If there’s one thing that a lot of people are sure they know about Cynicism, it’s that it’s nothing other than a usually unwarranted, almost totally negative attitude about life in general, and most of its individual elements.
And, if they think they’re talking about Cynicism the philosophy, with a capital C, they’re dead wrong. With a lowercase spelling, cynicism as a psychological attitude may be just that. As one of the great philosophies of classical Greece, with roots in the pre-Alexandrine Hellenic era, older than Stoicism and perhaps with pre-Socratic connections, they’re dead wrong .
Even people with some interest in philosophy usually know little that is true about Cynicism: that its founder, Diogenes, told Alexander to get out of his light, and that he (Diogenes) was known for masturbating in public.
Those are (likely) true, but they are mere tidbits, and the second was trotted out more than 2,000 years ago, and from that time on, as a transparent attempt to denigrate Cynicism. A denigration which was helped, to be fair, by the fact that later Cynicism did at times — perhaps in part facing the stark nature of Roman might — become a bit more like its own caricature.
There is an apt Existential Comics entry about comparing different schools of Greek philosophy , which provides an entertaining starting point to offset the caricature (especially if you click the “don’t get the joke” below the comic).
There, you’ll see this exchange that allegedly took place between Plato and Diogenes as further illustration, as Existential Comics notes:
Diogenes was in a stream washing vegetables. Coming up, Plato said, “My good Diogenes, if you knew how to pay court to kings, you wouldn’t have to wash vegetables.” “And,” Diogenes replied, “if you knew how to wash vegetables, you wouldn’t have to pay court to kings.”
Well put, well put, as Tevye the Dairyman  might also say. Then again, Tevye himself, for instance in the song “Tradition”  from “Fiddler on the Roof,” might be seen as well illustrating the need for Cynicism:
“Because of our traditions, we have kept our balance for many, many years. Here in Anatevka, we have traditions for everything: how to eat, how to sleep, how to wear clothes. For instance, we always keep our heads covered, and always wear a little prayer-shawl. This shows our constant devotion to God. You may ask, how did this tradition start? I’ll tell you. I don’t know. But it’s a tradition. And because of our traditions, every one of us knows who he is, and what God expects him to do.”
Questioning not just authority, but the conventionality of traditions in general, is at the core of Cynicism, as are the radical methods by which such conventionality is questioned by the Cynics.
Stoicism — Cynicism’s close cousin — has gotten a revival of late, for instance with Stoic Week, and essays here at Scientia Salon on concepts such as Stoic meditation and the “Stoic egg” [5,6]. Moreover, echoes of Platonism have never gone out of style for people looking for a transcendent ultimate reality, and concerns for ethical matters in large, complex modern societies, have brought back a renaissance for Aristotle and his version of virtue ethics. Even Skepticism as a philosophy gets more appreciation these days, as the lowercase “skepticism” of modern times diverges far less from it than cynicism does from Cynicism. And yet Cynicism and its “sneer” remain almost as unappreciated, and at least as misunderstood, as Epicureanism and its “swerve.”
It shouldn’t be thus. Cynicism has older roots than Stoicism, and one can think of Socrates, in his iconic role as a gadfly, as a stepfather of sorts to Cynicism, although he may have been too wedded to convention for Diogenes’s taste.
Without following Diogenes in every respect, maybe we could think of Stoicism as “the stiff upper lip” and of Cynicism as “the laughing sneer” from ancient philosophy. Or, per Camus, who I argue has some direct intellectual connection with the Cynics, to live it — at least inwardly — as a rebel. That’s not meant to denigrate Stoicism, but I do think that it had a more accepting attitude toward societal conventions, as well as a higher view of the rationality of human actions, stemming from its concept of the world-infusing Logos.
The capital-C philosophy did take a “sneering” attitude toward convention — but that was not the end point of it by any means, as opposed to the lowercase psychology, which will be set aside for the rest of this essay, as the difference between the two has hopefully been made clear. Cynicism was about a true “callout” of convention and authority, as tools to reach the Cynic understanding of eudaimonia (flourishing). The sneer, if you will, was a tool to try to break the non-Cynic’s attachment to conventions, be it conventions related to power, fame, money, or mores. The sneer is because Cynics know we can do better, and this, I maintain, is probably the biggest difference between Cynicism and Stoicism, as this essay notes .
