What does the word cynical mean? Does it mean someone who is dubious about his fellow peers’ motives? And what about the stereotypical philosopher we are used to, as explained in my post “What is a Philosopher?” In Ancient Greece, there was a philosopher by the name of Diogenes who became the informal image of the philosopher and was cynical before it was even cool. He helped create a name for the Cynic philosophy and is partly responsible for the misrepresentation of the modern day philosopher. Back in the day, Diogenes was the most radical non-conformist who advocated the simple life in accord with nature, κɑτɑ φυσɩν.
Born in 404 BCE, Diogenes was a contemporary of both Plato and Antisthenes, the latter being his future teacher. It is highly possible that Diogenes may have had a predisposition for being a rebel, for his father, it is said, was incarcerated for defacing the local coinage in Sinope–Diogenes’ birth city. Not much can be said about the philosopher’s early youth, for up until the point of his tutelage under Antisthenes, his past remains a mystery. We do know, however, that he met Antisthenes (445-365 BCE) at some point. Antisthenes himself was a student of Socrates. Upon the death of the greatest questioner in history, his students, Antisthenes included, diffused across Greece as they set up their own schools. Borrowing from Socrates’ modest asceticism, Antisthenes left the high ranks of society and started the Cynic tradition. For whatever reason, Diogenes doggedly (no pun intended) pursued Antisthenes, seeking wisdom from the philosopher. Diogenes constantly pestered the man so much that it got to the point where Antisthenes beat the desperate Diogenes with a stick! Thanks to his obstinance, however, Diogenes got the elder to accede. Little did Antisthenes know that his student would be the most important Cynic in history.
Cynicism is a unique philosophy. You could even say that they took their principles a little too far, perhaps. Diogenes’ core idea was that Man should live in accordance with nature, as simply as possible. He along with his students were missionaries of a sort, traveling city-to-city preaching about the life of simplicity. To Diogenes, material things like money and lavish accessories corrupted nature. Not only did he despise concrete things, but he also disapproved of social conventions. Like every philosopher in the Hellenistic period, Diogenes believed that virtue was the highest good. Virtue was the rejection of desires and the pursuit of goods earned by the individual, according to Diogenes. What he meant by goods earned by the individual was that things granted by other people and nature happen purely by chance. Diogenes said that everything we own should come from ourselves: confidence, happiness, et cetera. Two of the key principles of Cynicism were freedom (eleutheria, ελευθερια) and free speech (parrhesia, παρρησια). To be a Cynic, you must be free from society’s and life’s constraints and you must also speak without fear. Desires of wealth and reputation were unnatural and made us less human, property and social classes dehumanized us, and conventional, man-made norms limited our freedom. We can even draw a connection between Diogenes and twentieth-century existentialist Jean-Paul Sartre when both figures speak of “authenticity.” Sartre and Diogenes claimed most of us live inauthentic lives–lives not fully developed by ourselves, rather they are formed after someone else. In this way, Diogenes is almost like an existentialist telling us to live our own life under the domain of nature. The Cynic philosopher was so in touch with nature that he considered himself equal to both Man and beast. He was particularly fascinated by mice, it is said.
For further info: The Great Courses: Practical Philosophy : The Greco-Roman Moralists by Luke Timothy Johnson (2002)
A History of Philosophy Volume 1: Greece and Rome by Frederick Copelston (1993)
The Story of Philosophy by James Garvey and Jeremy Stangroom (2012)
The Oxford Companion to Philosophy edited by Ted Honderich (1995)
1001 Ideas That Changed the Way We Think by Robert Arp (2013)
The History of Western Thought by Bertrand Russell (1972)
What is Ancient Philosophy? by Pierre Hadot (2002)