Cynicism is a philosophical idea which was brought forward by Diogenes who was a son of a banker or coin minter in Sinope. The story has it that he was stripped of all his possessions after having counterfeited coins and turning the city of Sinope into scandal. After being exiled he moved to Athens and criticized many cultural conventions and modeled himself on the example of Heracles. He believed that virtue was better revealed in action than in theory.
Diogenes was seen at the time as a crude individual who condemned other philosophers of his time and was seen to live his life as a feral dog. He lived amongst dogs and was often mistaken as one. During these situations he responded in a dog like manner by peeing on the critics. He was also found masturbating or shitting in public without having any regards towards society. Many argue that Diogenes was merely a critic and not a philosopher as he often lived outside of societal norm and his school of thought isn’t something that should be replicated.
“A cynic is a man who knows the price of everything, and the value of nothing.”
― Oscar Wilde
Life of a Cynic
Diogenes lived a simplistic life and he learnt that over the years he became more and more attached to materialistic possessions. He wanted that to change so he could live life with the bare necessities. Many images depict Diogenes living in a barrel and begging for food, with that he had created virtue from poverty. He also rejected the opinions of others and all notions of societal measures for success so he could truly live a fulfilling life.
This meant he would go about his life with only a cloak, staff and knapsack to his name while living of raw food and swearing away all forms of technological advancements. He wanted to be self sufficient and live closer with nature. His ideology was later closely related to that of dogs (kyôn) which was fitting as dogs led a happy life without vanity and abstractions such as wealth and reputation. His number of followers started to grow and they were known as dog philosophers or Kynikoi which later became the designation for the word Cynic.
Diogenes The Governor of Men
“What I like to drink most is wine that belongs to others.”
The story goes that Diogenes was taken by pirates one night and was sold as a slave at Crete to a Corinthian named Xeniades. When asked by his owner what his previous occupation was he responded by saying that he governed men. This had led many to believe that Diogenes saw himself as a king amongst men and that he was somehow a ruler from his teachings but it can also be interpreted that he merely saw himself as a teacher as both the word govern and teach were used quite loosely during that time period.
During his time in Corinth, he witnessed the city getting attacked and all the residents were screaming in frantic not wanting to be left out. At this moment Diogenes chose to roll a clay wine jar up and down a hill and he was asked the reason for his odd behavior, he replied saying that he was just as useful as all the other citizens. This act represented the futility of freaking out over a matter rather than finding a logical way out of the problem.
The Tale of Diogenes and Alexander The Great
During his stay in Corinth, Alexander The Great was said to be passing by and he was extremely puzzled by the strange qualities of Diogenes. He had met up with Diogenes and asked him if there was anything he could do for him and when Diogenes was confronted with such an opportunity by one of the most powerful men at the time, he replied
To this Alexander replied with admiration
Diogenes indifferent to the remark retorted
Another account of Diogenes being oblivious towards the feeling of mankind is also portrayed during his second encounter with Alexander The Great. When Diogenes was searching through a pile a bones, Alexander asked as to why he would do such a thing. Diogenes replied
Modern Day Cynicism
In modern society a cynical person is frowned upon but the Greeks saw it differently. Taking this into consideration maybe we should be less cynical, society may be broken at times but to live without having any respect towards it is just wrong. We may have to live with the rules that has governed our society for ages but it isn’t such a bad thing. Being cynical and critiquing things obviously has its place but it should always be constructive criticism which is something Diogenes highly valued. He believed life was never evil, it was the people living it who were.
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