In Praise of Cynics

In the generations after the death of Socrates, there was a profusion of philosophical and quasi-philosophical schools that sought to follow in his footsteps. Plato began his Academy, and Isocrates around the same time began a much more influential program training people in writing and rhetoric and public life. Aristotle started the school known as the Lyceum, and then came the Cynics, the Epicureans, the Stoics, some groups of Skeptics, and eventually the Middle Platonists and the Neoplatonists.

I’m reflecting today on one of these groups that is often neglected: the Cynics.

When I think of the Cynics, there are two things I’ve heard about them which especially shape how I think of them. (No, the two things are not that the word “cynicism” comes from the Greek word for dog, and that one of the early Cynics was caught shamelessly doing something in public that should probably not be done in public, even if those are probably the two things you hear most often about them!)

  • The Cynics, who lived in poverty and went around exhorting listeners to live a life of radical virtue, were inspired by a wish to be like Socrates. There were many ancient thinkers who wanted to think like Socrates, but the Cynics were unique and interesting in thinking that the life of Socrates was an important consequence of Socrates’ thinking and was worth imitating and even seeking to outdo.
  • The Cynics, who lived in poverty and went around exhorting listeners to live a life of radical virtue, may have been an inspiration for the ministry of Jesus and his disciples. I don’t want to make too much of this, since it has attracted no end of controversy among Christian and anti-Christian disputants, but it is true that there was a city with a great deal of Cynic activity over the course of several centuries which was located very, very near to Nazareth where Jesus grew up. More importantly, though, the very fact that some scholars are able to argue that there was a Cynic influence on the ministry of Jesus does help us picture what Cynicism was like, for those of us who are more familiar with early Christianity than with obscure Greek philosophical schools (which is probably most of us!).

The Cynics were compared to dogs, because they embraced a somewhat animal existence rather than the more civilized human life that their contemporaries (and we ourselves) would be more familiar with. They chose a hard life, and they did so in order to pursue the best sort of life they could attain.

They didn’t want to be distracted by money or honour or pleasures or fears. They gave up everything that could pull their attention away from the life of virtue, and then they used the freedom that came from that choice to share an exhortation toward virtue with anyone who would listen.

It is a praiseworthy path. This sort of life would resurface among the early centuries of Christian saints: the anchorites, the stylites, the later mendicant orders, all share this same willingness to embrace poverty in order to pursue virtue and to preach the glories of virtue.

There aren’t many who will choose that path today. But there are some. As far as I’m concerned, the more there are, the better off the whole world will be.

And even for those of us who cannot take on that form of life completely, it is important that we should all seek to embrace that approach to the world, as far as is possible from within the duties required by our state in life. In every way that we can, we need to put virtue above all the lesser concerns that present themselves to us without end.

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