Philosofactory: The Cynics

(by pyrrho for publishing jointly at MLW and DocuDharma)

Cynicism: Diogenes
philosophy for life in
the streets

zeno I will be using the print version of the Oxford “Dictionary of
Philosophy” to refresh myself for this series.

Links offered may or may not have been referenced to research this post. I
may or may not believe their assertions or have been exposed to them, but
they are given to ease your direct research further into The Cynics.

This school of philosophy has a bit different origin. You have the Garden
of Epicurus, you have some pythagorean retreat, and you have even the
hardship embracing stoics, chatting on a painted porch, but the founder of
cynicism had a very different origin, the streets. He was homeless, he
begged, he lived in extreme poverty. He made a virtue of it, he was a student
of Antisthenes, whom Plato said was present at the death of Socrates… he
was known and respected, but his worldview involved waging “a crusade of
antisocial mockery, hoping to show by their own example the hollow illusions
of social life”, in the words of the Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy.

This series is presenting five ancient schools of philosophy as
archetypes, places in the western mindset which are the source of a lot of
conventional wisdom.

By no means are these five archetypes meant to be limiting, there’s six
billion schools of philosophy really, but these really are sources for lots
of common ideas and themes over thousands of years so far.

Have you seen anyone, say, on the internets, wage such a crusade of
antisocial mockery? I have as a matter of fact. Cynicism is probably the most
defensible of all these schools on relevance to the modern condition, it
reflects a condition we have had consistently for the 2400 years since
Diogenes, and longer than that before. One seeks to condemn the philosophy
and philosopher, but it is drawn from realities in our culture.

I think it’s fair to think of each of these philosophies as suiting, or at
leasts adapted to, different specific niche environments, contexts within our
culture, certain subcultures or roles in culture that lend themselves to
certain realities… realities being what honest philosophers (perhaps a rare
breed) attempt to make world views of. And for the cynics, that is life in
the streets.

There are many contexts in which cynicism does one good, for example,
politics. Sometimes, it’s vital for understanding business in a capitalist
economies. Also, I think it is valuable in art. I love a good dark comedy. I
love a wry look at life. For me it’s a perspective that is useful to find in
fiction if one hopes to return to a more positive and sustainable
perspective… non-fiction cynicism is draining, but also, someone a realist
must endure.

The modern meaning of cynic is perhaps most true of all to the general
philosophy of the cynics, though some technical details follow below as the
cynics too have a philosophy in terms of how to live the best life, most
satisfied or content. They sought to desire nothing, and therefore lack
nothing. Expect nothing of humans, and not be disappointed. They also
contributed to the logical systems and the history of logic with many
“antinomies”. An “antinomy” is a kind of paradox which (Oxford DoP) “show
that contradictory conclusion about the world”, such as assuming the world
has a beginning and is limited in space and arguing that it is therefore
without beginning and limitless in space. This example is drawn from Kant, who
was not a cynic, for these serve as general paradox’s addressed by many

My premise is elements of each of these philosophies is seen in wide use today in Western Cultures, so called.

The archetypes are so far as follow:

  • Epicurean: “Enjoy the simple pleasures, such as friendship, food and
    wine. Nature is filled with pleasure and suffering alike.”
  • Stoic: “Live with virtue and be indifferent to the harshness of life.
    Nature is indifferent but ordered.”
  • Pythagorean: “Truth and beauty lie in the abstractions of mathematics
    and geometry. Nature can be described with number.”
  • Cynicism: “Desire nothing, live desiring nothing, and be satisfied.
    Nature cannot be wholly described, logic leads to equally contradictory
  • ???

The Cynics lived by example, and the greek culture was able to recognize
this poverty as part of their philosophies. The anarchy of their approach
really did defy presentation through the philosophy of just one of them,
moreso than any other philosophy. Diogenes, the founder, is certainly a
candidate for that role epitomizing the philosophy nonetheless. He felt that
whatever is natural is honourable and decent, and can therefore be done in
public without shame, such as copulation. It was the shamelessness that
earned the cynics the nickname of the dog philosophers, for dogs were a
symbol for a lack of shame. The word “cynic” comes from “dog-like” in greek.
But furthermore Diogenes himself praised the dog’s virtues.

It is said that Alexander the Great appreciated Diogenes a great deal, and
had said if he were to be a philosopher, it would be Diogenes. It is said
that once when Alexander asked Diogenes if there is something he could do for
him, Diogenes told him to “stand out of my sunlight”.

Personally, I always liked Zeno of Elea, not to be confused with Zeno of
Citium, founder of the stoics, who created Zeno’s paradoxes, which for me
encase a great moment in human cognition, that is, the solution of the
paradoxes. The Oxford Dictionary which I decided to rely on to inject some
consistency, suggest Crates and Hipparchia as examples as well. Crates was
also poor, but a traveler, and a good guest, being represented universally
as respected and beloved. Welcomes for him were written on doors. The honesty
of cynics has been appreciated by ancient societies, and, of course, though
some of us bemoan it, today. Hipparchia was Crates wife. She and Crates are
reported to have had sex in public on the grounds that all natural acts are


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    • dkmich on November 13, 2007 at 11:58

    I raised my daughter on, “life is a bitch and then you die”.  If you expect nothing, you can’t be disappointed.  No vow of poverty however did I pledge.  Do the very best you can and then forget it the very best you can.

  1. OTB, this so totally published at 6 am Eastern.

    I’d be inclined to bump it at the right time if I happen to be around, otherwise someone else should.

    • pyrrho on November 14, 2007 at 06:42

    trolls are just cynics people…

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