Statue of an unknown Cynic philosopher from the Capitoline Museum in Rome. This statue is a Roman-era copy of an earlier Greek statue from the 3rd century BCE.[1] The scroll in his right hand is an 18th century restoration.

Cynicism (Greek: κυνισμός), in its original form, refers to the beliefs of an ancient school of Greek philosophers known as the Cynics (Greek: Κυνικοί, Latin: Cynici). Their philosophy was that the purpose of life was to live a life of Virtue in agreement with Nature. This meant rejecting all conventional desires for wealth, power, health, and fame, and by living a simple life free from all possessions. As reasoning creatures, people could gain happiness by rigorous training and by living in a way which was natural for humans. They believed that the world belonged equally to everyone, and that suffering was caused by false judgments of what was valuable and by the worthless customs and conventions which surrounded society. Many of these thoughts were later absorbed into Stoicism.

The first philosopher to outline these themes was Antisthenes, who had been a pupil of Socrates in the late 5th century BCE. He was followed by Diogenes of Sinope, who lived in a tub on the streets of Athens.[2] Diogenes took Cynicism to its logical extremes, and came to be seen as the archetypal Cynic philosopher. He was followed by Crates of Thebes who gave away a large fortune so he could live a life of Cynic poverty in Athens. Cynicism spread with the rise of Imperial Rome in the 1st century, and Cynics could be found begging and preaching throughout the cities of the Empire. It finally disappeared in the late 5th century, although many of its ascetic and rhetorical ideas were adopted by early Christianity.


Origin of the Cynic name

The name Cynic derives from Ancient Greek κυνικός (kynikos), meaning "dog-like", and κύων (kyôn), meaning "dog" (genitive: kynos).[3] One explanation offered in ancient times for why the Cynics were called dogs was because the first Cynic, Antisthenes, taught in the Cynosarges gymnasium at Athens.[4] The word Cynosarges means the place of the white dog. It seems certain, however, that the word dog was also thrown at the first Cynics as an insult for their shameless rejection of conventional manners, and their decision to live on the streets. Diogenes, in particular, was referred to as the Dog,[5] a distinction he seems to have revelled in, stating that "other dogs bite their enemies, I bite my friends to save them."[6] Later Cynics also sought to turn the word to their advantage, as a later commentator explained:

There are four reasons why the Cynics are so named. First because of the indifference of their way of life, for they make a cult of indifference and, like dogs, eat and make love in public, go barefoot, and sleep in tubs and at crossroads. The second reason is that the dog is a shameless animal, and they make a cult of shamelessness, not as being beneath modesty, but as superior to it. The third reason is that the dog is a good guard, and they guard the tenets of their philosophy. The fourth reason is that the dog is a discriminating animal which can distinguish between its friends and enemies. So do they recognize as friends those who are suited to philosophy, and receive them kindly, while those unfitted they drive away, like dogs, by barking at them.[7]


Cynicism is one of the most striking of all the Hellenistic philosophies.[8] It offered people the possibility of happiness and freedom from suffering in an age of uncertainty. Although there was never an official Cynic doctrine, the fundamental principles of Cynicism can be summarised as follows:[9][10]

  1. The goal of life is happiness which is to live in agreement with Nature.
  2. Happiness depends on being self-sufficient, and a master of mental attitude.
  3. Self-sufficiency is achieved by living a life of Arete.
  4. The road to arete is to free oneself from any influence such as wealth, fame, or power, which have no value in Nature.
  5. Suffering is caused by false judgments of value, which cause negative emotions and a vicious character.

