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The Cynics

There is a famous story about Alexander looking for and approaching the old Cynic, Diogenes — in the city of Corinth when he was king but had not yet invaded Asia. Diogenes was sitting alone on the street. Alexander asked the famous man if he wished anything, and Diogenes replied: "stand out of my light."

The lifestyle of Diogenes was so novel to his fellow Greeks that it attracted attention and made him a celebrity, which some people associated with wisdom. His lifestyle had reminded some others of a homeless dog, and from this came the word "cynic," a Greek word associated with dogs.

Diogenes had been devoted to the philosopher Antisthenes, said to be the founder of Cynicism. Antisthenes had been a pupil of Socrates. He was about forty when he watched Athens defeated in the Great Peloponnesian War, and he witnessed the execution of Socrates and was disgusted with the world around him. He stopped hanging out with fellow aristocrats and was tired of what he saw as worthless quibbling among philosophers. He is described as having left their company to lecture in marketplaces in a manner he thought people could understand. The philosophers he left the thought of as babblers, while he believed that he had something worth saying.

Antisthenes believed that virtue demanded that one hold back from worldly affairs, that virtue was non-involvement in anything political, that people should find satisfaction is their daily labor. He has been described as a critic of dogmatic thought, theories and metaphysical essences.

Another Cynic was Crates (365 to 285) who made himself a devoted follower of Diogenes. He pursued Diogenes homeless lifestyle — but with a wife who became the first Cynic woman. He was known for his opposition to participation in conflict, for being jocular as if always participating in a festival, an attitude that would be thought in the 1960s as belonging to "hippies." He too acquired fame, and he was invited into homes to settle family quarrels, his manner soothing, non-accusatory, recommending getting along without rancor, love and peace. Crates would mentor the philosopher Zeno (333-264) who would stretch his Cynic point of view into Stoicism (which would survive into the times of a Stoic to be known as the Apostle Paul).

In the centuries before the coming of the Romans, those in power in Hellenistic societies would not feel threatened enough by the Cynics to move against them. A few interested in political philosophy were to see them as anarchists: dogmatic in their belief that humans did not need legal codes or political affiliations, especially to a state. If they were anarchists, they were not politically active, and for those in power the Cynics were just a harmless few. The Cynics came to be known for living according to nature. They advocated salvation from worry and conflict by what some in modern times would call dropping out. This would forever make them a small and barely influential movement. For most people the call to drop out and adopt an ascetic lifestyle made no sense: they were already barely able to feed and clothe themselves and their families. Only a few could go about without working, living off what was provided by those who labored in the fields or elsewhere.


CONTINUE READING: Wealth, Poverty and Dreams of Revolution

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Copyright © 2016 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.