Need to know
The Cynics of ancient Greece were an extraordinarily odd and unpleasant group of individuals. They were hostile to outsiders, and between themselves were hardly pleasant. Antisthenes, who might be regarded as the first Cynic, raised his stick at Diogenes for wishing to study with him. Diogenes placed his head under the stick, so the story goes, and asked his elder to strike as hard as he could.
By the time of Crates of Thebes, who was Diogenes’ student, things had softened a bit. His brother-in-law Metrocles apparently disgraced himself by farting during a lecture on philosophy. Poor Metrocles locked himself up in his house and decided to starve himself to death for the shame of it. Fortunately, Crates arrived, ate an enormous quantity of lupin beans (which were known for their flatulent effects), and then farted and discoursed in his company to make the point that philosophy and natural inclinations should not be opposed. This is a lesson that Crates’ teacher, Diogenes, had already taught, albeit more harshly and crudely.
The Cynics were known for their acts of public indecency. In today’s world, they would be swiftly arrested and imprisoned, perhaps even sectioned, for what they did. This raises the question, what is there to learn from such people? It might be assumed that, if the Cynics still have anything to teach us, we must first set aside, or explain away, some of their more repellent behaviours. As I argue below, this would be a mistake.
Cynicism in ancient Greece was nothing like what we today call cynicism (which can be spelt with a lowercase ‘c’). Ancient Cynicism was extremely rare; it was genuinely hard to be, or become, a Cynic.
The ancient Cynic outlook was negative, but the Cynic did not become trapped by their negativity, or use a negative outlook on life as an excuse for doing nothing, for giving up on life, or for giving in. Cynic negativity was not associated with the idea that if everything is bad, nothing can be done, so let’s do nothing. Rather, Cynic negativity spurred the Cynic into action. Negativity was employed in a quest to become free of unnatural restraint, and to conjure a less servile state of mind. Negativity released the Cynic from social obligations, and social ties, and allowed the Cynic to think differently about the world around them.
One of the most important features of ancient Cynicism is that it did not offer advice or set out a programme for what you needed to do to become a Cynic. And although ancient Cynics were extremely critical of their surroundings, they did not produce a detailed assessment of everything that was wrong with the world as they saw it.
Their Cynicism did not explain, for instance, how exactly we have become trapped in ways of seeing the world, and habits of living, that we need to escape. And it did not outline exactly what we need to do in order to become free of our restraints and learn to live a fuller life. This is partly down to the fact that for the Cynic these are all practical questions. In a sense, everyone needs to find their own way.
Accordingly, we must each explore in practice how we have been conditioned to accept the unacceptable; we must each investigate our habitual ways of being and seeing, and explore how and where we might adjust our lives. It is not up to someone else to tell us what we must do, because if someone else does that, they are imposing their authority and, for the Cynic, all authorities are to be questioned. This suspicion of authority does of course extend to the Cynic too, which is why a Cynic will resist the role of teacher, guide or prophet.
We can still learn from Cynicism, however. We just need to approach the question of learning, of how to learn from others, a little differently. If the Cynic will not advise or guide us, or suggest what we must do, we can still observe what the Cynic does, and try to understand what it might mean to be a Cynic.
It also happens to be the case that ancient Cynicism is known about only anecdotally and largely second hand. The ancient Cynics did not write down their teachings (at least none survive), and we must turn instead to reports written by others describing what they did. These were often written hundreds of years later, and the largest collection of anecdotes was assembled by a very different Diogenes, someone called Diogenes Laertius, who compiled his Lives and Opinions of Eminent Philosophers in the 3rd century CE. By far the most entertaining in his collection is Book VI, which is devoted to the Cynics, a squalid bunch who were nonetheless considered in antiquity to be as worthy of the title ‘philosopher’ as their more serious and aloof contemporaries. Diogenes, who lived in the 4th century BCE, was by far the oddest and most notorious of them all. Arriving in Athens from the outer fringes of the Greek world, he set up camp inside a large barrel, or storage jar, and soon became famous for his bizarre and unsettling behaviour.
Even if you don’t take up living in a barrel or try yourself out on a diet of lupin beans, thinking about how the Cynics behaved might help you to realise the social constraints we all live under. It might also help to show how acting odd can offer a route to seeing the world around you from a different perspective. In what follows, I will pick five elements, or traits, that may be associated with the life and example of Diogenes. These will be explored in an effort to think through what it might mean to be a Cynic in the ancient sense.
