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A cynic, now considered to the 'a man who knows the price of everything, but the value of nothing1', was originally something rather different. Cynicism was a school of ancient Greek philosophy begun by Antisthenes, marked by a belief that humans should live according to their instincts rather than artificial social values. Their goal was to expose the meaninglessness of civilised life by action as well as by word - they lived in a state of poverty and eschewed material possessions. The philosophical definition of the word is always capitalised to avoid confusion.

The word 'cynic' is thought to derive from cyno, the Greek word for dog. The Cynics, like dogs, had little concept of manners or social sensibilities. The dog was a common Greek symbol for shamelessness, as they had no qualms about things like defecating or copulating in public. Fairly early on in the movement's development the dog was chosen as its symbol, but there is an alternative origin for the term. There was a building in Athens called Cynosarges, a public gymnasium that was the first home of Cynicism.


What we know of Antisthenes comes mostly from the writings of Xenophon and Diogenes Laertius. He was born in Athens, probably in 446 or 445BC. His father (also named Antisthenes) was an Athenian but his mother was from Thrace2, which meant he was considered a nothos: a child born illegitimately (this could be being born to a slave, foreigner or prostitute or from an unmarried couple), and therefore not an Athenian citizen.

He first studied rhetoric under a man named Gorgias, but later met the great Greek philosopher Socrates. It was under Socrates that Antisthenes found his true calling in the form of philosophy, and he became a member of his close inner circle of disciples. After his death Antisthenes was considered his most important follower and successor for a time, though now we tend to see Plato as his greatest disciple. The most important of Antisthenes' beliefs were:

  • Virtue could be taught.
  • Virtue is tied into actions, not words. A great deal of education is unnecessary.
  • Eros (the Greek notion of physical love or lust) is important and not something to be covered up as somehow 'wrong'.

These beliefs are very closely linked with those of Socrates. The phrase 'Know thyself', inscribed at the lintel of the entrance to the Temple of Apollo at Delphi, is attributed to him, and this phrase is a key part of the Cynic philosophy. To achieve self-sufficiency and freedom (the two goals through which virtue can be achieved), one must understand human nature. Cynicism is all about living in accordance with a rational understanding of one's own nature and achieving a kind of state of enlightenment through this. Socrates also advocated the individual taking responsibility for his own happiness, and that social status, race or gender were irrelevant.

Antisthenes saw physical pleasure and pain as largely irrelevant because the soul was far more important. He took Socratic ideas to the extreme, neglecting all the conventions of society (everything from money and marriage to regular bathing), because such things did not contribute to his virtue. He spent a lot of time in the Cynosarges preaching his philosophy, and also practised what he preached, living in abject poverty. His philosophy was marked by a sense of wit and humour, which is surprising because it was a very serious subject. Cynicism denied the existence of any guiding force in the universe, good or bad - life had no meaning.

Anthisthenes was a prolific writer, and his favourite topic was the ethics of living. The great Greek hero Heracles was his idea of the best of men, in many ways. Heracles was noble and heroic and put great stock in personal virtue, and so was a prototype Cynic in many ways.

He also wrote on the nature of divinity and divine beings themselves. He distinguished between the multitude of gods worshipped by man and the single god of nature. This was later to rile the Roman writer Cicero, who claimed it 'deprived divinity of all meaning and substance'. It was a common hobby among Greek writers (notably Xenophon) to analyse the Greek myths (including those of people like Homer) and interpret them as allegorical fables, but Antisthenes was only concerned with the ethical questions the myths raised.

Anthisthenes was a quiet and subtly witty critic of contemporary Athenian society, and he probably died in 336BC with a little knowing smile on his face. His main successor just found the whole thing hilarious.

Diogenes: Socrates Gone Mad

I am called a dog because I fawn on those who give me anything, I yelp at those who refuse, and I set my teeth in rascals.

Diogenes was born in the Greek colony of Sinope3 in around 412BC (although some sources say 399BC), but did not stay there for long. He was exiled from the city for 'adulterating the coinage'. He later made a point of adulterating the 'coinage of custom' when he settled in Athens. He argued that custom and social convention prevented people from being moral and virtuous, because they were too concerned with what was socially taboo, rather than what was inherently evil according to nature4. Records of his life are peppered with characteristically witty remarks, showing the Cynic's talent for retaining remarkable good humour no matter what happens.

So even before he had met Antisthenes he had many of the qualities of a Cynic. For example, when Manes, his servant, abandoned him shortly after the move to Athens, he said: 'If Manes can live without Diogenes, why not Diogenes without Manes?'. He understood how terrible it was to be overly dependent on another and adopted the characteristic Cynic principle of retaining his independence (in all parts of life) as much as possible. He took many of the ideas of Socrates to absolute extremes, hence Plato's description of him as 'Socrates gone mad', and did the same with Antisthenes' teachings.