Thus a Cynic has no property and rejects all conventional values of money, fame, power or reputation.[9] A life lived according to nature requires only the bare necessities required for existence, and one can become free by unshackling oneself from any needs which are the result of convention.[11] The Cynics adopted Hercules as their hero, as epitomizing the ideal Cynic.[12] Hercules "was he who brought Cerberus, the hound of Hades, from the underworld, a point of special appeal to the dog-man, Diogenes."[13] According to Lucian, "Cerberus and Cynic are surely related through the dog."[14]

The Cynic way of life required continuous training, not just in exercising one's judgments and mental impressions, but a physical training as well:

[Diogenes] used to say, that there were two kinds of exercise: that, namely, of the mind and that of the body; and that the latter of these created in the mind such quick and agile impressions at the time of its performance, as very much facilitated the practice of virtue; but that one was imperfect without the other, since the health and vigour necessary for the practice of what is good, depend equally on both mind and body.[15]

None of this meant that the Cynic would retreat from society, far from it, Cynics would live in the full glare of the public's gaze and would be quite indifferent in the face of any insults which might result from their unconventional behaviour.[9] The Cynics are said to have invented the idea of cosmopolitanism: when he was asked where he came from, Diogenes replied that he was "a citizen of the world, (kosmopolitês)."[16]

The ideal Cynic would evangelise; as the watchdog of humanity, it was their job to hound people about the error of their ways.[9] The example of the Cynic's life (and the use of the Cynic's biting satire) would dig-up and expose the pretensions which lay at the root of everyday conventions.[9]

Although Cynicism concentrated solely on ethics, Cynic philosophy had a big impact on the Hellenistic world, ultimately becoming an important influence for Stoicism. The Stoic Apollodorus writing in the 2nd century BCE stated that "Cynicism is the short path to virtue."[17]

History of Cynicism

Bust of Antisthenes

The classical Greek and Roman Cynics regarded virtue as the only necessity for happiness, and saw virtue as entirely sufficient for attaining happiness. Classical Cynics followed this philosophy to the extent of neglecting everything not furthering their perfection of virtue and attainment of happiness, thus, the title Cynics, derived from the Greek word κύων (meaning "dog") because they allegedly neglected society, hygiene, family, money, etc., in a manner reminiscent of dogs. They sought to free themselves from conventions; become self-sufficient; and live only in accordance with nature. They rejected any conventional notions of happiness involving money, power, or fame, to lead entirely virtuous, and thus happy, lives.[18]

The ancient Cynics rejected conventional social values, and would criticise the types of behaviours, such as greed, which they viewed as causing suffering. Emphasis on this aspect of their teachings led, in the late 18th and early 19th century,[19] to the modern understanding of cynicism as "an attitude of scornful or jaded negativity, especially a general distrust of the integrity or professed motives of others."[20] This modern definition of cynicism is in marked contrast to the ancient philosophy, which emphasized "virtue and moral freedom in liberation from desire."[21]


Various philosophers, such as the Pythagoreans, had advocated simple living in the centuries preceding the Cynics. In the early 6th century BCE, Anacharsis, a Scythian sage had combined plain living together with criticisms of Greek customs in a manner which would become standard among the Cynics.[22] Perhaps of importance were tales of Indian philosophers, known to later Greeks as the Gymnosophists, who had adopted a strict asceticism together with a disrespect for established laws and customs.[23] By the 5th century BCE, the Sophists had begun a process of questioning many aspects of Greek society such as religion, law and ethics. However, the most immediate influence for the Cynic school was Socrates. Although he was not an ascetic, he did profess a love of Virtue and an indifference to wealth,[24] together with a disdain for general opinion.[25] These aspects of Socrates' thought, which formed only a minor part of Plato's philosophy, became the central inspiration for another of Socrates' pupils, Antisthenes.


The story of Cynicism traditionally begins with Antisthenes (c. 445–365 BCE),[26] [27] who was an older contemporary of Plato and a pupil of Socrates. At about 25 years his junior, Antisthenes was one of the most important of Socrates' disciples.[28] Although later classical authors had little doubt about labelling him as the founder of Cynicism,[29] his philosophical views seem to be more complex than the later simplicities of pure Cynicism. In the list of works ascribed to Antisthenes by Diogenes Laërtius,[30] writings on Language, Dialogue and Literature far outnumber those on Ethics or Politics,[31] although they may reflect how his philosophical interests changed with time.[32] It is certainly true that Antisthenes preached a life of poverty:

