Who are the Cynics?

The Cynics encouraged their followers to remove themselves from the chains of society and live free, enlightened lives. Learn all about this controversial and influential philosophy.


Are you a Cynic?

We all want a happy, worry-free life, but unfortunately, that’s probably not going to happen. If you believe this, does that make you cynical? Well, the Cynics are actually an ancient school of Greek philosophy founded in Athens. The word ‘cynic’ itself translates to ‘dog-like,’ after the strange life choices of this school’s founder.

Perhaps one of the most famous, and most fascinating, of the Cynics was **Diogenes**. He lived as a beggar after willfully giving up all wealth, material comfort, and reputation. Diogenes became the face of the school of Cynicism, which encourages its followers to remove themselves from the chains of society and live free, enlightened lives.

This school of philosophy inspired many philosophical movements that followed, such as Stoicism and Skepticism, and even more modern philosophers such as Friedrich Nietzsche.

Modern versus ancient cynicism

Today, the word cynic is used to describe someone who thinks pessimistically about their fellow human beings and about their existence in general. These dark personalities may even agree that life would have been better if it had never happened at all.

The ancient Cynics differed in their beliefs, but they would agree with the modern cynic’s low opinion of humanity. According to Diogenes, most people are lazy, ignorant, and blindly obedient. However, the ancient Cynic did not see existence as dourly as a modern cynic may.

In fact, ancient Cynics believed that, despite humanity’s bleak condition, people ultimately have the power to transform their lives through their own will. This transformation will help achieve freedom, self-sufficiency, and happiness. In Diogenes’ own words, the pain of existence comes from *“not life itself, but living an evil life.”*

The evil path is the easiest

Diogenes believed that the ‘evil’ life was the easiest path to take. This life was one of willful ignorance lived by nearly all individuals as they blindly conform to the behavior of the masses. It’s also a life of corruption of the individual by external forces. As a self-professed free man, self-sufficient and happy, Diogenes claimed to know how to escape from this evil path.

He had broken free of arbitrary social constraints and, instead, lived according to his own self-generated internal laws and simple pleasures. This self-achieved freedom and happiness led Diogenes to claim that he was a king among men, an interesting title given that he lived in a tub and begged for his food.

Diogenes saw philosophy as something more than simply theoretical study. He believed that philosophy truly was a way of life, and he attempted to demonstrate that every chance he could.

A practical outlook on philosophy

Diogenes believed the study of abstract, metaphysical speculation, as seen in so much of philosophy, was ultimately pointless if men continued to live a life of conformity and obedience. He was more concerned with the true Greek definition of philosophy as a way of life.

In a famous example of this scorn for abstract and impractical inquiry, a story is told of Diogenes listening to philosophers debating whether motion exists. This view was one most notably espoused by the pre-Socratic philosopher Parmenides. After gaining the attention of the philosophers around him, Diogenes simply stood up and walked away, proving practically that motion does indeed exist.

**For Diogenes, philosophy was useful only if it could be put into action and could change the course of people’s lives and behaviors.** His dire outlook on humanity was tempered only by the hope of the transformation of individuals through their own free will.

The here and the now

Diogenes was concerned about the interest of humanity – predominantly, the interest of philosophers – in the abstract and the metaphysical. He saw these inquiries as being mere distractions from the pitiful state of human existence.

However, to avoid contemplating the hopeless state of humanity and the pressing concerns of the here and now, Diogenes’ contemporaries attempted to convince the masses that concerns of the abstract and metaphysical were the most important, and, since most people are blind conformists, they went along with it.

To attain self-sufficiency and create a system of values for oneself that brings happiness, it was imperative, according to Diogenes, that people focus on the **here and now**. Once people turned their attention to the present, they would understand how dire and hopeless humanity was, and that realization would provide the break from ignorance.

Nature versus nurture

While Diogenes’ outlook doesn’t paint humanity in the best light, he made it clear that human nature is not to blame for the state of human depravity. Instead, he posited that human nature was, in and of itself, good and virtuous. However, this pure and good nature was corrupted by society, which spoiled it and bent this nature to the will and whims of its machine.