There are many examples of classic Diogenes, but here is one of the best5. Diogenes was once asked how to 'avoid temptation to lust of the flesh'. In answer to this he began masturbating. The questioner must have been shocked and expressed his distaste to Diogenes, who replied 'If only I could soothe my hunger by rubbing my belly.' Another story says he used to spend a lot of time wandering the Agora in full daylight with a torch in his hand. When asked what he was doing he would reply that he was looking for an honest man, and that he had never found one.

One Man And His Tub

Diogenes' days in Athens (and his days studying under Antisthenes) are supposed to have ended when he was captured by pirates on a voyage to Aegina, just off the coast of Attica6. He was taken to Crete where he was sold as a slave to a man named Xeniades. Xeniades asked him his trade, to which he replied that he knew no trade except that of governing men. So Xeniades took him to his home in Corinth where he installed him as tutor to his two sons. Even then he continued the practice of spending most of his time installed in a tub. In Athens he had borrowed a big wooden tub from the temple of Cybele and spent a lot of time sitting in it naked, to harden himself against the weather. He is said to have followed the example of the humble mouse in his way of life. The mouse is capable of adapting to any circumstance. He apparently rather liked his tub because he is said to have preached his doctrine of virtuous self-control from inside it.

Every two years Corinth hosted the Isthmian Games, and during the festival Diogenes spent most of his time preaching to the visiting crowds from the whole of Greece. It is said that Alexander the Great met him at one of these festivals. The King of Macedon was delighted to meet such a famous and distinguished philosopher and Alexander asked Diogenes whether there was any favour he could do for him. Diogenes, sitting in his tub, asked him to stand out of the sunlight so that he could be warm. Alexander is reputed to have walked away from the encounter saying 'If I were not Alexander, then I should wish to be Diogenes'.

Diogenes thought of himself as very much the equal of Alexander. They both had power: Alexander's lay in kingship and military might; Diogenes' lay in the fact that he was untouchable. He had nothing and therefore could not be coerced. Alexander, surprised at the philosopher's lack of deference, is said to have boasted 'I am the great King,' to which Diogenes replied 'I am the dog.' He clearly believed he led a far better life and was consequently a better person than the King of Macedon.

Diogenes very much enjoyed ridiculing things. Although he considered it his day job to make fun of the folly, pretence, vanity, social climbing, self-deception, and artificiality of human conduct, he also branched out into other topics - hobbies, if you will. Plato had been much praised for his use of Socrates' definition of a man: 'a featherless biped'. So Diogenes found a cockerel, plucked it and brought it to Plato's Academy, proclaiming 'this is Plato's man'. Plato hastily added 'with broad flat nails' to his definition.

By all accounts Diogenes is supposed to have lived to a ripe old age (some suggest ninety). Anecdotal stories surround his death as much as his life. He is said to have killed himself by holding his breath, became ill after eating raw octopus, or to have had an infected dog bite. It is most likely he simply died of old age.


In the Greek world it was common when meeting a stranger to ask where he was from. The Greek city-states were fiercely independent and each had particular stereotypes, so the question was in effect 'Who are you?'. When Diogenes was asked this question he said 'I am a citizen of the world' (or cosmos). Here is the origin of the world 'cosmopolitan'. He completely rejected the idea of the city-state, and by giving this answer he was saying he would not allow himself to be identified by his home city. Though the Cynics did not care for politics, this actually made them a political force. They were essentially anarchists, and tried to bring about the change from the state to the state of being a Cynic.

The Dog

It may well have been Diogenes who started the association with dogs. He was rather proud of the name Diogenes the Dog, but whether he made it up himself or the name was chosen for him we do not know. Once, at a banquet people threw him bones as they would a dog. He responded by urinating on those who offended him.

A Few Paradoxes

Of course, Diogenes' philosophy was not perfect. For example, though he advocated complete independence, he also encouraged begging. Since this was the only way for a man with nothing to survive, begging can be seen a practical activity if nothing else, but then the man is not truly independent. Then there is the fact that the Cynics needed their sworn enemy, the polis (city). In early Cynicism especially there was a definite need for an audience. It was very much a theatrical philosophy, which spread its ideas through preaching to the crowds. And they obviously needed the people of the city to provide them with food and the like.

Crates Of Thebes

Crates was a pupil of Diogenes. As with most of the Cynics, exact details about his life are few and far between. He was born somewhere between 368 and 365BC and died around 287BC. He was born in Thebes (now there's a surprise) into a fairly wealthy family. However, he entrusted his fortune to his banker when he became a follower of Diogenes. He told the banker to give the money to his sons if they should prove fools, but to the poor if they were to prove philosophers.