I highly recommend the book “Cynics” by William Desmond . A review of it notes:
“Far from being pessimistic or nihilistic, as modern uses of the term ‘cynic’ suggest, the ancient Cynics were astonishingly optimistic regarding human nature. They believed that if one simplified one’s life — giving up all unnecessary possessions, desires, and ideas — and lived in the moment as much as possible, one could regain one’s natural goodness and happiness.”
Desmond shows that Cynics were acting the way they were in what might be called an activist Westernized version of Zen. At their best, Cynics were encouraging a kind of activist detachment from conventional preoccupations, and even from all but the barest of physical needs.
That said, while some of their antics, like Diogenes telling Alexander to get out of his light, sound courageous and enlightened, others, like masturbating in public, were as repulsive to his fellow Greeks as they are to readers today. But that was the intent. That sneer at acceptable behavior was designed to break down conventional attitudes about mores in general, with all that word meant in the classical world.
The literal or metaphorical sneer of the would-be Cynic is similar to the literal or metaphorical lopped-off finger of the Zen student. The main difference is that Cynicism is not specifically anti-logical, unlike Zen and its koans. Although Cynicism, unlike Stoicism, did not drink deeply and heavily from the well of Logos, it was nonetheless a related philosophy, and part of the larger worldview of classical Greek schools of thought that appreciated the value of rationality.
It is arguable that Cynicism hasn’t totally disappeared. Indeed, some biblical scholars, like John Crossan, have imagined Jesus as a Jewish cynic, a notion rooted in the fact that Middle-era Cynicism was strong in the biblical Decapolis, as well as in east Syria. I think Crossan overstates the case, but it’s not totally implausible. The elements of denialism that are strongest in Christianity arose from the same area of eastern Syria that was a strongpoint of later Cynicism, and my disagreement with the likes of Crossan is more in the nature of degrees than substance. I certainly find it plausible that (assuming a historic Jesus) a Jesus born in a Gentile-influenced Galilee would have come across Cynic teachers. But that was probably not the primary influence on Jesus. Many other Jews challenged the Hellenistic Jewish culture of the Sadducees and the Herodians, without any reference to Cynicism.
That said, I see Cynicism as having some influence on Sufi Islam as well as certain strains of Christian denialism like the “holy fool,” common in Eastern Orthodoxy. It may also have some connection to some Hasidic Jewish ideas.
At the same time, playing the “holy fool” was often just that — playing it, not really being it, starting with Cynicism itself. It’s why the likes of Lucian of Samosata lampooned it, which in turn probably also hastened Cynicism’s decline, as did its association with the last non-Christian Roman Emperor, Julian. In the ersatz version of “holy fools,” Rasputin comes immediately to mind. So, a good Cynic, to go “meta,” needs to practice his philosophy on his own philosophy!
Plausible historical connections aside, the substantial question facing Cynicism is whether we can really do better as a species: should we be that optimistic about Homo sapiens? I’m not so sure, which is part of my discomfort with ancient Stoicism, one that’s referenced by a few other philosophers I’ve seen writing about Stoic Week — its comfort with the powers that be, and situations that may be.
Taking off on the Serenity Prayer (a modern Christian incarnation of the so-called Stoic fork), I would rather do and speak differently. Rather than “accepting the things I cannot change,” I prefer to “accept there are things that I cannot change.” The Serenity Prayer-Stoicism idea would have us ignore the emotions attached to those unchangeable things, and it would have us also ignore that these things often exist for very irrational reasons.
Which gets us to the “neo” modifier as I propose it: how do we pivot from Cynicism to a possible neo-Cynicism?
My suggestion for a neo-Cynicism would take ancient Cynicism and detach it from some of its optimism about the world. I’d then run it through some sort of filter of philosophical pessimism , whether that be provided by Schopenhauer, Camus, Cioran, Unanumo or someone else . I note that the trick is to do this without adopting a world-weary stance that seemingly cropped up at times in Stoicism, or without moving from Cynicism the philosophy to cynicism the cheap psychology.
You’ll note that the philosophers listed above are, generally at least, in the vicinity of Existentialism, and I am presenting neo-Cynicism as a philosophy that accepts human nature simply as it is. If that is pessimism, either philosophically or psychologically, that is what it is.
