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The philosophy of cynicism - William D. Desmond

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In the 4th century BCE, a young Diogenes of Sinope was found to be counterfeiting coins. He was stripped of his citizenship, his money, all his possessions and sent into exile. He decided he would live self-sufficiently, close to nature, without materialism, vanity, or conformity and only then could he be truly free. William D. Desmond details how Diogenes gave rise to the philosophy of cynicism.

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Cynicism was one of the most widespread philosophies of the ancient world. The contemporary world too is said to be pervaded by cynicism, towards governments, media and business for example. What is the relation between the two—ancient Cynicism and modern cynicism?

Diogenes was the most influential of the ancient Cynics. Find out more about him and them here , or by listening to the BBC podcast by Melville Bragg. One of the most famous stories of antiquity pictures Diogenes telling Alexander the Great to “stand out of my sun.” You can read about this incident, and its long afterlife here. Here is a comprehensive collection of ancient sources 

Zeno, founder of Stoicism, was said to have written his political treatise, The Republic, “on the dog’s tail,” and with his work Cynic values of simplicity and self-reliance would become the core of Stoic ethics. Here is a short piece about Zeno, the Cynic background to Stoicism, and how a Stoic should never succumb to road rage!

The ancient Cynics sought to simplify their lives as much as possible. This included a simple diet, and they became known as great fans of lentil soup, which is cheap, easy to make, full of fibre, great tasting, and in all, healthy for body and soul! You can find a recipe for “Zeno’s lentil soup” here. Would Diogenes or Zeno eat it?

Epictetus, a later Roman-era Stoic, idealizes Diogenes as the perfect “Stoic” and human being: his virtues and life-style were ideal, he thought, even if possibly too difficult for most people. You can read Epictetus’ chapter here.

Lucian was “cynical” in a more modern sense, especially when he wrote character assassinations of contemporary Cynics, like Peregrinus. He did, however, admire Demonax (another contemporary Cynic), along with Diogenes. Lucian’s works were very popular from the Renaissance. You can read his “Demonax”, “Peregrinus” and other works like “The Cynic” here

Modern and contemporary cynicism tends to be more purely negative, and is sometimes even associated with nihilism. One book exploring the phenomenon is Everybody knows: cynicism in America by William Chaloupka, while lectures by Jordan Pedersen engaging with the issue can be found here, along with other relevant videos.


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