Cynicism was an ancient Greek philosophical movement, which held that we attain happiness and tranquility by denying established convention. Known as the "dog philosophers" for living like dogs, Cynics denied conventional ideas of wealth, reputation, pleasure, property, family duty, and religion. They were typically ascetics since they viewed money as an artificial convention. Of all the Eudimonean schools, Cynicism was the least systematized, having no official treatises; the descriptions we have were authored by people outside the school itself. Rather than making their points in written argument form, the Cynics themselves attempted to teach by example through their lives, which often involved deliberately shocking speech and conduct. Their goal was to grab attention and vividly illustrate the problems with established convention. Cynics used several metaphors to describe their self-appointed task. For example, they considered themselves as messengers of God, the watchdogs of humanity who would bark at illusion, and surgeons whose knife sliced the cancer of pretentiousness from people's minds.

Antisthenes and Diogenes. The founding father of the school was an Athenian named Antisthenes (440-370 BCE), who first studied rhetoric under the Sophist Gorgias. Dissatisfied with Gorgias, Antisthenes soon gravitated to Socrates, bringing a several of Gorgias's students with him. While a student of Socrates, he wore tattered clothes, had a matted beard and carried around a bag like a beggar. According to one anecdote, Socrates commented to him, "Why are you so pretentious?Through your rags I see your vanity." Nevertheless, Antisthenes continued with this manner of appearance. After Socrates' execution, Antisthenes started his own school, which captured some of the flavor of Socrates' teachings in extreme form. Following Socrates, he focused on moral concerns and taught that virtue is needed for true happiness. Achieving virtue, though, involve mental and physical toil. In our quest for virtue, we need to exercise self-control, deny pleasures, and study the names of things and their definitions. Also like Socrates, as suggested by the above anecdote, Antisthenes saw foolishness in the established views of the many, and was bold in exposing his discontent. Antisthenes' attacks on conventional politics were so strong that his school became increasingly unpopular, and many of his more scholarly students abandoned him.

The second great Cynic was a loyal pupil of Antisthenes named Diogenes (4th century BCE). Nicknamed "The Dog", Diogenes followed Antisthenes manner of appearance and contempt for convention. A highly visible ascetic in Athens, Plato went so far as to call him as "Socrates gone mad." Events of Diogenes' life are sketchy. He was exiled from his home country of Sinope when he and his banker father defaced a coin. He arrived in Athens and sought to be a disciple of Antisthenes. Annoyed by Diogenes' persistence, Antisthenes hit Diogenes with a stick, to which Diogenes replied: "Strike me, Antisthenes, but you will never find a stick sufficiently hard to remove me from your presence, while you speak anything worth hearing." Impressed by this, Antisthenes accepted him into his school. Diogenes' behavior was no less strange than his teachers'. He once embraced a cold statue in winter, illustrating how even our perceptions of pain are conventional. During the daytime he carried a lit oil lantern, holding it up to people, illustrating his search for a virtuous person. Another anecdote, of questionable historicity, describes how Alexander the Great sought to meet the strange Diogenes fellow that he heard so much about. Finding Diogenes living in a tub, Alexander said, "I am Alexander the Great" to which Diogenes replied "I am Diogenes the Cynic." Alexander then asked if Diogenes needed any special favor from him. As the sun was shining brightly that day, Diogenes replied," You could stand between me and the sun." Alexander then said, "If I wasn't Alexander, I'd want to be Diogenes."

As John Fowles put it, " All cynicism masks a failure to cope." I tend to agree with this, although I believe it applies more to modern usage of negative attitudes rather than the historical movement. Often I find myself listening to my friends put forth cynical interpretations of their problems, usually feminine in origin, and I offer this quote, which usually precedes a swift kick to my stomach. I am joking of course, but also trying to demonstrate a point; it is true that cynicism is not a real coming to terms with a problem, (nor is irony for that matter; look at some of Kierkegaard's arguements with Schlegel), but it is also one of our culture's most accepted ways of attempting to do so, and is, in many cases, very healthy. How often do I come home and bitch, with all the cynical irony I can manage, about my job or any other problem I have? Often. I find it satisfying, even though it does mean I can't cope.

John Fowles. The Magus. NY: Dell Publishing, 1965

Cyn"i*cism (s?n"?-s?z'm), n.

The doctrine of the Cynics; the quality of being cynical; the mental state, opnions, or conduct, of a cynic; morose and contemptuous views and opinions.


© Webster 1913.

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