Crates married a wealthy Thracian heiress Hipparchia, with whom he lived in the 'state of nature' so important to the Cynics for the rest of their lives. Crates was the most famous Cynic of his time but he never matched the 'celebrity' status Diogenes achieved. However, he provided the link between Cynicism and Stoicism7; his pupil was Zeno of Citum, the founder of the Stoic movement.

There is a story which illustrates the evolution of Stoicism from Cynicism. One day Zeno was walking the streets when he came upon Crates and Hipparchia having sex in public. Zeno was so offended by this that he took off his cloak (thereby making himself naked) to cover up the two lovers. Although this story is fiction (Zeno, as an early Stoic, would not have found the Cynic practice of doing anything in public offensive) it does neatly show a fundamental difference between the two philosophies.

Cynic Marriage

The marriage between Crates and Hipparchia is one of the most important paradoxes in Cynicism. After all, a marriage is a social construct, artificially created by us humans. Diogenes rejected marriage totally, saying 'the man who persuades should go with the woman who suades (consents)'. For the time this was a revolutionary view and surprising because of the way it empowers women. It is rather like the notion of 'free love' which developed two millennia after. Perhaps it would be more accurate to say Crates and Hipparchia 'mated for life', as this describes them in the same terms as one would use to describe an animal - and this is what the Cynics essentially wanted.

The Roman Era

The Romans were heavily influenced by Greek culture (especially in the early years of the city's development), but they made some modifications to Cynicism, arguably making it less 'pure' and effective as a philosophy.

Cynicism appealed greatly to Romans in many ways. It was considered extremely compatible with the Roman way of life, with its emphasis on teaching by example and physical austerity and toughness. They also liked the Cynic tradition of satire and the importance of eloquent speeches in teaching the philosophy. The famous Roman satirist Horace was heavily influenced by Cynicism. Finally, they were attracted to the notable lack of theoretical grounding. The Romans were a practical people who had little time for high-minded metaphysics and logic, and so Cynicism, which concentrated on the down-to-earth subject of ethics, was ideal. But the Romans were also more modest than the Greeks, and during the Roman era the habit of public exhibitionism died out and there is even evidence of Roman Cynic philosophers become more verbally restrained.


Demetrius was the most important of the Roman Cynics. He highlighted the aspects of Greek Cynicism which worked in Roman society and glossed over the more nefarious parts. He essentially tried to make Diogenes - Socrates gone mad - go sane again. This led to a gradual convergence of Cynicism with Stoicism, although the two never quite met. The Cynics provided the Stoics with an ideal extreme. They performed the same function as the Biblical prophets: they showed what was possible but these extremes were not required of ordinary men.

He was also a rather tamer creature than the Greek that preceded him. He still showed signs of the extreme behaviour of earlier Cynics, but he was heavily influenced by the Roman Stoic Seneca, who is reputed to have told him what to say in his speeches.


As a Greek in a Roman world Epictetus adapted and continued the changes set in motion by Demetrius. Under him Cynicism became a lot cleaner and there was less emphasis on the absolute shamelessness which originally gave the movement its name8. However, he did write one of the largest books on Cynicism we have today, and so is an important source. He analysed the significance of the Cynic and saw him as a kind of semi-divine being who, by going to the edge of humanity and living so sparely, shows the common people that there is nothing to be afraid of in life, and that humans can cope.

It is curious that Cynicism found a lot of support among the upper classes of Roman society. There are stories of rich Senators concentrating on politics and high society in the week and donning threadbare robes at the weekend. These casual weekend Cynics were suprisingly common during one period. Of course, there may well have been a political reason behind these aristocrats' interest. Some of them used it to show that the Roman Empire was not a virtuous state and that a republic was a better method of government. But then they would say that because in the Republican era (which preceded the Imperial era) all the power lay with the Senators instead of the Emperor. The Senators wanted their old power back; they persisted in trying to re-form the Republic throughout Rome's history.

Early Christianity

There has been some speculation about whether Jesus was heavily influenced by Cynicism. Indeed, there is a fair amount of evidence for this idea. It is generally agreed that the historical Jesus could speak Greek, and knew something about Greek culture, which would allow him easy access to Cynic teachings. The town of Goddarah, around 20 miles away from Nazareth, was a major settlement and probably home to an itinerant Cynic or two. And there is of course the parallel between the ascetic life of the Cynic preacher and the life of Jesus and his disciples, giving up their money and possessions in favour of a life of poverty. There is also the idea of the 'brotherhood of man' which comes through strongly in both. Jesus taught that the whole of humanity was your family, and this is very similar to the Cynic ideas of family. This idea would be quite shocking to a Jewish society because Judaism places very heavy influence on ties of blood. He challenged Judaism's social materialism and concentrated instead on spirituality - you get the picture by now. When you look at it, there are a huge amount of parallels between the teachings of Jesus and the Cynics (though not perhaps the early period's 'tub philosophy').

