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Simply Cynicism

Upon hearing "cynic," what comes to mind? A snarky, arrogant, disillusioned person with a know-it-all-attitude, claiming that the thing preventing the world from being a better place is the greedy and corruptive nature of humans, perhaps? That's one definition of "cynic," but there are two. There's the first, written with a lowercase c, that refers to a person with a pessimistic, distrusting view of society. This is the definition that's used most colloquially, and the one we see most often in films, TV, and everyday life.

There is, however, one more definition. Capital c Cynics are those who follow the ancient Greek philosophy, Cynicism, described by Simply Philosophy as "a "natural way of life, asceticism, and individual virtue." Cynics, SP says, felt "a demonstrative disdain for accepted norms and traditions that interfere with the solution of pragmatic tasks and those that are of little use in a practical sense." Or, as the BBC 4 podcast In Our Time explains, Cynics wanted to "expose the meaninglessness of society."

Created by Antisthenes but popularized by Diogenes, Cynics, "stress virtue, simplicity, freedom, and social criticism," according to Gregory Sadler's YouTube lecture, "Epictetus' Evaluation of Cynicism - Philosophy Core Concepts."

Virtue to the Cynics, Sadler says, is much different from what we're used to hearing in society. Indeed, much of what the Cynics preach is meant to disturb and shake us, as they reject all social conventions.

To the Cynic, material possessions, familial relations, and friendships didn't matter; the concern of life was working out what is good and virtuous for oneself only, and living by that. That often meant Cynics would go up to people to pester and point out how wrong their priorities were. They took pride in their frankness of speech, or parrhesia, and were known for their satire and sharp wit. They felt it was up to them, seeing themselves as a sort of "messenger from God" to tell humans what they "need to know" but don't want to hear, which was how wrong and bad social conventions were.

"Humor, scorn, shouting at people" were common to Cynical methods of communication. Public indecency, law-breaking, and scene-making were all used to prove points about the importance of breaking social norms. "[P]rovocation or exhibitionism . . . [are] an undoubted feature of Cynicism in general," Roger Caldwell writes in "How To Be A Cynic."

Cynics lived in strict accordance with nature and self-sufficiency, taking it to such an extreme that their fierce independence of material possessions later was known as "Cynic Poverty," a self-imposed state of poverty. Asceticism, or a strict rejection of sensual pleasures, was one of the bedrocks of this philosophy, with its followers dedicating themselves to a life of both mental and physical endurance. Diogenes was known for hugging statues in winter. Begging was the way to earn food, but with the frequent rejection and ridiculing, sharpening their mental endurance.

Diogenes felt that "human nature was often at odds with [humans]," who were intrinsically good, but were corrupted by social conventions, as the BBC podcast puts it. Diogenes felt humans ought to "be rid of the unnecessary and unnatural desires which human society has installed within us." The idea was not to do what society felt we should do, but to "do what we want, whenever we want, where we want." Whilst many might see this as being shameless and almost arrogant, the Cynics saw this as freedom.

Diogenes-statue-Sinop-enhanced.jpgOne of these is Diogenes

But just as the Cynics took the idea of simple to an extreme, they took the idea of freedom to act however they like to a similar extreme: "anything that you can do, you can do in public." Diogenes was known for his public indecency, which included urinating, defecting, and masturbating in public.

When Cynicism grew in popularity amongst Romans, it was slightly rebranded, with the Romans leaving out this shameless street behavior. Although classical Cynics felt the street behavior was essential, Romans were more "restrained as modest." It was in this way Cynicism amongst Romans became known as "Roman Cynicism," which was "fundamentally at odds" with classical philosophy.

The Stoics, who were heavily influenced by the Cynics, did a very similar thing. They modified the philosophy with its idea that some social conventions were good, or at the least very should be respected, and that shamelessness should be replaced with eloquence; however, this is at total odds with Cynicism, which completely "[pitted] itself against all civilized values." In this way, "Cynics are anarchists in a strong sense."

Caldwell writes that "In its extreme individualism [Cynicism] ignores the needs of society at large," rendering it an "anti-society philosophy . . . not one that everyone - or even a significant fraction of people - could follow if society was to properly function."

Cynicism certainly gives us quite a lot to think about. Right or wrong, all can agree that the Cynics were extreme in their methods. But since those extremes aren't practical enough to be practiced by a whole society, can they really blame society for not listening?

And yet, Cynics had a disdain for "those that are of little use in a practical sense" even as their philosophy isn't practical in the slightest. They neither contribute to society nor champion self-realization, because Cynics believed in a "limited curiosity," mocking intellectualism and "academic philosophizing."

The Dilemma Of Virtue

Is there any virtue in the Cynical extremes of life? Going to extremes to prove a point sounds childish and egotistical. It's almost a way of admitting what you have to say isn't worthy enough of being heard when said peacefully, so you'll resort to making a ruckus.

If a simple life is enough, as it should be according to Cynics, why do they reduce themselves to the level of poverty? Living closely to nature and giving away all goods does not make anyone virtuous. People with bad intentions can just as easily live close to nature and sell all of their belongings. What makes denouncing all material goods inherently virtuous?