The process of socialization corrupts human nature with artificial norms, customs, and practices, and this leads people to act as a mindless group and corrupt one another even further. It was Diogenes’ life’s mission, and the basis of his philosophy, to point out how ridiculous and arbitrary these social conditions are and how they bend the strong and pure will of man to them. Additionally, he believed the social structures force desires for wealth and status onto people against their own best interests.

Empty goals, empty life

The goals for which we strive – namely, those of wealth, fame, and status – are ultimately empty, according to Diogenes. These are not our true goals; they’ve been forced upon us by society without us even being aware. Furthermore, our ignorance continues when we fail to recognize that we’ve been conditioned to these goals, which are meaningless.

The flurry of our daily activity, filled with tasks and jobs meant to help us achieve these goals, are Sisyphean tasks, Diogenes says. In Greek mythology, Sisyphus escaped death and was cursed by Zeus to roll a boulder up a hill, only to have it roll down each day.

Each day, Sisyphus would repeat this task with the same fervor as the day before, unaware that it was futile. To lend meaning to our existence, we must become aware of the futility of our tasks and reject the pressure to chase them.

The beggar king

To make it known how much he protested societal norms, Diogenes commonly found ways to clearly demonstrate his disagreement with them. It was common to see him walking backward in the streets or entering a theater at the end of a performance. He owned no possessions except for a cup from which to drink, which he threw away after he saw a boy drink from his hands.

Diogenes begged for all of his food and lived in a bathtub on the street. However, he didn’t do this merely to attack society. He wanted to help individuals break free from the chains of social constraint and enable them to live free, happy lives aimed toward goals that best suited them.

Diogenes believed that the masses needed to wake up from their conditioning or forever be doomed to participate in this dark and corrupted version of humanity. This skepticism of society and the belief in its innate corruption lies at the heart of the Cynics’ philosophy.

The simple life is the happy life

To achieve a happy life, Diogenes believed that one needed to live according to nature. Happiness could not be found while seeking fame, wealth, and reputation, as society has led us to believe. Instead, happiness can be found only by embracing the simple pleasures that the natural world has to offer.

A cool drink of water on a hot summer day or the warmth of the sun after a long, cold winter are pleasures that nature has to offer that are true and fulfilling. These pleasures are better than the false pleasures that society has to offer, such as unnecessary goods or arbitrary success.

But how do we learn to appreciate these simple things? If society corrupts, doesn’t it also corrupt our desire? Diogenes proposed that the only way to learn to appreciate these small pleasures was to seek out pain and discomfort whenever possible.

Pleasure in pain

Since socialization has been so thorough in corrupting human nature, Diogenes believed it was imperative for people to retrain themselves on how to live happily according to their own nature. Human nature is innately good and is tuned into the simple pleasures that nature offers. However, as society corrupts, it teaches us to desire pleasure that is unnatural and damaging.

Furthermore, Diogenes believed that the only way for people to re-educate themselves and to foster an appreciation for the simple pleasures in life was to seek out and endure the greatest amount of pain and hardship possible. It was common to see him walking across scorching sand or freezing snow. This pain is what motivates someone to appreciate a simple pleasure such as the warmth of the sun or the quenching of thirst.

An easier way to the happy life

According to Diogenes, there were three ways other than pain through which people could attain happiness. The first is to stop caring about how society sees you. As a man who ‘lived like a dog,’ he saw that caring about the opinions of our peers only corrupts us and places us in a perpetual state of seeking approval.

The second path to happiness is to stop taking life too seriously. Most of our anxiety and pain comes from the fear of disapproval from the masses, Diogenes said. Once we stop caring about this approval, then we must decide not to take life so seriously so we don’t feel pain from the repercussions of not living according to society’s standards.

Diogenes’ third path to happiness is to recognize that it is always there. In other words, since society has corrupted our wants and needs and has led us to believe that wealth, fame, or status provide happiness, we are unable to see the simple pleasure and happiness that exists each and every day.

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