The word "cynic" comes from the ancient Greek word "kynikos
" (or "kunikos
" or the closest, "kynos
"), meaning "canine
" (or more to the point, "dog-like
") - and yet this philosophy is not
best known for the propensity of its adherents to sniff each others' butts and roll around on stanky carcasses. What's the deal? Read on, MacDuff...
Aristotle, a contemporary of Antisthenes and Diogenes (the founder and most famous member of the Cynic school of philosophy, respectively), justified the label as follows:
"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 cross-roads.
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."
- Dudley, D.R. A History of Cynicism from Diogenes to the 6th Century A.D. Chicago: Aries Press, 1980.
To say nothing of the nuttery of the third reason (their tenets fairly dripping from their actions for anyone half-adept at reading the context
of their constant arcane and ironic
pronouncements), we know that Aristotle was not entirely opposed to making things up on occasion to sound smarter than he really was, and so we seek a few other possible reasons for the original application of this tenacious appellation.
One account has it that the philosophers derived the name from the location where Antisthenes taught, a Gymnasium in Athens called Cynosarges (translated, "white dog"), itself bearing that odd name after a wacky incident early on there when a white dog stole a choice cut from a sacrifice to Hercules. This explanation lacks the arbitrariness of Aristotle's fucking smug pronouncement but itself carries a certain indifference I can't stand - there being no value judgements associated here with being said to centre around a particular building in the city - and so I continue the search for a satisfactorily subjective yet just explanation of the association between the word and the group.
As an individual, Diogenes was singularly referred to not merely as a Cynic, but more directly as the dog. The metaphor would have had the same negative connotations as it does today, but he embraced it and truly made it his own, as evident from the following (wholly apocryphal) anecdotes:
* In response to Plato boldly calling him a dog to his face, he agreed, saying that it was "Quite true, for I come back again and again to those who have tried to give me away."
* When asked what kind of dog he was, he said "When hungry, a Maltese; when full, a Molossian - two breeds which most people praise, though for fear of fatigue they do not venture out hunting with them."
* Interrupted from his breakfast in the middle of the busy public marketplace, sniggering onlookers taunted him with calls him of "dog!" "It is you who are dogs," cried he, "when you stand round and watch me at my breakfast."
* While at a feast, obnoxious party guests kept throwing their bones to "the dog." Fed up with greasy lamb ribs being constantly tossed his way, he sidled up and lifted his leg on them.
Though perhaps on the flimsiest basis of all, I ignore Aristotle's retroactive arbitration and the passive locale and instead choose as my own favourite version of the origin of the term then Cynic as a label applied not necessarily to those who behave like dogs but those of philosophies and demeanours similar to The Dog
, Diogenes, voluntarily and even enthusiastically adopting a derogatory nickname to ward off the proud plague of hubris