"Modesty is the color of virtue," Diogenes says. But why does he assume that poverty (what he lived by) is the same as virtue? What is the inherent virtue of not owning things?

Surely true modesty, and thus, virtue, is in gratitude for what you own - not taking pride in not owning anything.

Diogenes famously threw away his cup, one of his few possessions, when he saw a child using his hands to drink. This act may seem noble at first, but it begs the question of whether making yourself suffer alleviates the suffering of others. By using his hands to drink, did the child suddenly have a cup? What is the immorality of using a cup yourself when you've earned it? Why not share the cup? Now, both of them have to drink from their hands. That's not a practical or efficient way to look at societal problems.

Some societal standards, like interacting with respect, are good, and thus should be followed. Digones said once, "What I like to drink most is wine that belongs to others." If a societal value is sharing and helping those who need it, why would Diogenes want to overthrow that convention?

One might argue that Cynics meant only to stop practicing the "bad" social conventions; however, that is a naive way of looking at life for a few reasons. Firstly, who decides what is and isn't a virtuous value?

Secondly, you have to recognize there will be a balance in social values. Some good, some bad. If you want to fight the bad, you have to first embrace the good. Then, you have to accept the bad, for you can only control and change something when you've learned to accept it.

Thirdly, why would Diogenes expect to have any positive effect in society when he is treating it so poorly? He was known to mock and ridicule and use his sharp tongue. Can he really expect others to listen when he's metaphorically (maybe even literally; the man was known for acting unusually) screeching and screaming unforgivably in people's ears?

What exactly is virtue to the Cynic? Is there virtue in tearing apart the social fabric? Also, what business is it of the Cynics to preach to everyone in completely ineffective provocative measures? If their goal is to point out the absurdity of the values people have, surely making fun of them isn't a very intelligent way to go about. It reminds me of that one nosy friend who goes out of their way to give you advice you're not interested in hearing. Nobody likes unsolicited advice. Especially when it's unnecessarily rude.

One of the goals of leading this Cynically simple life was living a life of leisure. Diogenes said, "By embracing the simple life, leisure, the most enviable thing of all, is always mine to enjoy." If all Diogenes did, however, was practice a life of leisure, how was he of any use in any way?

The philosophy refuses to look anywhere other than what is under its nose; it is stubbornly in the present and concerned only with itself. There is no impulse to make the world a better place. Where is the virtue in that? Cynicism seems impulsive and too immediate to produce any good for society, which raises a quizzical eyebrow, since part of the disdain Cynics had was for "those that are of little use in a practical sense."

Furthermore, Cynicism encourages adults, those who uphold society, to have the impulses, responsibilities, and carelessness of teenagers. It is an antisociety antiphilosphy. It viciously disregards society. It mocks intellectualism and encourages a limited curiosity. A frugal life is not the issue here, because that is not what the Cynics believed in. They had a very extreme interpretation of "a simple life."

Society wouldn't have gotten anywhere if everyone lived in Cynical Poverty and practiced the imprudence and disdain of societal norms Cynics preached. Conformity is needed to a certain extent. How else will societies keep from breaking down? Much more than that, there must be labor and toil and ambition and competition. Yes, greed and materialism may be consequential values, but that is the price we have to pay. How else would we have progressed so far in life? One needs to take the bad with the good. One can't have cake and eat it too, as the saying goes. What Cynicism does is keep the individual trapped in primal instincts with its pride in shameless societal disrespect and crude methods of living.

Diogenes said that "In a rich man's house there is no place to spit but his face." The self-absorbed, pseudo-righteousness of this is odd. What is the inherent evil in riches? What, in turn, is the inherent good in poverty? For all Diogenes knew, that rich man used his riches to build up the town center, feed the poor, and put a roof over orphans. If he didn't, who exactly was Diogenes to think he was above the rich man? Is a poor man any less capable of being greedy, corrupt, and morally polluted?

The renunciation of all material goods and social values was what Diogenes thought made him the freest man, but is it possible to be crippled by your freedom? Is doing whatever you want true freedom? Or, with no greater purpose to serve, are you enslaved by instinct and momenty desire? If your freedom is unfruitful, then how can you prove you were free?

Virtue, in Cynicism, is more of a buzzword than an actual concern when one looks at the pride Cynics took in their shamelessness and vulgarity. Where is the virtue in exhibitionism, in vulgarity, in creating unproductive outrage?

When Diogenes was compared to dogs by a disgusted crowd, he took pride in this comparison and decided to model his life off of the shamelessness and instinctual living of dogs. In other words, "what is not shameful for the dog should not be shameful for the human." Dogs urinate, defecate, and engage in sexual activity publicly. Diogenes would, too.

A firm believer in propriety and prudence, I'll call upon the all-knowing Dowager Countess for her wisdom, who suggests, "Vulgarity is no substitute for wit."


Previously by E.K. Mam:
How Studying History Made Me A Stoic.

* Dear High School Students And Recent Graduates . . .

* Tunes To Remedy Any Existential Crisis.

* Flex You.


Comments welcome.


Posted on July 23, 2020

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