Diogenes the Cynic: Understanding the Roots of Cynicism | #Philosophy

Today, cynicism is synonymous to pessimism, lack of enthusiasm, skepticism, and selfishness. But Cynicism -literally translating to “living like a dog” (from the Greek «κύων»= dog)- is also a school of thought. An ancient Greek school of though to be precise. And the ideas of these philosophers have few in common to our current perception of cynicism.

What is the Philosophy of Cynicism About?

Cynicism is a philosophical movement that appeared in Greece around the 5th Century BC. It was founded by Antisthenes, one of Socrates’ pupils, in Cynosarges – a temple of Heracles and public gymnasium on the outskirts of Athens.

Cynics wanted to live in virtue. They rejected superficial values, such as wealth, power, and fame. They wanted a simple life in accordance to nature. Although this school of thought declined on the 3rd Century BC, Cynicism reappeared in the Roman Empire in the 1st Century.

This time, Cynics would follow an ascetic life. They would often beg on the streets, dismissing all their possessions, and preach in public spaces. It comes as no surprise that their teachings inspired many early Christians.

Today, Cynicism is often perceived as a personality trait, rather than a philosophical movement. If you call someone “cynical”, you don’t necessarily mean that this person disregards power and material possessions, but rather the opposite. A cynical person today is someone who is skeptical towards the morals of his or her time. Someone who sees people as motivated mostly by money and success, rather than morality.  

Who was Diogenes the Cynic? | Facts about Diogenes

Although Antisthenes was the founder of Cynicism, it was Diogenes of Sinope who is the archetypal Cynic. You might have seen him depicted sleeping in a barrel, surrounded by dogs. Indeed, Diogenes often slept in a pithos – an ancient Greek clay barrel – because he was against owing a house and wanted to live as “naturally” as possible.

The beggar philosopher of Athens grew up in Sinope, near the Black Sea. His father was a banker who minted coins for a living but, as it usually happens, he became the opposite of his father figure: someone who rejects coins. For reasons that are not clear, he was exiled from the city of Sinope and lost everything he owned. This event changed him. In order to cope with the loss of his citizenship and fortune, Diogenes chose to underestimate their importance. There must be something else, more important than money and security, right?

In a search of virtue, Diogenes ended up in Athens, the philosophical capital of the world. But the cosmopolitan Greek city did not meet his expectations. Athens attracted many philosophers and great thinkers, but the majority of people there seemed to be fixated upon money, beauty, clothes, and fame.

Diogenes then started romanticizing a mythical hero – Heracles. He wanted to be virtuous, rather than successful. He rejected the traditional lifestyle of his time and did not want to live in a fixed address. He owned nothing. The philosopher displayed poor manners in public and showed no respect to people. He challenged anything people loved or cared for. All the traditional values of his time. It is even rumored that he mocked Alexander the Great some years before his death. People started comparing him to an uncultured dog.

If taking breakfast is nothing out of place, then it is nothing out of place in the marketplace. But taking breakfast is nothing out of place, therefore it is nothing out of place to take breakfast in the marketplace.”, he said when asked about eating his breakfast in the marketplace of Athens.

The philosopher did not mind being compared to dogs. He found dogs to be virtuous. Dogs are true to their nature and unhypocritical, while humans possess the exact opposite traits. Dogs live in the present, they don’t care where they sleep, and they eat anything. At the same, their instincts help them understand who is a true friend and who is an enemy.

The Cynic finally ended up being captured by pirates and sold as a slave to a Corinthian man named Xeniades. The latter was very impressed by Diogenes. He had a very intriguing personality and, instead of using him in the fields or to do chores, he asked him to tutor his children. Diogenes lived the rest of his life in Corinth, where he was cherished by the people in his household and his local community.

Other Cynical Philosophers

  • Antisthenes
  • Crates of Thebes
  • Onesicritus
  • Monimus
  • Bion
  • Teles
  • Menippus
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Marialena Perpiraki is a journalist and writer from Athens, Greece. In 2020, she founded Helinika as a cross-media platform.