During the time of Jesus, the Roman Empire was home to a surprisingly large number of travelling Cynic preachers, so that even if there were none resident in the area it is quite probably he had some contact with them. But note the phrase quite probably; there is no actual evidence of an interface between the two at the time of Jesus.

Peregrinus And Christian-Cynic Dialogue

This chap is very interesting because he was a Christian who converted to Cynicism in the 2nd Century. He lived in Palestine, which is evidence the philosophy had taken root there only a couple of centuries after the time of Jesus. Although this is not proof, it adds to the considerable weight of evidence in favour of some kind of communication between Jesus and the Cynics. St. Paul's writings sometimes sound rather like Cynic diatribes, and in these writings he refers to Cynic texts, so at least one major Christian figure was well read in the philosophy.

Jesus was certainly not the first person to preach and encourage people to give up all their wealth and family and follow him. Now we see this as a purely Christian notion, but back then there were many different philosophies with this idea forming at least some part of their theory. So it might have been that he appeared quite differently to people more familiar with Cynicism. Nowadays such a link may seem more absurd but in general people have little knowledge of Cynicism, although they probably know something about its teachings via the world's most popular religion.

Renaissance to Modern Day

In his book Utopia Thomas More set out what he saw as the ideal state, as seen through the eyes of traveller. In many ways this guide resembles a Cynic; he is described as sunburnt, ascetic, wearing a cloak and holding a staff. This Utopia has influenced political theory right up to the modern day, and Karl Marx's ideal state is very similar in many ways. And some of the book sounds distinctly like Cynic ideas. For example, although marriage still exists in its (roughly) traditional form, it is a requirement that the couple must see each other naked before the marriage.

During the French Enlightenment the great French author Diderot wrote a treatise on Cynicism, exploring its pros and cons as a philosophy. He noted that although Cynicism claimed to strip away all prejudices for a life of clarity and honesty this resulted in a loss of innocence that could potentially be detrimental to a person's happiness. Perhaps it is because 'virtue' was much more than simple happiness, but in the modern age it is easy to see that such lack of ignorance would lead to a lack of bliss. This was probably the first time Cynicism began to pick up its negative connotations.

In 19th Century Germany the distinction was made between Cynicism and cynicism, and after this knowledge of the positive philosophical side has faded, while misanthropic cynicism has come to the forefront. Modern cynics don't accept the values of society, but sees no hope for them. Ancient Cynicism aimed to improve through its teachings, and was ultimately positive and constructive.

Philosophy Or Way Of Life?

Although most philosophies (especially of the Classical Greek period) claim to be ways of life, not all ways of life are philosophies. Philosophies tend to have a theoretical grounding to their ideas about how life should be lived, and this sparks the debate about whether Cynicism is a philosophy at all. It does have theory, but not an awful lot of it. It has a broad 'Golden Age'-type myth, similar to the Garden of Eden in Genesis, but older. Believed to originate from the Middle East, it painted a picture of man living as an animal among animals.

That is about as far as Cynic theory goes, because of their belief that formal philosophy can only get you so far, and that Cynicism was something that could be accessible to everyone, not a select few who were high-minded philosophers. For the Cynics, the most important thing in life was for man to live in his natural state, as this was the most moral and virtuous way of life. Only a small amount of Cynic literature survives today, but because they were so good at practising what they preached we don't really need their texts.

1Oscar Wilde.2A tribal people inhabiting what is now northern Greece, Bulgaria and Romania. The Thracians would rise to fame in the future fighting as light infantry and cavalry in the army of Alexander the Great.3Now Sinop, Turkey.4Whether anything is 'evil' in natural law is another debate - one Diogenes never touched upon.5It is worth saying that many of these tales are passed down in the writings of Diogenes Laertius, a biographer who lived several hundred years after his subject's time. Whether these things happened as they are described is unknown.6Athens' territory.7Stoicism was basically a slightly softened approach to Cynicism. For example, they did not advocate the complete supression of the passions, as this is really impossible. Cynicism called anything other than vice and virtue 'indifferent'. But the Stoics recognised that some indifferent things were important, and divided them up into those to be preferred, those to be avoided, and those which are absolutely indifferent.8In fact, some say he is more Stoic than Cynic.

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