I have enough to eat till my hunger is stayed, to drink till my thirst is sated; to clothe myself as well; and out of doors not [even] Callias there, with all his riches, is more safe than I from shivering; and when I find myself indoors, what warmer shirting do I need than my bare walls?[33]

Diogenes of Sinope

Diogenes of Sinope (c. 412–323 BCE) dominates the story of Cynicism like no other figure. He originally came to Athens, fleeing his home city, after he and his father, who was in charge of the mint at Sinope, got into trouble for falsifying the coinage.[34] (The phrase "defacing the currency" later became proverbial in describing Diogenes' rejection of conventional values.)[35] Later tradition claimed that Diogenes became the disciple of Antisthenes,[36] but it is by no means certain that they ever met.[37][38][39] What is true is that Diogenes adopted Antisthenes' teachings and embraced the ascetic way of life, pursuing a lifestyle of self-sufficiency (autarkeia), austerity (askēsis), and shamelessness (anaideia).[40] There are countless anecdotes about his extravagant asceticism (sleeping in a tub),[41] shameless behaviour (eating raw meat),[42] and his biting satire ("bad people obey their lusts as servants obey their masters"),[43] and although it is impossible to tell which of these stories are genuine, they do illustrate the broad character of the man, including an ethical seriousness.[44]

Crates of Thebes

Crates of Thebes (c. 365–c. 285 BCE) is the third figure who dominates Cynic history. He is notable because he renounced a large fortune to live a life of Cynic poverty in Athens.[45] He is said to have been a pupil of Diogenes,[46] but again this is uncertain.[47] Crates married Hipparchia of Maroneia after she had fallen in love with him and together they lived like beggars on the streets of Athens,[48] where Crates was treated with respect.[49] Crates' later fame (apart from his unconventional lifestyle) lies in the fact that he became the teacher of Zeno of Citium, the founder of Stoicism.[50] The Cynic strain to be found in early Stoicism (such as Zeno's own radical views on sexual equality spelled out in his Republic) can be ascribed to Crates' influence.[51]

Other Cynics

There were many other Cynics in the 4th and 3rd centuries BCE, including Onesicritus (who sailed with Alexander the Great to India), and the moral satirists Bion of Borysthenes and Menippus of Gadara. However, with the rise of Stoicism in the 3rd century BCE, Cynicism as a serious philosophical activity underwent a decline,[52] [53] and it is not until the Roman era that Cynicism underwent a revival.

Cynicism in the Roman World

Diogenes of Sinope – depicted by Jean-Léon Gérôme

There is little record of Cynicism in the 2nd or 1st centuries BCE; Cicero (c. 50 BCE), who was much interested in Greek philosophy, had little to say about Cynicism, except that "it is to be shunned; for it is opposed to modesty, without which there can be neither right nor honor."[54] However, by the 1st century CE, Cynicism reappeared with full force. The rise of Imperial Rome, like the Greek loss of independence under Philip and Alexander three centuries earlier, may have led to a sense of powerlessness and frustration among many people, which allowed a philosophy which emphasized self-sufficiency and inner-happiness to flourish once again.[55] Cynics could be found throughout the empire, standing on street corners, preaching about Virtue.[56] Lucian complained that "every city is filled with such upstarts, particularly with those who enter the names of Diogenes, Antisthenes, and Crates as their patrons and enlist in the Army of the Dog,"[57] and Aelius Aristides observed that "they frequent the doorways, talking more to the doorkeepers than to the masters, making up for their lowly condition by using impudence."[58] The most notable representative of Cynicism in the 1st century CE was Demetrius, whom Seneca praised as "a man of consummate wisdom, though he himself denied it, constant to the principles which he professed, of an eloquence worthy to deal with the mightiest subjects."[59] Cynicism in Rome was both the butt of the satirist and the ideal of the thinker. In the 2nd century CE, Lucian, whilst pouring scorn on the Cynic philosopher Peregrinus Proteus,[60] nevertheless praised his own Cynic teacher, Demonax, in a dialogue.[61]

