Ancient Philosophy

Hellenistic and Roman Philosophy

What is ancient cynicism?

The cynics were eccentrics who chose to be outcasts rather than kow-tow to social norms that did not make sense to them. Ancient cynicism was generally an attempt to reassert the importance of human nature as independent of society and custom. This was very different from our modern definition of a cynic as someone who is skeptical and tends to believe the worst about people.

The cynics derived from Antisthenes of Athens (c. 445–360 B.C.E.), who studied with Gorgias (c. 485–380 B.C.E.) and was a good friend of Socrates (460–399 B.C.E.), even being present at his death. Antisthenes claimed to be proudest of his wealth, because, having no money, he was pleased with what he had. He thought that a virtuous person could always be happier than a non-virtuous one and that the soul was more important than the body.

Antisthenes’ minimalist ideas about what was necessary to live well were carried on by Diogenes of Sinope (400–325 B.C.E.), who lived in a wine barrel, claimed that cannibalism and incest were fine practices, and was said to carry a lamp in daylight in search of an honest person. Diogenes’ successor was Crates of Thebes (fl. 328 B.C.E.), who gave up his wealth to practice cynicism, but also married. He believed that asceticism was necessary for independence and claimed that lentils were better than oysters.

Diogenes, depicted in a painting by Flemish artist Pieter Van Mol, was an unusual philosopher given to rude and obscene public gestures that displayed his contempt for social conventions (Art Archive).

This is a web preview of the "The Handy Philosophy Answer Book" app. Many features only work on your mobile device. If you like what you see, we hope you will consider buying. Get the App