Cynicism (Ancient Greek: κυνισμός) is a school of thought of ancient Greek philosophy as practiced by the Cynics (Ancient Greek: Κυνικοί; Latin: Cynici). For the Cynics, the purpose of life is to live in virtue, in agreement with nature. As reasoning creatures, people can gain happiness by rigorous training and by living in a way which is natural for themselves, rejecting all conventional desires for wealth, power, and fame, and even flouting conventions openly and derisively in public. Instead, they were to lead a simple life free from all possessions.
The first philosopher to outline these themes was Antisthenes, who had been a pupil of Socrates in the late 5th century BCE. He was followed by Diogenes, who lived in a ceramic jar on the streets of Athens. Diogenes took Cynicism to its logical extremes, and came to be seen as the archetypal Cynic philosopher. He was followed by Crates of Thebes, who gave away a large fortune so he could live a life of Cynic poverty in Athens.
Cynicism gradually declined in importance after the 3rd century BCE, but it experienced a revival with the rise of the Roman Empire in the 1st century. Cynics could be found begging and preaching throughout the cities of the empire, and similar ascetic and rhetorical ideas appeared in early Christianity. By the 19th century, emphasis on the negative aspects of Cynic philosophy led to the modern understanding of cynicism to mean a disposition of disbelief in the sincerity or goodness of human motives and actions.
Origin of the Cynic name
The term cynic derives from Ancient Greek κυνικός (kynikos) 'dog-like', and κύων (kyôn) 'dog' (genitive: kynos). One explanation offered in ancient times for why the Cynics were called "dogs" was because the first Cynic, Antisthenes, taught in the Cynosarges gymnasium at Athens. The word cynosarges means the "place of the white dog". It seems certain, however, that the word dog was also thrown at the first Cynics as an insult for their shameless rejection of conventional manners, and their decision to live on the streets. Diogenes, in particular, was referred to as the "Dog", a distinction he seems to have revelled in, stating that "other dogs bite their enemies, I bite my friends to save them."
Later Cynics also sought to turn the word to their advantage, as a later commentator explained:
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.
Cynicism is one of the most striking of all the Hellenistic philosophies.It claimed to offer people the possibility of happiness and freedom from suffering in an age of uncertainty. Although there was never an official Cynic doctrine, the fundamental principles of Cynicism can be summarized as follows:
The goal of life is eudaimonia and mental clarity or lucidity (ἁτυφια)—literally "freedom from smoke (τύφος)" which signified false belief, mindlessness, folly, and conceit.
Eudaimonia is achieved by living in accord with Nature as understood by human reason.
Arrogance (τύφος) is caused by false judgments of value, which cause negative emotions, unnatural desires, and a vicious character.
Eudaimonia, or human flourishing, depends on self-sufficiency (αὐτάρκεια), equanimity, arete, love of humanity, parrhesia, and indifference to the vicissitudes of life (adiaphora ἁδιαφορία).
One progresses towards flourishing and clarity through ascetic practices (ἄσκησις) which help one become free from influences such as wealth, fame, and power that have no value in Nature. Instead they promoted living a life of ponos. For the Cynics, this did not seem to mean actual physical work. Diogenes of Sinope, for example, lived by begging, not by doing manual labor. Rather, it means deliberately choosing a hard life—for instance, wearing only a thin cloak and going barefoot in winter.
A Cynic practices shamelessness or impudence (Αναιδεια) and defaces the nomos of society: the laws, customs, and social conventions that people take for granted.