Cynicism came to be seen as an idealised form of Stoicism, a view which led Epictetus to eulogise the ideal Cynic in a lengthy discourse.[62] According to Epictetus, the ideal Cynic "must know that he is sent as a messenger from Zeus to people concerning good and bad things, to show them that they have wandered."[63] Unfortunately for Epictetus, many Cynics of the era did not live up to the ideal: "consider the present Cynics who are dogs that wait at tables, and in no respect imitate the Cynics of old except perchance in breaking wind."[64]

Unlike Stoicism, which declined as an independent philosophy after the 2nd century CE, Cynicism seems to have thrived into the 4th century.[65] The Emperor Julian (ruled 361–363), like Epictetus, praised the ideal Cynic and complained about the actual practitioners of Cynicism.[66]

The final Cynic noted in classical history is Sallustius of Emesa in the late 5th century.[67] A student of the Neoplatonic philosopher Isidore of Alexandria, he devoted himself to living a life of Cynic asceticism.

Cynicism and Christianity

Jesus as a Jewish Cynic

Some historians have noted the similarities between the life and teachings of Jesus and those of the Cynics. Some scholars have argued that the Q document, the hypothetical common source for the gospels of Matthew and Luke, has strong similarities with the teachings of the Cynics.[68][69] Scholars on the quest for the historical Jesus, such as Burton L. Mack and John Dominic Crossan of the Jesus Seminar, have argued that 1st century CE Galilee was a world in which Hellenistic ideas collided with Jewish thought and traditions. The city of Gadara, only a day's walk from Nazareth, was particularly notable as a center of Cynic philosophy,[70] and Mack has described Jesus as a "rather normal Cynic-type figure."[71] For Crossan, Jesus was more like a Cynic sage from an Hellenistic Jewish tradition than either a Christ who would die as a substitute for sinners or a Messiah who wanted to establish an independent Jewish state of Israel.[72] Other scholars doubt that Jesus was deeply influenced by the Cynics, and see the Jewish prophetic tradition as of much greater importance.[73]

Cynic influences on early Christianity

Many of the ascetic practices of Cynicism may have been adopted by early Christians, and Christians often employed the same rhetorical methods as the Cynics.[74] Some Cynics were actually martyred for speaking out against the authorities.[75] One Cynic, Peregrinus Proteus, lived for a time as a Christian before converting to Cynicism,[76] whereas in the 4th century, Maximus of Alexandria, although a Christian, was also called a Cynic because of his ascetic lifestyle. Christian writers would often praise Cynic poverty,[77] although they scorned Cynic shamelessness: Augustine stating that they had, "in violation of the modest instincts of men, boastfully proclaimed their unclean and shameless opinion, worthy indeed of dogs."[78] The ascetic orders of Christianity also had direct connection with the Cynics, as can be seen in the wandering mendicant monks of the early church who in outward appearance, and in many of their practices were little different from the Cynics of an earlier age.[79]

