Cynicism and the Cynical Prodigy – Diogenes

Cynicism and the Cynical Prodigy – Diogenes


Would you ever leave all your comfort and live like a stray dog, amongst the dogs, your abode being a mere stranded road? I, for one, can never picture that.

However, someone took to these idiosyncratic ways of living for life, to tell you the truth.

In my life’s entirety till now, never have I imagined someone climbing the stairs backward, or reaching the movie theatre towards the end of a movie… because, that’s the way he lives!

The man is none other than the propagator of the most staggering philosophy that is Cynicism. Incidentally, these quirky imaginations mentioned above are the core ideas behind this philosophy.

Diogenes, or should I say, Diogenes the Cynic, is the man behind this striking philosophy. While Antisthenes, a pupil of Socrates, did the outlining of the idea behind Cynicism, Diogenes took it to its extreme. Therefore, almost all that is there about Cynicism stems from this Greek philosopher, Diogenes.


The meaning

Much like Stoicism, people use the word ‘Cynic’ colloquially in modern times. However, the ancient meaning drastically differs from the contemporary definition. The contemporary interpretation suggests that a Cynic is someone who acts out of self-seeking motives and doesn’t believe in working selflessly; thus, he is devoid of honour. In contrast, the ancient meaning of the word means someone who doesn’t conform to conventional codes of living. Rather, he lives following nature. A Cynic doesn’t follow social norms and lifestyles. Instead, he lives as he pleases. The philosophy of Cynicism is based on the idea that one should be free from conventional desires of health, wealth, and power. He should be content with having bare necessities to lead a happy life.

The word ‘Cynic’ is derived from the ancient word ‘kynikos’ which means ‘dog-like’. Much like dogs, Cynics were ‘shameless’ and ‘indifferent’ in their ways and means. They loved to lead a life that is similar to dogs. Also, they ate, slept, and made love in public; didn’t wear any clothes and were always barefoot.

The origin

As said above, the founder of the philosophy of Cynicism was considered to be Antisthenes (c 445 – 365 BC). His ideas were followed by Diogenes of Sinope, who was known to be the most popular Cynic ever. In other words, he was an archetype of Cynicism.

In the 4th Century B.C, Diogenes, who either fled or was sent to exile, resolved to question the ideas of society and to bring forward his ideas of success. This translated to him having the autonomy to live however he wanted to. While he was in Athens, his abode was a tub. He did not need any conventional shelter to survive.

Diogenes had this belief that if an act is not considered shameless in private, it should in turn not be regarded as shameless when performed in public.

People labeled him ‘mad’ because of his deeds. Once, he saw people throw stones at some dogs that he used to live with. In retaliation, he urinated on the people. To add to this lifestyle of his, he would urinate out in the open, defecate in theatres and eat onions for a living; Yet, he wasn’t a tad bit ashamed of any of it.

On another occasion, Diogenes was lying on the floor, cherishing the sunlight and relaxing in his quirky ways. After sensing a large crowd approaching, he looked up and realized it was Alexander the great coming towards him along with his group.

Alexander, upon reaching him, asked him if he wanted anything, to which Diogenes replied, “Yes, stand a little out of my sun”. His unabashedness impressed Alexander. He laughed and said, “If I were not Alexander, I would like to be Diogenes.” To which Diogenes replied, “ If I were not Diogenes, I would also wish to be Diogenes.”

The Fundamental Principles

The following principles form a basis for the philosophy of Cynicism:

1. The Goal of Life is Eudaimonia:

As per the Cynics, the ultimate goal of life is Eudaimonia, which in simpler terms translates to human flourishing or living well. No one wants a gloomy life. Everything we do has a motive behind it. And that motive is none other than happiness, for most of us anyway.

2. Eudaimonia is achieved by living in accord with Nature:

This principle says that we can achieve happiness in life by living in accordance with nature. This implies that one needs to forego all material desires, stop following societal norms and regulations, and outrightly reject the conventional value of fame and money.

3. Arrogance is caused by false judgments of value:

As per the Cynics, the human race ought to suffer because of their false judgments of certain values. This includes the judgment of right and wrong, good and bad, etc. This leads to arrogance, negative emotions, unnatural desires, and vicious character.

  1. Eudaimonia depends on:
  • Self-sufficiency – the condition of being independent
  • Equanimity – calmness, and composure
  • Arete – the excellence of any kind
  • Love of humanity – humaneness, and benevolence
  • Parrhesia – to speak candidly or to ask forgiveness for so speaking
  • Adiaphora – indifference to the vicissitudes of life

4. Asceticism results in Flourishng and Clarity:

Ascetic practices include being free from influences of wealth, fame, money, and power. Diogenes living in a tub and walking barefoot in extreme weather conditions is an example of ascetic practices that he followed. According to him, one can feel the real taste of happiness only after living in adverse situations and pain.

5. A Cynic practices shamelessness and impudence:

A Cynic shamelessly rejects all the conventional rules and ideas. He lives as per his own will and doesn’t fear judgments of society. For some, it may be immodesty; for him, there is no better way to spend a happy life than this.

Here I list, some of the quotes by Diogenes that show his savagery at best:

“Why not whip the teacher when the pupil misbehaves?”

“ In a rich man’s house, there is no place to spit but his face.”

“Wise leaders generally have wise counsellors because it takes a wise person themselves to distinguish them.”

“Man is the most intelligent of the animals, and the most silly.”

“I know nothing, except the fact of my ignorance.”

“Dogs and philosophers do the greatest good and get the fewest rewards.”

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