Think it through
Improvise your life
If you search for images of Diogenes online, you are likely to find quite a few that show him living in a large storage jar, or a barrel, in the middle of ancient Athens. Much has been made of this image as if it shows us something essential about what it means to be a Cynic: the Cynic does not require a proper home, hardly needs any possessions, and makes do with the absolute minimum. The Cynic does not require any privacy either and will do everything in public (absolutely everything indeed!) without shame or embarrassment. All of these ideas have since become associated with Cynicism and have become part of Cynic folklore. And yet, it is not certain that, when Diogenes made for the small city-state of ancient Athens, he had a jar in mind as his chosen abode. According to one account, Diogenes ended up living in a jar only because the cottage he was aiming for could not be arranged in time. What this anecdote suggests is that key Cynic ideas – live in the open, live according to nature without shame or embarrassment – emerged only as a result of circumstance. The Cynic way of life is improvised, the Cynic proceeds by improvisation.
By implication, one might say that, to live like a Cynic, you need to become supple and remain open to the unexpected. For this to happen, you must free yourself of any fixed ideas about what your life will or should be like, and you must be prepared to adapt to whatever situation you find yourself in. The Cynic does not live in a manner that is decided in advance, or according to rules that are prefigured, or preordained. For his part, Diogenes appears repeatedly as extremely resourceful, adaptable and resilient in the various stories that were told of his life.
Despite the odd and unsettling behaviour of Diogenes, he did attract some would-be converts and disciples. According to one story, when someone came to study with Diogenes, he gave the man a fish to carry and told him to follow in his footsteps (in a different version of the story, he gives the man a lump of cheese). The man was ashamed, so the story goes, by what he had just been asked to do, and threw the fish (or the lump of cheese) away. When Diogenes came across him some time later, Diogenes burst out laughing and said: ‘Our friendship was brought to an end by a fish!’
To understand what was going on here it is necessary to bear in mind the context: this exchange was taking place in ancient Athens which was, at that time, a slave society. The would-be student in this story was ashamed because following Diogenes in this way would make him look not like a student but like a slave. This was an unbearable position to be put in for a so-called ‘free man’. It was beyond embarrassing.
There are several possible readings of this story. One way of understanding it would be to say that, for Diogenes, there is not much distinction between being a student and being a slave. Each is a servant to their master. Hence, if you want to be a Cynic, you must find your own path, and not expect a more accomplished Cynic to show you the way.
Another way of understanding this story is to say that, for Diogenes, the first step in becoming a Cynic is to experience and then overcome humiliation.
For the Cynic, this might be viewed as the most difficult step in becoming free. It could be argued that one of the most intimate binds, or fetters, that produces social conformity, that encourages us to abide by all sorts of rules and expectations in our everyday lives, is the experience of shame and our desire to avoid that experience. All standards of behaviour, of acceptable conduct, ultimately depend upon us internalising their commands. When we break those rules, we do not simply feel bad, we feel ashamed or embarrassed. This, for the Cynic, is a mental attitude that needs to be overcome. It will not be overcome immediately, however, which is why the Cynic develops a taste for humiliation. The Cynic seeks out humiliating experiences in order to suffer them and grow stronger in the face of them. It is no use simply telling others to live shamelessly. We must each develop the capacity to live shamelessly by unremitting practice.
Push against all boundaries
Part of living like a Cynic involves a practical exploration of the rules and expectations that currently constrain us. Many of these will be obvious. Laws are written down, rules are often explicitly stated, and wrongdoers are punished. But many of the expectations we live by, and that condition our behaviour, take the form of tacit, or unspoken rules that we rarely test and outside of which we rarely stray. It is the job of the Cynic to make them obvious, to bring them out into the open.
Children will learn from an early age what is expected of them in terms of their behaviour and what they are permitted to say or not say, as they discover what is considered naughty and what is praiseworthy. They will become familiar with different rules for different contexts, where what may be allowed at home might not be allowed at school, and vice versa. Expectations will vary between the adults or older siblings they live with, and between generations too, and these differences can be quite subtle. Similarly, expectations vary by context: how children are expected to act in the street, on the way to school, for instance, will be different from how they can act in the playground, and so on. Children often become very good at moving between these different realms, and adjust their behaviour accordingly. Adults do much the same, having long developed the knack for implicitly knowing what is expected of them in the workplace, for instance, by contrast with how they can act among friends. We live much of our lives by these unwritten rules, by expectations that are rarely questioned and not much thought about.