Given that Cynicism has at least some roots in the pre-Socratic era, as pessimism arguably does as well, it seems to me that it was Diogenes’ greatest wrong-footing to stake out such an optimistic stance on human nature. Classical Greek pessimists (no capital “P,” as it’s not a recognized philosophical school) incorporated eudaimonia, or flourishing, as part of their worldview. Linking back to the Stoicism that had Cynic roots, they too recommended “acceptance” of uncontrollable things, while noting that the best result from that stance was really only an avoidance of pain, not an increase of happiness. Take that a step further, along with the convention-rejecting ideas, even the rebellion, if one wills, of Diogenes, and it’s not too far a step to the Camus of “The Rebel” and “The Myth of Sisyphus.”
At this point someone might cry out, “Why not Rousseau?” While Rousseau was of course pessimistic about human existence in the context of modern society, he was quite optimistic about humans in a “state of nature.” And, given that man has evolved to become, per Aristotle, a “civilized animal” (sic: that’s a better translation than “political animal”) our “state of nature” is and will remain a state of being conscious, of being self-conscious, and of being temporally conscious. We may rebel against social convention, we cannot rebel against our selves.
There is nothing wrong with classical Cynic simplicity nor with Rousseau’s state of nature. But, there is also nothing to guarantee that either leads to virtue, as Hobbes noted in his famous “nasty, brutish and short … a war of all against all” comment, summarizing his own understanding of the human state of nature. That is why classical Cynicism needs to be run through that filter of pessimism, or at least one of skepticism.
Per comments on Massimo’s Stoic Week essay, yes, this is syncretistic. But most philosophies are. As noted above, Stoicism and Cynicism overlapped, Neoplatonism borrowed from Gnostic-related ideas, and Cynicism appears to have been influenced by Pythagoreanism. Similarly, scholars of religion estimate that there’s some new religious variant group invented every week, if not more frequently. As long as we are clear about what’s being synthesized, and why, I see no compelling problem. (Similarly in art, Stravinsky said his best music was what he stole from others.)
I also see Cynicism as the most political of ancient philosophies, in the broad sense of what political philosophy means. If we extend political philosophy in today’s world to include economics, I think the need for the Cynic’s contempt becomes more obvious. Neoliberal economics has run aground with little to offer but an Internet-based new version of capitalism, traditional business conservatism can’t even achieve that, Marxism was unscientific even before 1989, and the economics of religious-based political philosophy will always be based on the conventions of whatever religion is at hand.
How might neo-Cynicism develop from its ancient roots? One option is to take it in a more specifically anti-systemic direction. Tis true that there’s no such thing as being a complete anti-systemetician in philosophy in general or in life in particular, but I think it is still possible, and desirable, to move a fair degree in that direction. If we understand Cynicism as attacking convention for convention’s sake, we can extrapolate the approach beyond social mores, to include attacking conventionality in the very way we think.
A neo-Cynic project should also lessen the original’s asceticism to some degree — not just the sexual aspect of it, but its larger anti-material stance. Without the need to go ascetic, scorning and sneering at materialism and excessive attachment to material possessions is more needed than ever, especially in the consumeristic society that is the hallmark of the modern developed world.
In all of this, the key is to remember that any rebellion against convention is not to be done simply for the sake of rebellion, but rather for the amelioration of both one’s individual psyche and that of the larger community. Neo-Cynicism may be an important part of an increasingly urgent move beyond the present capitalistic system.
Steve Snyder is a newspaper editor and an atheist with a graduate theological degree. He blogs at Socratic Gadfly on politics, atheism, journalism, sports, and philosophy.
 Cynicism (philosophy), Wiki entry.
 Existential Comics, Greek Hold’em.
 Tevye the Dairyman, Wiki entry.
 Fiddler on the roof — Tradition, YouTube.
 Why not Stoicism?, by M. Pigliucci, Scientia Salon, 6 October 2014.
 The Stoic egg, by M. Pigliucci, Scientia Salon, 17 November 2014.
 Difference Between Ancient Stoicism and Ancient Cynicism, Ratio Cynicorum, 2 September 2012.
 Cynics, by William Desmond, University of California Press, 2008.
 Pessimism, Wiki entry.
 Somewhat reluctantly, I recommend Joshua Foa Dienstag’s “Pessimism” for further reading. While the book is good, it’s one of those pieces of writing that could have been great, but isn’t. Parts of it cover issues of historicity, linear vs. cyclical time, detachment vs. rebellion and more.