to be sufficient in itself to ensure happiness, since it needed nothing else except the strength of spirit. And he maintained that virtue is an affair of deeds and does not need a store of words or learning; that the wise man is self-sufficing, for all the goods of others are his; that ill repute is a good thing and much the same as pain; that the wise man will be guided in his public acts not by the established laws but by the law of virtue; that he will also marry in order to have children from union with the handsomest women; furthermore that he will not disdain to love, for only the wise man knows who are worthy to be loved”

Diogenes of Sinope (c. 404-323 BCE):

Throughout the story of Cynicism and even the wider subject of Greek philosophy, Diogenes of Sinope is perhaps one of the most iconic figures of the time.

The man’s entire story is controversial.

Originally from Sinope, Turkey, Diogenes has gained renown for the way he lived and the way he behaved.

He lived in a tub on the streets of Athens, rejected all forms of comfort and wealth, defecated in public, and was even said to have urinated on people who insulted him.

When Alexander the Great visited him, excited for the opportunity to meet a famous philosopher, he asked if there was anything that he could do for Diogenes, to which Diogenes replied, “Yes, stand out of my sunlight.”

Alexander then said, “If I were not Alexander, then I should wish to be Diogenes.” To which Diogenes replied, “If I were not Diogenes, I would still wish to be Diogenes.”

Even though he was probably not a pleasant person to be around, his actions led him to become the poster boy for ascetic ways of life.

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Despite Cynicism losing popularity and never truly having a resurgence, we can learn a lot from the ancient Cynic philosophers:

  • Like the Stoics, the Cynics believed that the path to a happy life lies in the pursuit of virtue above all other things, such as power, fame, and materialism.

  • Free speech and the ability to tell the truth are important when dealing with society and other people.

  • Arrogance and decisions that pull us towards desire and destructive choices are things that pull us from the path to Eudaimonia.

  • Rejection of social norms, while not always the best path, can free us from limiting beliefs and expectations that might not be right for us.

In reality, living like Diogenes will probably have us locked in a padded room, but there are nuggets of wisdom that we can take from these ancient thinkers to live happier and more resilient lives.

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