Monday, September 5, 2016

Gentle Cynicism as True Life - Part II: Historical, Canonical Basis of the Life of Cynic

The only true commonwealth is as wide as the universe.

It was the “the disinherited of the earth” who were the original candidates and beneficiaries of the early Greek school of cynic philosophy organized in a public gymnasium outside of Athens called Cynosarges.[1] It was here that Antisthenes lectured, preached on the streets and developed the form of literature called Cynics. As a student of Socrates, Antisthenes assimilated the fundamental ethical precept: virtue not pleasure is the end of existence. Everything that the wise person does, Antisthenes taught, conforms to perfect virtue, and pleasure is not only unnecessary, but a positive evil. He is reported to have held pain and even ill-repute to be blessings, and said that "I'd rather be mad than feel pleasure".[2]

Foucault outlined the following interpretive description of the original characteristics that made up the ancient life of cynic (bios kunikos).
First, the kunikos life is a dog’s life in that it is without modesty, shame, and human respect. It is a life which does in public, in front of everyone, what only dogs and animals dare to do, and which men usually hide. The Cynic’s life is a dog’s life in that it is shameless. Second, the Cynic life is a dog’s life because, like the latter, it is indifferent. It is indifferent to whatever may occur, is not attached to anything, is content with what it has, and has no needs other than those it can satisfy immediately. Third, the life of the Cynic is the life of a dog, for it received the epithet kunikos because it is, so to speak, a life which barks, a diacritical (diakritikos)[3] life, that is to say, a life which can fight, which barks at enemies, which knows how to distinguish the good from the bad, the true from the false, and masters from enemies. In that sense it is a diacritical life: a life of discernment which knows how to prove, test, and distinguish. Finally, the Cynic life is phulaktikos. It is a guard dog’s life, a life which knows how to dedicate itself to saving others and protecting the master’s life.[4]

Underneath the Cynic’s life was a cheerful irreverence in its historical form. Moreover there was an air of eternal adolescence, for in its sovereign individualism it ignored the needs of society at large. Nonetheless, the Cynic’s life was a full-hearted response that was essential to human flourishing in a society that, like today, was beset with subtle and harsh, inhumanities, injustices and vanity. Accordingly, there was an absence of tribal recognition in the Cynics ethos, like Diogenes who was not an Athenian or Corinthian, but a wanderer, a citizen of the universe—a human being who made little of his race while standing apart from the rest of society. The Cynic possessed the right to exercise frankness (truth-telling, parrhesia). Demetrius, the first Roman Cynic, tormented three successive emperors, Caligula, Nero, and Vespasian, and remarkably, suffered nothing worse than exile. Other Cynics, no doubt, were less fortunate. In Roger Caldwell estimation, “Having the courage to tell what they saw as the truth without regard for rank or authority (in the capacity more­ or ­less of licensed jester) the Cynics are exemplary.”[5]

In our 21st century, a consumerist age, the message and practice of the Cynics ethic is essential for one’s preservation—to distinguish one’s wants from one’s needs, to simplify one’s life, to seek to do with less—less nationalism, less consumption of goods that pollute and destroy the air, water and atmosphere, and the mind—less head-in-the-sand naiveté with respect to the conventional forces that dumb down the larger society (das Man) with its dominant scripts and narratives that have been summed up by Walter Brueggemann as “technological, therapeutic, consumer militarism.”[6]

Of course, in everyday parlance, the term cynic or cynicism receives a poor rap, for it tends to conjure up ideas of pessimism and distrust. If virtue is the end or goal of existence, e.g., hope, then, as Maria Popova has wisely said, “Critical thinking without hope is cynicism.”[7] Hence the deficit is self-protective resignation (or the modern notion of cynicism) while the excess is blind resignation or naiveté. Foucault emphasized the virtue of courage in the historical practice and ethics of the life of Cynic; hence the extremes would be cowardice and fool hardiness. Fleshing out Gentle Cynicism in the last few years, I have recognized the development of the virtue, integrity (true to self, authentic, honesty) with its excesses being feign ignorance and arrogance.

The life of Cynic fleshed out this vital philosophical ethic using a host of methods and disciplines. While the ancient form appears more ascetic, the post-modern practice of Gentle Cynicism utilizes critical thinking, forms of phenomenology and various disciplines to navigate places of tension being self-aware while preventing the extremes. In the spirit of ancient Cynic, Gentle Cynicism negotiates a context of time requiring a response to move more fully to a place where hope enlarges.  It is a realm of practices and outlook that vigorously works with the limitations of a world juxtaposed with the social and moral issues of the day, filtered through narrative, poetry, philosophy and social ethic, and the classic virtues replace conventional sentiment and correctness.  In the end the life of Cynic is about discovering, living and promoting truth as it unfolds and devotion to the virtues that are the only source of human fullness (eudaimonia).

                                                             Truth can never hurt you; finding it is hard.[8]

[1] Κυνόσαργες Kynos + argos, from genitive of kyon (dog) and argos (white, shining or swift).
[2]References from Laërtius, Diogenes (1925). "The Cynics: Antisthenes". Lives of the Eminent Philosophers 2:6. Translated by Hicks, Robert Drew (Two volume ed.). Loeb Classical Library. § 1–19.
[3] Διακριτικός, piercing, penetrating; separative; able to distinguish(L&S)
[4] Michel Foucault, The Courage of the Truth (The Government of Self and Others II). Lectures at the College De France (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011), 243.
[5] Roger Caldwell, “How To Be a Cynic” in Philosophy Now, 104.
[6] Walter Brueggemann, “Counterscript, Living with the Illusive God” in Christian Century. Nov. 29, 2005. 
[7] Popova, Maria, transcript from interview, “Cartographer of Meaning in a Digital Age” accessed from On Being with Krista Tippett, 05/14/2015, accessed at See also “Response to Maria Popova’s Cautionary Essay regarding a Culture of Cynicism” accessed at
[8] Giles Laurén, The Stoics Bible and Florilegium for the Good Life (Createspace, 2010). Epilogue.

Image: Brandon Kidwell, "To Find Truth, Sometimes Have to Reach into the Darkness" at