The Cynics were an influential school of ancient Greek and Roman philosophers. They adopted ideas of Socrates, contributed significantly to the Stoic system of ethics, and established a tradition of challenging established beliefs in order to discover truth. They rejected the social values of their time, often flouting conventions in shocking ways to prove their point.
Cynics were known for their ascetic lifestyle, having no possessions except a cloak, staff and wallet. They lived by the precept that virtue is the only good, and emphasized the value of physical activity and hard work in attaining it. Important Cynics include Antisthenes, Diogenes of Sinope, and Crates of Thebes.
The earliest Cynic, according to Diogenes Laertius, was Antisthenes (c. 444-365 B.C.E.), who, he says, “was the original cause of the apathy of Diogenes, and the temperance of Crates, and the patience of Zeno, having himself, as it were, laid the foundations of the city which they afterwards built.” A pupil of Socrates, Antisthenes took the precept that “virtue is the only good,” and the concept of indifference to pain or pleasure, and set about to discover how virtue could be attained through exercise of reason and self-discipline. Attaching more importance to the condition of the soul than that of the physical body, he established an ascetic lifestyle, considering material possessions and luxuries to be impediments to the freedom of human will.
The name “Cynic” is thought to be derived either from the gymnasium in Athens called Cynosarges, used by non-Athenian citizens for the worship of Heracles, where Antisthenes, and later Diogenes, gave lectures; or from the Greek word for a dog (kuon), in contemptuous allusion to the uncouth and aggressive manners adopted by the members of the school.
Diogenes of Sinope (404-323 B.C.E.), a follower of Antisthenes, was even more unconventional, flouting social mores, and using abrasive repartee to challenge the self-importance of other philosophers. He lived an extremely ascetic life, sleeping in a tub and carrying only a wallet and staff. He ate and drank in markets and public places, and developed the practice of shamelessness. His student, Crates (365-285 B.C.E.) was the teacher of Zeno of Citium, who became founder of the Stoic school. Crates and his wife Hipparchia, the first known female Cynic, set a public example by appearing everywhere together and raising their family as ascetics.
Cynicism faded in popularity as Stoicism took hold, partly because of its impracticality and because it did not offer solutions to many of the problems of philosophy. A modified form of Cynicism experienced a resurgence in Rome during the first and second centuries C.E. Roman Cynics included Oenomaus, and Demetrius and Demonax, praised in the works of Seneca and Lucian. In addition, their extreme lifestyle and their inclination to harshly question everything made Cynics the subject of humor in many literary and dramatic works.
None of the original works of the Cynics have survived, although Diogenes Laertes makes reference to books and letters written by Antisthenes, Crates and Hipparchia. Our understanding of Cynic thought and ethics comes from the quotes attributed to them and anecdotes related by later writers, whose stories may have been colored by exaggeration. An important source is Diogenes Laertius’ Lives of Eminent Philosophers, which includes biographies of all the early Cynics.
The Cynics drew many of their precepts from Socrates, but carried them to extreme conclusions. The most important tenet, “Virtue is the only good, all else is vice,” was the basis for all aspects of Cynic thought. Virtue was a life lived in accordance with natural order, guided by reason and characterized by self-sufficiency and strength. Human will, when exercised in freedom, sought only virtue. Material possessions, luxuries, fame and power were regarded as impediments to freedom. A life of asceticism (askesis) and hard work was necessary to train the body to follow reason. Self-sufficiency was achieved by reducing the necessities of life to the bare minimum; Cynics were known for walking about with only a worn cloak, a staff and a wallet.
Freedom was considered to have three aspects, personal freedom (eleutheria) (the freedom to act in pursuit of virtue); self-sufficiency (autarkeia) (freedom from social and financial obligations); and freedom of speech (parrhēsia)(freedom to speak frankly). A person who was not dependent on society was free to speak out in criticism of it. They coined the term kosmopolites, or citizen of the cosmos, to counter the great importance attached at the time to Athenian citizenship and to emphasize that they were instead citizens of the greater natural world.
Cynics ceaselessly questioned existing conventions and ideas in order to discover what was really true. They held that moral law took precedence over civil law, and rejected any law or custom that did not advance virtue. They practiced shamelessness, saying that anything virtuous enough to do in private was virtuous enough to be done in public. Rhetoric and dialogue were used to expose the weaknesses of philosophical propositions, and coarse repartee to expose the personal weaknesses of their acquaintances. The Cynic intention in tearing down old ideas was to allow better ones to appear in their place.
The Cynics placed importance on actions rather than words. They rejected the metaphysical and the theoretical, and focused on ethics and the practical application of their ideas. They conceived a life of asceticism as the shortest path to virtue, but understood that their way was difficult for most people to follow. Their methods resulted in pronounced individualism and isolation from the mainstream of society.
Cynics were nominalists; they believed the only reality was that which could be experienced by the senses. Ideas did not exist outside of the mind that thought them. The modern term “cynic” denotes someone who has a consistent skeptical attitude towards everything, and who criticizes without offering a better solution. This was untrue of the original Cynics, who attacked the values of their Greek society and government in order to establish values that were more in accordance with virtue.
The greatest Cynic legacy is the ethics that they bequeathed to Stoicism. The Cynics firmly established the responsibility of each individual to live a moral life, and the importance of self-discipline and indifference to pleasure or pain in the pursuit of virtue. They also established a tradition of questioning the validity of every assumption until proof can be found, a practice which has continued to advance modern philosophy and science. Crates, the third major proponent of Cynicism, is credited with teaching Zeno of Citium, who later founded the Stoic school.
The extreme ascetic lifestyle and abrasive manner of the early Cynics became material for many anecdotes and humorous references in the literature and drama of the succeeding centuries. There are numerous references to Cynicism in the writings of later philosophers. Early Christians admired the mendicant lifestyle and self-discipline of the Cynics, though not their freedom of expression.
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