The work of the Cynic involves, in part, challenging all of this. That is done through the practice of boundary-testing, an activity that can range from playful behaviours and witty exchanges to moments of open and direct confrontation. The Cynic discovers where boundaries lie. The Cynic makes obvious all the systems of constraint that condition us and constantly, persistently raises the question of how necessary these boundaries are. Each transgressive act might be viewed, then, as a practical investigation and a questioning of the constraints we live under.
Act with courage, refuse to owe respect to the powerful
Another image that comes up when you search ‘Diogenes’ online shows the philosopher reclining on the floor gesturing dismissively at an obviously important man who is standing over him. This man is Alexander the Great, who spent much of his short life engaged in military campaigns, obliterating his enemies, and building an empire that stretched from the Adriatic Sea to the Indus River. Alexander supposedly came to Diogenes to ask if there was anything he could do for him. ‘Ask me for anything you want,’ the emperor said. To this, Diogenes gives the simple if not rude reply: ‘Stand out of my light.’
Again, here we have a story that can be read in many different ways. One reading is that this anecdote demonstrates the Cynic determination to remain uncorrupted by power. It can be tempting to bend your principles when it is most convenient to do so, or if it brings you some personal advantage, or at least keeps you out of trouble. This was something Diogenes refused to do, even though at that moment he was being offered the world on a plate.
Another interpretation is that the Cynic commits to speaking ‘truth to power’, consistently and unflinchingly. To live like a Cynic means that you commit to speaking truth to power in all circumstances, that you do not tone down your language when put to the test.
Yet another interpretation is that to be a Cynic means that you remain resolutely unimpressed by power. The Cynic does not find power enticing, or attractive, and has no wish for power or influence for themselves. The Cynic is ultimately indifferent before power. Before a powerful individual the Cynic remains unmoved, unaffected, immune.
Give up everything you can
When Diogenes is represented in art, he is often simply clothed, if not scantily clad, and is depicted with few or no possessions. This reflects the life he led, in which he pursued a course of deliberate and determined self-impoverishment. According to another renowned anecdote, when Diogenes observed a small boy drinking water out of his hands, the Cynic threw away his own cup, deciding that it was another unnecessary possession.
Again, there are multiple readings of this story. One approach is to conclude that to live like a Cynic you must give up everything you can. You should be constantly on the lookout for things you can do without, that you could give away. You should strip yourself of all unnecessary possessions, and thereby demonstrate to yourself and to others just how expendable, how unnecessary, our material possessions ultimately are. This again can be read as a kind of investigation, a series of experiments, to find out which of the things we surround ourselves with are absolutely indispensable, and so which things we should ultimately learn to value once we have cleared all other things aside.
Another, related reading, is to conclude that our dependence on material possessions produces another set of ties that bind us and force us to submit to their logic. In other words, the lure of material possessions binds us to the pursuit of wealth, and all the enslaving effects that follow, such as the basic demand to maintain a job, and then to seek a better-paid job, or to seek promotion, and submit as a result to the demands and expectations of the workplace. The Cynic command to give up everything you can might be read as an invitation to escape the enticements and enlistments of material culture.
Key points – How to live like a Cynic
- Improvise your life. A Cynic, in the ancient sense, does not have fixed ideas about what their life will or should be like, and for this reason will be more prepared to adapt to circumstance.
- Live shamelessly. The sense of shame or embarrassment that rule-breakers feel is the last and most intimate bind that produces and maintains us in a state of servility, enslaved to laws we might otherwise wish to question and rebel against. The Cynic confronts this situation by embracing humiliating experiences and so finds ways to overcome or become immune to those who would wish to shame them into submission.
- Push against all boundaries. Not all rules, prohibitions or social conventions are explicitly stated. We live most of our lives according to a set of expectations and inhibitions that remain tacit or unstated, and which are for that reason hard to see, and even harder to challenge. A Cynic seeks to push against these boundaries to discover where they are and lay them open to challenge.
- Act with courage, refuse to owe respect to the powerful. The Cynic remains impassive or unaffected by people in positions of power, authority or influence. This helps the Cynic remain incorruptible and ensures they are prepared to offer up uncomfortable truths, even when the act of speaking out may place them in jeopardy.
