Cynicism, like nihilism, has a bad name in the poplar mind. It is generally thought that cynics are negative, distrustful, and see only the worst in others. They have nothing positive to say or to contribute, but are full of complaints and criticisms. They assume everyone is motivated by foul intentions, and consequently believe no one can be relied on.
This contemporary deployment of the term “cynic,” however, deviates from its original use in the ancient world. In ancient times, Cynicism was the name of a philosophical movement that, contrary to popular opinion today, did indeed possess positive ideals and that provided not only a diagnosis of, but a solution to, the despairing unhappiness of the times. Ancient Cynics were more than just unhelpful social critics; they were optimistic philosophers who wanted to demonstrate that human contentment is achievable through a life of natural simplicity. William Desmond’s book Cynics offers a clear, systematic overview of this movement in ancient philosophy, while also describing its lasting impact on contemporary thought.
Desmond’s main thesis is that while Cynicism in the ancient world certainly was a diverse phenomenon with much variation, there was nonetheless a stable, core set of beliefs uniting the various individual Cynics. Figures like Antisthenes, Diogenes and Crates were more than just nonconformists. They were proponents of a consistent, cohesive philosophy. The core beliefs of this philosophy are that the renunciation of custom is liberating (Chapter 2), that one should live life according to nature (Chapter 3), that the self is a stable substance, independent of society (Chapter 4), and that the best form of social organization maximizes the freedom of the individual (Chapter 5).
The English word “cynic” comes from the Greek word kyōn, which means “dog” (p. 3). The ancient Cynics advocated a simple life that was based on fulfilling natural desires while resisting what they regarded as unnatural, decadent desires. Like dogs, Cynics went around naked or wearing very little. They owned hardly anything, wandering from place to place, scavenging food and shelter. They urinated, defecated and masturbated publicly. They rejected marriage, politics, and work. This dog-like existence was intended as an antidote to the perverting influence of civilization, which encourages people to hide behind a veil of artificiality.
The Cynics claimed that human unhappiness is the result of the repression of natural needs coupled with the cultivation of unnecessary desires that cannot be satiated. Civilization encourages us to disguise and stifle our natural functions while also encouraging us to seek money, prestige, power, and so forth. But in pursuing these sort of things, humans find themselves on a hamster wheel of unquenchable craving that only leads to anxiety and unhappiness. Better to live like a dog, then, in the moment, absent conventional aspirations. If we live simply and according to nature, we can be satisfied and content with what the world gives us. In this way, Desmond writes, the Cynics preached a positive message: “Far from being pessimistic or nihilistic, ancient Cynics were astonishingly optimistic regarding human nature. For them, ultimately, human beings are good: very good” (p. 3). This confidence in human nature – coupled with their rejection of artificiality – comprises the center of the Cynic philosophy.
Desmond suggests that in the ancient world, we can detect four stages in the evolution of Cynicism. First, there is the “pre-Cynic Greek period,” which includes what he classifies as “proto-Cynics” such as Socrates. While a philosopher like Socrates is rarely regarded as a true Cynic, his influence on later Cynics was powerful. Not only was he the teacher of Antisthenes (who is sometimes credited as being the founder of Cynicism), but his simple lifestyle and anti-establishment battles against the Athenian mainstream can be regarded as expressing what would become some of the main concerns of the later, classical Cynics (pp. 13 – 16).
The second stage in the evolution of ancient Cynicism consists of the “classical period” of thinkers, the most famous of which is Diogenes of Sinope; a man that Plato described as “Socrates gone mad.” Diogenes is said to have been exiled from his home state, ending up in Athens where he lived in a pithos; a large barrel or tub normally used to store wine or olive oil (p. 21). Though he reportedly wrote dialogues, letters and tragedies, all of them are lost, and so the only knowledge that we now have about Diogenes “the dog” comes from the accounts of others like Diogenes Laertius, a Roman author. The stories are legendary. Diogenes was purported to have been banished from Sinope for “defacing the coinage”; a phrase which took on great significance for later Cynics who regarded it as a “command to decommission the ‘coinage’ of social custom” (p. 20). Diogenes threw away his own drinking cup when he saw a slave boy sipping water with his hands, illustrating that even a cup is an unnecessary extravagance in a world where nature has provided us with hands, which themselves can be cupped. When he was confronted by outraged Athenians for masturbating in public, Diogenes scoffed at their prudery, lamenting “If only…one could relieve a hungry belly also just by rubbing it” (p. 89). He walked through the Athenian marketplace with a lantern in broad daylight “looking for an honest man” (p. 21), insinuating that honesty was invisible in highly civilized Athens. Differing accounts claim that he died by holding his breath, or from eating raw octopus, or from being bitten by a dog (p. 23). Upon his passing, he did not want to be buried, but to have his body left in the open to be consumed by animals.
Despite his unconventional life, Diogenes was reportedly admired by Alexander the Great, the leader of the Macedonian Empire. Upon arriving in Athens, Alexander found Diogenes asleep in his barrel. He prodded the Cynic, telling Diogenes that he was willing to grant him any wish he desired. Diogenes’ response was for Alexander to “stand out of my sun” (p. 21), suggesting that the only thing a king could do for him was to make way for what the world already provided naturally.
After Diogenes and the “classical period” of Cynicism, the third period of evolution occured with the literary influence of Cynic philosophy on Hellenistic thinkers – in particular the Stoics – and then continued into the Roman Empire, the fourth period of evolution.
The final chapter of Desmond’s book examines the legacy of Cynic thought, highlighting some of the philosophers, writers and religious figures who have been influenced by Cynicism. I was especially interested to see the ways in which Desmond characterizes one of my own favorite thinkers, Friedrich Nietzsche, as a sort of neo-Cynic. Like Diogenes, who coined the term “cosmopolitan” or “citizen of the world,” Nietzsche spent the majority of his adulthood homeless, wandering Europe and declaring himself to be a “good European” rather than a citizen of Germany. He railed against the constraining forces of polite society, exhorting people to harness their natural “will to power” in service of an earthly sort of contentment in the here-and-now. His philosophy extolls the virtues of individualism, naturalism, and self-sufficiency; very much like the ancient Cynics. It’s no wonder (as Desmond notes on page 231) that Nietzsche, in The Wanderer and His Shadow (§ 18) writes:
The modern Diogenes. – Before one seeks a human being, one must have found the lantern. Will it have to be the lantern of the cynic?
More startling to some readers might be Desmond’s speculation that Jesus may, perhaps, have been a Cynic. Desmond reports that some of the major Cynic philosophers of Jesus’s time – Menippus, Meleager and Oenomaus – lived in Gadara, a city near Nazareth and the Sea of Galilee. Perhaps Jesus became familiar with their ideas and integrated them into his own teachings. His praise of poverty, his rejection of convention, his mixing with lowly people and his courage in speaking out against those in power all offer tempting suggestions that there was something “cynical” about Jesus. Indeed, Desmond writes that some scholars have gone so far as to conclude that we find “Cynicism in the heart of the Christian Gospels themselves” (p. 211).
I really enjoyed Desmond’s book. While I have long been a fan of Diogenes, I was not acquainted with all of the details in the development of Cynicism as a philosophy. Instead, most of the other, shorter accounts of the Cynics that I have read characterize them as proponents of something more like a lifestyle or an attitude rather than of a coherent system of thought. Desmond’s account of this movement convincingly puts the Cynics into a larger perspective, demonstrating the underlying method to their madness as well as the long-lasting influence that the “classical” Cynics have had on philosophy up to present times. Desmond has inspired me to explore the Cynics further, and perhaps even to integrate more of their cheekiness into my own life.