See also


  1. ^ Christopher H. Hallett, (2005), The Roman Nude: Heroic Portrait Statuary 200 BC–AD 300, page 294. Oxford University Press
  2. ^ Laërtius & Hicks 1925, Ⅵ:23 ; Jerome, Adversus Jovinianum, 2.14.
  3. ^ Kynikos, "A Greek-English Lexicon", Liddell and Scott, at Perseus
  4. ^ Diogenes Laërtius, vi. 13. Cf. The Oxford Companion to Classical Literature, 2nd edition, p. 165.
  5. ^ An obscure reference to "the Dog" in Aristotle's Rhetoric (3.10.1411a25) is generally agreed to be the first reference to Diogenes.
  6. ^ Diogenes of Sinope, quoted by Stobaeus, Florilegium, iii. 13. 44.
  7. ^ Scholium on Aristotle's Rhetoric, quoted in Dudley 1937, p. 5
  8. ^ Long 1996, p. 28
  9. ^ a b c d e Kidd 2005
  10. ^ Long 1996, p. 29
  11. ^ Long 1996, p. 34
  12. ^ Diogenes Laërtius, vi. 2, 71; Dio Chrysostom, Orations, viii. 26–32; Pseudo-Lucian, Cynicus, 13; Lucian, De Morte Peregrini, 4, 33, 36.
  13. ^ Orlando Patterson: Freedom. p. 186
  14. ^ Lucian, Dialogues of the Dead, 21
  15. ^ Diogenes Laërtius, vi. 70
  16. ^ Diogenes Laërtius, vi. 63
  17. ^ Diogenes Laërtius, vii. 121
  18. ^ CynicsThe Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy
  19. ^ David Mazella, (2007), The Making of Modern Cynicism, University of Virginia Press. ISBN 0-813-92615-7
  20. ^ Cynicism, The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language. Fourth Edition. 2006. Houghton Mifflin Company.
  21. ^ Bertrand Russell, A History of Western Philosophy, page 231. Simon and Schuster.
  22. ^ R. Martin, The Scythian Accent: Anacharsis and the Cynics, Bracht Branham & Goulet-Cazé 1996
  23. ^ J. Romm, Dog Heads and Noble Savages: Cynicism before the Cynics, Bracht Branham & Goulet-Cazé 1996
  24. ^ Plato, Apology, 41e.
  25. ^ Xenophon, Apology, 1.
  26. ^ Dudley 1937, p. 1
  27. ^ Bracht Branham & Goulet-Cazé 1996, p. 6
  28. ^ Xenophon, Symposium, 4.57–64.
  29. ^ Diogenes Laërtius, vi. 2
  30. ^ Diogenes Laërtius, vi. 15–18
  31. ^ Prince 2005, p. 79
  32. ^ Navia 1996, p. 40
  33. ^ Xenophon, Symposium, 4.34.
  34. ^ Diogenes Laërtius, vi. 20–21
  35. ^ Diogenes Laërtius, vi. 20, 71
  36. ^ Diogenes Laërtius, vi. 6, 18, 21; Aelian, x. 16; Epictetus, Discourses, iii. 22. 63
  37. ^ Long 1996, p. 45
  38. ^ Dudley 1937, p. 2
  39. ^ Prince 2005, p. 77
  40. ^ Sarton, G., Ancient Science Through the Golden Age of Greece, Dover Publications. (1980).
  41. ^ Diogenes Laërtius, vi. 23; Jerome, Adversus Jovinianum, 2.14
  42. ^ Diogenes Laërtius, vi. 34
  43. ^ Diogenes Laërtius, vi. 66
  44. ^ Long 1996, p. 33
  45. ^ Diogenes Laërtius, vi. 87–88
  46. ^ Diogenes Laërtius, vi. 85, 87; Epictetus, Discourses, iii. 22. 63
  47. ^ Long 1996, p. 46
  48. ^ Although there is no mention in ancient sources of them actually begging. Cf. Doyne Dawson, (1992), Cities of the gods: communist utopias in Greek thought, page 135. Oxford University Press
  49. ^ Plutarch, Symposiacs, 2.1; Apuleius, Florida, 22; Julian, Orations, 6.201b
  50. ^ Diogenes Laërtius, i. 15, vi. 105, vii. 2, etc
  51. ^ Schofield 1991
  52. ^ Dudley 1937, p. 117
  53. ^ Bracht Branham & Goulet-Cazé 1996, p. 13
  54. ^ Cicero, De Officiis, i. 41.
  55. ^ Dudley 1937, p. 124
  56. ^ Lucian, De Morte Peregrini, 3
  57. ^ Lucian, Fugitivi, 16.
  58. ^ Aelius Aristides, iii. 654–694
  59. ^ Seneca, De Beneficiis, vii.
  60. ^ Lucian, De Morte Peregrini.
  61. ^ Lucian, Demonax.
  62. ^ Epictetus, Discourses, 3. 22.
  63. ^ Epictetus, Discourses, 3. 22. 23
  64. ^ Epictetus, Discourses, 3. 22. 80
  65. ^ Dudley 1937, p. 202
  66. ^ Julian, Oration 6: To the Uneducated Cynics; Oration 7: To the Cynic Heracleios.
  67. ^ Damascius, Life of Isidorus: fragments preserved in the Commentary on Plato's Parmenides by Proclus, in the Bibliotheca of Photius, and in The Suda.
  68. ^ Leif Vaage, (1994), Galilean Upstarts: Jesus' First Followers According to Q. TPI
  69. ^ F. Gerald Downing, (1992), Cynics and Christian Origins. T. & T. Clark.
  70. ^ In particular, Menippus (3rd century BCE), Meleager (1st century BCE), and Oenomaus (2nd century CE), all came from Gadara.
  71. ^ Quoted in R. Ostling, Who was Jesus?", Time, August 15, 1988, pages 37–42.
  72. ^ John Dominic Crossan, (1991), The Historical Jesus: The Life of a Mediterranean Jewish Peasant, ISBN 0-06-061629-6
  73. ^ Craig A. Evans, Life of Jesus Research: An Annotated Bibliography, page 151. BRILL
  74. ^ F. Gasco Lacalle, (1986) Cristianos y cinicos. Una tificacion del fenomeno cristiano durante el siglo II, pages 111–119. Memorias de Historia Antigua 7.
  75. ^ Dio Cassius, Epitome of book 65, 15.5; Herodian, Roman History, 1.9.2–5
  76. ^ Lucian, De Morte Peregrini, 10–15
  77. ^ Origen, adv. Cels. 2.41, 6.28, 7.7; Basil of Caesarea, Leg. Lib. Gent. 9.3, 4, 20; Theodoret, Provid. 6; John Chrysostom, Ad. Op. Vit. Monast. 2.4, 5
  78. ^ Augustine, Wikisource-logo.svg De Civitate Dei 14.20.
  79. ^ Dudley 1937, pp. 209–211