- Give up everything you can. Material possessions are treated with suspicion based on the idea that we are at risk of becoming enslaved to them, or at least, that we are at risk of becoming enslaved to all the activities (seeking promotion, sucking up to the boss, etc) that help secure wealth and prosperity and guarantee a comfortable life. By refusing the enticements of material culture, the Cynic is better able to escape its enlistments, its enforced servitudes.
Why it matters
Many people see modern cynicism as a threat to the world we live in. It is generally believed that modern cynicism is bad, and that something needs to be done about it. Responses to such cynicism range from open denunciations and calls to be hopeful not cynical, to expressions of pity, where the modern cynic is treated as if they are somehow a victim of their own negativity. Modern cynic negativity is often thought to be exaggerated, as if the cynic were guilty of some kind of over-reaction when all, in fact, is not lost, and much good can still be achieved. The cynic is viewed as moody, withdrawn and temperamental. This cynic is presented as someone who takes the easy way out by giving up, by deciding that nothing can be improved and that everything is compromised. To be cynical is viewed, in the last analysis, as the least courageous thing one could do. Those who show courage, who demonstrate strength and resilience, are said to be those who dare to hope.
There may well be some truth in these depictions of the modern cynical outlook, but this is not all that modern cynicism can be. Its disappointments, its sensations of paralysis and hopelessness, might actually convey a kind of brutal honesty about the predicament of a society, of a culture, a type of honesty that could be the first step in realising the extent to which things might have gone wrong. It is here that cynic negativity could be rendered productive in pushing disappointment to a point where nothing but absolute, radical action is thinkable. And this kind of action might well begin ‘at home’, so to speak, by adjusting one’s behaviour and outlook so that so-called cynic weaknesses are transformed into strengths.
It is important to distinguish between different types of contemporary cynicism. Some cynicisms certainly are to be deplored without reserve. There is a kind of cynicism associated with powerful positions, for instance, where those occupying such positions use their power and influence to manipulate others to their own ends (television series such as House of Cards and Ozark offer a kind of extended immersion in this kind of cynicism). There is also a kind of institutional cynicism that adopts a strategic approach to workplace politics and treats institutional life as a cynical game that you play to your best advantage (here, cynicism is certainly selfish, self-interested and manipulative). But there is also the cynicism of those who are genuinely suffering from disappointment with their situation and the state of the world around them. It is here that developing, enhancing and strengthening cynical attitudes might be worth considering. It is important to avoid the easy and all-too-quick assumption that cynical outlooks reflect a set of psychological flaws that need to be remedied.
An exploration of ancient Cynicism can come in useful to help upturn the assumption that cynicism is necessarily bad for you. The ancient Cynics were depicted as healthy and courageous individuals, as people who thrived and grew strong because of their Cynicism, and not in spite of it. As I have explained above, these ancient Cynics were reluctant to teach others, or offer principles to live by, or any ‘life hacks’ or self-help tips. They were too embedded in their own context for this, and their acts of courage and rebellion were very much targeted at the specific cultural and political conditions they lived under. For this reason, it makes no sense to attempt to revive or redo anything Diogenes (or any other ancient Cynic for that matter) may or may not have done. At best we can try to understand how ancient Cynicism operated within its given context and take inspiration from its improvisational and playful approach to life, from its witty and clever refusals to submit to social expectations or laws.
Links & books
My book Cynicism (2020) explores the topics covered here in much more detail, including a discussion of many other scurrilous anecdotes involving Diogenes and his associates. It also presents an account of how ancient Cynicism was gradually transformed to become the jaded, bleached-out cynicism we encounter today.
In a 2020 interview for Start the Week on BBC Radio 4 (about 15 minutes in), I also discuss how Cynicism was transformed from an improvised philosophy that challenged social norms and scandalised contemporaries to the watered-down version of cynicism we now experience.
My website provides links to various other interviews and articles about Cynicism.
Several collections are available in which the sayings and anecdotes of the ancient Cynics are compiled, including The Cynic Philosophers: From Diogenes to Julian (Penguin, 2012) and Diogenes the Cynic: Sayings and Anecdotes (Oxford University Press, 2012).
By far the largest ancient collection of anecdotes was compiled by Diogenes Laertius in the 3rd century CE. Several well-known Cynics are covered in this book, (available free online from Project Gutenberg), including Antisthenes, Diogenes, Crates, Hipparchia, and Metrocles (all in Book VI).