Cynicism: The Life of a Dog
Episode #7 of the course Ancient Greek philosophy by Dr. Will Buckingham
Hello again and welcome back. In this lesson, we’re going to explore the ancient Greek philosophical tradition known as cynicism. The word comes from the Greek word “kynikos,” or “dog-like.” It is a name that goes back to an insult that was hurled at the most famous cynic philosopher, Diogenes of Sinope (c. 412-323 BCE). People called Diogenes “the dog,” and Diogenes embraced this insult and made it his own.
Defaced Coins and Exiles
Diogenes was born in the town of Sinope, in present-day Turkey. According to later accounts, his father was in charge of the state mint, producing coinage to help fuel the growing trade across the ancient world. When it was discovered that the coinage that his father produced was being adulterated, Diogenes went into exile and fled to Athens. This story is backed up by archaeological finds of a large number of defaced coins from Sinope, dating from the early 4th century BCE.
In Athens, Diogenes became a beggar and took up residence in an abandoned pithos, a large wine jar. This odd choice of home had a philosophical purpose. Diogenes wanted to return to a more natural way of living, one free of the artifice of culture. This was an idea he said to have gotten from watching a mouse and reflecting on how adaptable the creature was to its circumstances. It was this lifestyle—living outside, like any other animal—that led to Diogenes being referred to as “the Dog.”
Our Unnatural Lives
The story of defaced currency has a broader significance in cynicism. Diogenes was a philosopher who defaced and reminted the everyday currency of ethics. For the cynics, the everyday currency of ethics was deeply, profoundly wrong. Diogenes and his followers believed that we are all deluded when it comes to everyday notions about goodness and badness, about the values that our cultures hold true, and about what it means to live a flourishing life. We are tangled up in artificial ideas.
To free ourselves from these knots and confusions, we need to cultivate a more natural way of living. Here, the idea of the cynics as “dog-like” philosophers comes into its own. Dogs don’t care about culture, philosophy, art and literature, or the finer things in life. They care about warmth, food, and companionship. The cynics believed that we should return to a focus on our basic needs, embrace our naturalness, and forget about the things that we think are important.
The cynic commitment to naturalness was sometimes shocking. For example, Diogenes was often found masturbating in the marketplace. When he was questioned by his fellow Athenians, he just said, “If only the pangs of hunger could be eased by rubbing the stomach,” and continued with what he was doing.
Plato didn’t approve of the cynics. He called Diogenes “a Socrates gone mad.” But Diogenes was not opposed to reason. Instead, he wanted to demonstrate how unreasonable our conventional notions of ethics often are. Why is something that is acceptable in private not acceptable in public? What about gestures? Diogenes pointed out that if you walk around with your middle finger extended (a gesture that had a similarly insulting meaning in Ancient Greece as it does today), people criticize you, but if you stretch out your little finger, they don’t. Isn’t this, he asked, the real madness?
The cynics were the original dropouts. They wandered around with no other possessions than a cloak (to keep warm), a stick (for warding off dogs and other dangers), and a backpack (to store up a bit of food). When Diogenes was asked where he was from, he didn’t say that he came from Sinope or Athens. He said that he was a citizen, or polites, of the cosmos, or the universe as a whole. Diogenes was the original cosmopolitan. Like a dog, he claimed that he could be equally happy in Sinope, Athens, or anywhere else, as long as his basic needs were met.
In introducing the idea of cosmopolitanism into philosophy, Diogenes kick-started a debate that continues to the present. It is a debate about what it means to be human and about the role of social belonging. Do forms of culture, belonging, and allegiance matter, even if they are expressed in all kinds of irrational ways? Or is it better to cut free of these local allegiances and to be a cosmopolitan, for our belonging to transcend individual cultures?
What Is Nature, Anyway?
The cynics wanted to act in accordance with nature. But this opened up a big philosophical problem: What is nature, anyway? What does it mean for a human being to act naturally (after all, if somebody says, “just act naturally,” it is often then that we get awkward and unnatural)? Even if certain cultural practices are irrational, there is a good argument that culture is natural too. This problem with nature was taken up by the philosophical movement that owes the most to the cynics: stoicism. This will be the topic of the next lesson.
There’s a great Ted-Ed video on cynicism here.
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