  • Dudley, Donald R. (1937), A History of Cynicism from Diogenes to the 6th Century A.D., Cambridge, 
  • Kidd, I. (2005), "Cynicism", in Rée, Jonathan; Urmson, J., The Concise Encyclopedia of Western Philosophy, Routledge, ISBN 0415329248 
  • Long, A. A. (1996), "The Socratic Tradition: Diogenes, Crates, and Hellenistic Ethics", in Bracht Branham, R.; Goulet-Cazé, Marie-Odile, The Cynics: The Cynic Movement in Antiquity and Its Legacy, University of California Press, ISBN 0520216458 
  • Navia, Luis (1996), Classical Cynicism: A Critical Study, Greenwood Press, ISBN 0313300151 
  • Prince, Susan (2005), "Socrates, Antisthenes, and the Cynics", in Ahbel-Rappe, Sara; Kamtekar, Rachana, A Companion to Socrates, Blackwell Publishing, ISBN 1405108630 
  • Schofield, Malcolm (1991), The Stoic Idea of the City, Cambridge University Press, ISBN 0226740064 

Further reading

Primary sources

Secondary sources

  • R. Bracht Branham, Marie-Odile Goulet-Cazé, (editors), (1996), The Cynics: The Cynic Movement in Antiquity and Its Legacy. University of California Press. ISBN 0-520-21645-8
  • Ian Cutler, (2005), Cynicism from Diogenes to Dilbert. McFarland & Co. ISBN 0-7864-2093-6
  • William D. Desmond, (2006), The Greek Praise of Poverty: Origins of Ancient Cynicism. University of Notre Dame Press. ISBN 0-268-02582-7
  • William D. Desmond, (2008), Cynics. Ancient Philosophies Series. Acumen Publishing. ISBN 1-84465-129-0
  • F. Gerald Downing, (1992), Cynics and Christian Origins. T. & T. Clark. ISBN 0-567-09613-0
  • Donald R. Dudley, (1937), A History of Cynicism from Diogenes to the 6th Century A.D. Bristol Classical Paperbacks. ISBN 1-85399-548-7 (Available at the Internet Archive)
  • Luis E. Navia, (1996), Classical Cynicism: A Critical Study. Greenwood Press. ISBN 0-313-30015-1

External links

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