As a satirist, Andy Zaltzman thinks it should be easy living a week following the teachings of the ancient Greek philosophy of the Cynics. He soon finds out how wrong he was.

Diogenes (404 - 323BC), who lived in a barrel in Athens, was perhaps the most famous cynic. The school gets its name from Diogenes' who was nick-named "kynikos", or 'dog-like', because he lived in the street and fed on scraps. The Cynics were arguably the first environmentalists and the modern anarchist elements of the Green movement are adapting their teaching, especially around self-sufficiency and living a simple life. The ancient Cynics thought we have been corrupted by the false beliefs of civilization, such as the belief that the most important thing in life is to win success and status. So they set out to puncture these false beliefs. Diogenes the Cynic called this 'debasing the currency' and he became well known for his philosophical pranks. Plato is said to have described him as a Socrates "gone mad.". For satirist Andy Zaltzman this all sounds very familiar and he goes to talk through the philosophy with the comedian and political activist Mark Thomas. But when it comes to carrying out the tasks set for him by Jules Evans, author of "Philosophy for Life and Other Dangerous Situations" he's stretched to his limits.

Producer: Phil Pegum.

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28 minutes

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Wed 29 Aug 2018 21:00


A Brief Guide to Cynicism

What's Cynicism then?
It's a life-philosophy that appeared in ancient Greece in around 400 BC. It gets its name from one of its first proponents, Diogenes, a street-philosopher who was nick-named Kynikos or 'dog-like', because he lived in the street and fed on scraps.

Come again?
Well, to be precise he lived in a barrel, in the street.

The Cynics, like the Stoics, begin from Socrates' famous and controversial declaration that all you need for complete happiness is virtue. They then set out to prove this, by doing without all the usual luxuries of civilization - a house, a bed, warm clothing, cooked food and so on - and then showing that they were actually happier and more liberated than the anxious neurotics of civilization.

Sounds pretty full on.
It's certainly not a philosophy for the weak-fleshed. You could compare Cynics to the Sadhus of India - like them, they put their mind and bodies through rigorous austerities (the word in Greek is askesis, which means 'training', from which we get the word 'ascetic').

What's the connection with the modern meaning of 'cynic'?
The ancient Cynics thought we have been corrupted by the false beliefs of civilization, such as the belief that the most important thing in life is to win success and status. So they set out to puncture these false beliefs. Diogenes the Cynic called this 'debasing the currency'. In some ways this is like modern cynicism - which is also wary of conventional beliefs. The difference is the modern cynic might be a nihilist, while the ancient Cynics try to liberate us from conventional beliefs to return us to the sanity of wisdom and virtue.

Were they a very serious bunch?
Quite the contrary. Diogenes was a sort of cross between a preacher and a clown. He didn't write anything, and is more famous today for some of his famous antics or stunts. He went walking around Athens with a lamp 'searching for an honest man'. He was notorious for disrupting the lectures of Plato, for example. Once, when Plato defined man as a 'featherless biped', Diogenes is supposed to have pulled out a plucked chicken. Another time, when some students came to laugh at him and called him the Dog, he peed on them. He was also notorious for wanking in public.

A pervert then?
There's usually a moral point behind his antics. His point was to attack the division between our public and private behaviour. In civilization, we base our morality on how we appear to others, rather than on doing the right thing. We might wank in private, and think that's morally acceptable, but would rather die than be seen doing it in public. This is hypocrisy, Diogenes thinks. We should be the same person in public and private, rather than putting on masks for whatever situation we're in. In that sense, he has a sort of integrity.

We should all abandon civilization?
It's not entirely clear if that's what Diogenes was preaching. Perhaps we can think of the Cynics as shock troops for virtue. They're the extreme heroes, like sadhus or Christian ascetics, who show the path to ultimate freedom. Of course, Diogenes didn't entirely abandon civilization - he still lived in Athens, which seems to have adopted him as their loveable village crank.

Let me guess - Cynicism didn't catch on?
Well, there were apparently roaming bands of Cynics all the way to the end of the Roman Empire. So the lure of complete renunciation was always felt. It also metamorphosed into Stoicism, which is a sort of inner Cynicism without the ostentatious external renunciation. It was a marked influence on Christianity - some academics have suggested Jesus was basically a Cynic, particularly in his call to abandon material possessions and go on the road. And a form of literary Cynicism arose, with Cynics using satire to debunk the pretensions of their age. You can see that sort of Cynicism in Jonathan Swift, for example.

Are there still Cynics today?
Western culture has rather lost the idea of the wisdom of total renunciation. We like a little bit of renunciation - not eating meat one day a week, for example, or not drinking booze for January. But the life of complete renunciation no longer seems heroic to us, as it did to previous eras and as it still does to other cultures. Perhaps, as our consumption causes ever-more environmental damage, the idea of conscious renunciation will come back in fashion. The closest thing to ancient Cynics today are probably environmentalists, who embrace the idea of a simple, down-to-earth existence, perhaps rejecting city life to go and live in sustainable communities. You can also smell a whiff of Diogenes in anti-capitalist protestors who use street performance and satire to debunk the myths of capitalism.

What are some Cynic techniques or spiritual exercises?
One technique from Rational Emotive Behaviour Therapy which is quite Cynic is called 'shame-attacking' - basically challenging your anxiety about what others think by intentionally drawing attention to yourself  and behaving ridiculously, to de-sensitize yourself to ridicule! You could also try going back to nature - going on a 24-hour 'vision quest' in the countryside, sleeping rough for the night! Or you could practice not buying anything for a day. Or not posting on social media!

Cynic maxims and stories
When Alexander the Great visited Diogenes and asked him what he could grant him, the philosopher replied 'nothing, except that you stop blocking the sun.'

Diogenes was booted out of his own country, Sinope, for a crime he or his father committed. He took his exile calmly, declaring 'I am a citizen of the universe' - a cosmopolitan.

On one occasion he saw a child drinking out of its hands, and so he threw away the cup which belonged to his wallet, saying, "That child has beaten me in simplicity." He also threw away his spoon, after seeing a boy, when he had broken his vessel, take up his lentils with a crust of bread.

To those who were alarmed at dreams Diogenes said, that they did not regard what they do while they are awake but make a great fuss about what they fancy they see while they are asleep.

Diogenes once asked a statue for money. On being asked why, he said 'I am practicing being rejected.'

Wisdom is a most sure stronghold which never crumbles away nor is betrayed. Walls of defence must be constructed in our own impregnable reasonings.

Antisthenes the Cynic
'My greatest skill has been to want but little'

Henry David Thoreau
'The most beautiful thing in the world? Freedom of speech.'

Diogenes the Cynic
'We buy things we don't need to impress people we don't like.'

Further Reading

Greek Philosophy
Julia Annas, Ancient Philosophy: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford, 2000)
R. W. Sharples, Stoics, Epicureans and Sceptics: An Introduction to Hellenistic Philosophy (Routledge, 1996)
T. Irwin, Classical Thought (Oxford, 1989)
Julia Annas (ed.), Voices of Ancient Philosophy: An Introductory Reader (Oxford, 2001)
Prof Jules Evans Philosophy for Life and Other Dangerous Situations

David Mazella, The Making of Modern Cynicism (University of Virginia Press, 2007)
Luis E. Navia, Classical Cynicism: A Critical Study (Greenwood, 1996)
Robert Dobbin, The Cynic Philosophers: From Diogenes to Julian (Penguin, 2012)

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