The philosophy of cynicism – William D. Desmond

The philosophy of cynicism – William D. Desmond


In the 4th century BCE, a banker’s son threw the city of Sinope
into scandal by counterfeiting coins. When the dust finally settled,
the young man, Diogenes of Sinope, had been stripped of his citizenship,
his money, and all his possessions. At least, that’s how the story goes. While many of the details of
Diogenes’ life are shadowy, the philosophical ideas born out of his
disgrace survive today. In exile, Diogenes decided that by
rejecting the opinions of others and societal measures of success,
he could be truly free. He would live self-sufficiently, close to
nature, without materialism, vanity, or conformity. In practice, this meant he spent years
wandering around Greek cities with nothing but a cloak, staff,
and knapsack— outdoors year-round, forgoing technology,
baths, and cooked food. He didn’t go about this new
existence quietly, but is said to have teased passers-by
and mocked the powerful, eating, urinating and
even masturbating in public. The citizens called him a kyôn—
a barking dog. Though meant as an insult, dogs were
actually a good symbol for his philosophy— they’re happy creatures, free from
abstractions like wealth or reputation. Diogenes and his growing
number of followers became known as “dog philosophers,”
or kynikoi, a designation that eventually
became the word “Cynic.” These early Cynics were a carefree bunch, drawn to the freedom of a
wandering lifestyle. As Diogenes’ reputation grew, others
tried to challenge his commitment. Alexander the Great offered him
anything he desired. But instead of asking for material goods, Diogenes only asked Alexander to
get out of his sunshine. After Diogenes’ death, adherents to his philosophy continued
to call themselves Cynics for about 900 years, until 500 CE. Some Greek philosophers, like the Stoics, thought everyone should follow
Diogenes’ example. They also attempted to tone
down his philosophy to be more acceptable to
conventional society— which, of course, was fundamentally
at odds with his approach. Others viewed the Cynics less charitably. In the Roman province of Syria in
the 2nd century CE, the satirist Lucian described the Cynics
of his own time as unprincipled, materialistic, self-promoting hypocrites, who only preached what Diogenes had
once actually practiced. Reading Lucian’s texts centuries later, Renaissance and Reformation writers called
their rivals cynics as an insult— meaning people who criticized others
without having anything worthwhile to say. This usage eventually laid the groundwork
for the modern meaning of the word “cynic:” a person who thinks everyone else
is acting out of pure self-interest, even if they claim a higher motive. Still, the philosophy of cynicism
had admirers, especially among those who wished
to question the state of society. The 18th-century French philosopher
Jean-Jacques Rousseau was called the “new Diogenes” when he
argued that the arts, sciences, and technology, corrupt people. In 1882, Friedrich Nietzsche
reimagined a story in which Diogenes went into the
Athenian marketplace with a lantern, searching in vain for a single
honest person. In Nietszche’s version, a so-called madman
rushes into a town square to proclaim that “God is dead.” This was Nietzsche’s way of calling
for a “revaluation of values,” and rejecting the dominant
Christian and Platonic idea of universal, spiritual insights
beyond the physical world. Nietzsche admired Diogenes for sticking
stubbornly to the here-and-now. More recently, the hippies of the 1960s
have been compared with Diogenes as counter-cultural rebels. Diogenes’ ideas have been adopted
and reimagined over and over again. The original cynics might not have
approved of these fresh takes: they believed that their values
of rejecting custom and living closely with nature
were the only true values. Whether or not you agree with that,
or with any of the later incarnations, all have one thing in common:
they questioned the status quo. And that’s an example
we can still follow: not to blindly follow conventional
or majority views, but to think hard about
what is truly valuable.

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