From Vol. 4, Issue 6, June 2022
The ancient Cynics: A backdrop to Stoicism
“The Cynics firmly established the responsibility of each individual to live a moral life, and the importance of self-discipline and indifference to pleasure or pain in the pursuit of virtue. They also established a tradition of questioning the validity of every assumption until proof can be found.”
The original Stoic, Zeno of Citium, found philosophy by mistake. Zeno hailed from a town in the Greek island of Cyprus. The story goes that he was shipwrecked in Athens while transporting purple dye across the Mediterranean – an expensive cargo. The thirty-year-old Zeno, at a loss after his ship sank, visited a bookstore and picked up a philosophy book. He was so drawn into the ideas he found there that he asked where he could meet a philosopher. Just then, a man named Crates was walking past, and the bookseller pointed at him. “Follow him,” the man said, and Zeno did.
Who were the ancient Cynics?
Crates of Thebes was a leading exponent of Cynicism, an ancient Greek school of thought descended from Socrates. But Cynicism took things much, much farther than Socrates did. For Cynics, the only good was virtue, and all else was vice. The only way to access virtue was by using our sense of reason to tune into nature. The path to virtue trumped all the conventions and all practices of the particular time and place in which they lived.
Cynicism’s founder was Socrates’ student Antisthenes, who explored how virtue could be achieved through the exercise of reason and self-discipline. Antisthenes thought that material possessions were merely impediments and advocated an ascetic life. For Cynics, asceticism could help train one’s sense of reason, which was liable to be clouded by desires for unimportant (and unvirtuous) things like physical luxuries.
The word Cynic derives from the Greek word for dog (kuon), and Cynics were said to live like dogs – giving up their worldly possessions; sleeping outdoors in threadbare cloaks, carrying only a staff and a wallet or small backpack; practicing a radical freedom from social conventions, mores, and the pursuit of wealth and status; and speaking truth to power whenever the occasion allowed for it.
Diogenes of Sinope, the most famous Greek Cynic, lived in a ceramic tub on the streets of Athens, displaying his lack of concern for the “respectable” mores of his day. He was fearless and didn’t hesitate to criticize Alexander the Great, the most powerful man in the world, for blocking his sunlight. Cynics like Diogenes pushed their bodies through painful tasks such as rolling in hot sand in summer or embracing snowcovered statues in winter.
Crates was a student of Diogenes. For Zeno, Crates could be a harsh teacher, and his methods were, just like the Cynics themselves, unconventional. He made Zeno carry a pot of lentil soup through town, and then bashed it to pieces with his staff. Zeno ran away, ashamed, soup puddling beneath him. But the lesson was clear: Cynics believed that nothing done by a virtuous human should be viewed with a sense of shame. Public shamelessness in following nature was one of their hallmarks (even extending to sleeping, eating, and masturbating on the street).
The three freedoms
To further clarify their goals, the Cynics offered specific definitions of the kinds of freedom that they sought, according to New World Encyclopedia:
Freedom was considered to have three aspects, personal freedom (eleutheria, freedom to act in pursuit of virtue); self-sufficiency (autarkeia, freedom from social and financial obligations); and freedom of speech (parrhesia, freedom to speak frankly).
The Cynic influence on Stoicism
The influence of Cynic thinking on Stoicism lives on today in the notion of finding freedom from worldly demands and seeking virtue using our reason instead, in the devotion to an ethical life lived according to nature, and in the idea that we should question conventional ideas and practices.
Zeno learned many lessons from Crates. Zeno quipped that his book, The Republic (now lost), was “written on the tail of the dog,” jokingly referring to his Cynic training under Crates (and also to a location near Athens, known as the “dog’s tail”). To again cite the New World Encyclopedia,
The greatest Cynic legacy is the ethics that they bequeathed to Stoicism. The Cynics firmly established the responsibility of each individual to live a moral life, and the importance of selfdiscipline and indifference to pleasure or pain in the pursuit of virtue. They also established a tradition of questioning the validity of every assumption until proof can be found, a practice which has continued to advance modern philosophy and science.
While modern “cynics” – in the sense of the word today – poke holes in received wisdom, the ancient Cynics did much more: They tried to find a positive value in their pursuit of virtue by using their sense of reason and seeking freedom from conventions. Rather than merely criticizing or pontificating, the Cynics lived by their beliefs in the most public of ways, a legacy passed down to Stoics old and new.
Meredith Kunz is a Silicon Valley based writer. You can read her blogs at thestoicmom.com and her tweets at @meredithkunz.