Cynicism is perhaps the most unrecognized philosophy of all the ancients. Stoicism, its more mature and systematic counterpart, has systems of logic, cosmology and epistemology for academics to study. Epicureans are recognized for their Materialism and being a predecessor to Utilitarianism among other things. The Skeptics for being in-some-sense a precursor Kant in saying that there is a “thing-in-itself” that we have no access to. And I don’t think I need to state the recognition that Plato and Aristotle have had in academia and the influence they’ve had on Western culture.
Cynicism it could be argued was more of a life-style than a philosophy and it was against the systemizing and erudition that one typically thinks of as the Philosopher’s bread and butter. But Nietzsche too, had a certain anti-system aura to him, and Marx and Wittgenstein both were philosophers “against philosophy” in one way or another, and I don’t have to mention the developments and influence the three are recognized for in their respective fields – if not philosophy generally for all three in differing ways. However unlike the previously (aforementioned) three Cynicism is if nothing else (and really almost nothing else but) a social philosophy that explicitly claims and expresses the sentiment in its examples that virtue is the main (if not only) aim for philosophy proper, and that it must be lived if it is to be exercised and truly “known.”
It is my main intention to explore the questions of whether or not Cynicism is a sound philosophy generally and if it can be lived today. That is, what is the main focus of Cynicism? For if it is being homeless and doing everything in public (including masturbating) then it seems that it doesn’t have much use for us in the modern age. However, if its kernel is something more, then there still could be something within Cynicism for contemporary society to learn from.
Thesis: Cynicism is only rational and conforming to scientific knowledge if we read it as Virtue Ethics to attain happiness and ignore its most extreme aspects.
Cynicism is a philosophy known for its bohemian ruggedness and living a life they describe as “according to nature” rather than through the dictates of societies laws, values and mores – it is much like Anarchism in this respect. However, there are portions of Cynical text where it appears as if rejecting pleasure (anti-hedonism) goes from a general advice of not being dependent upon or purposely pursuing pleasure (as the cynics claim most do with their lives) from a type of zeal in rejecting pleasure (The Cynic Philosophers from Diogenes to Julian p.30) and this seems to be rejecting the “nature” the Cynics esteem so highly. Humans by their nature are attracted to pleasure. It is intrinsically, well, pleasurable. One can say one should divert one’s innate impulses towards higher actions and aims (Freud’s answer more or less) or that a person of a certain nature will do this of his own volition, but the Cynics commit a rather large fallacy right-off-the-bat by claiming their virtues are “natural” while societies morality is “artifice” or “artificial.” While Plato and Aristotle seem to realize that through human nature (the reasoning part) humans create the societies that they do with all their goods and ills and pursue advancement both for leisure (absence of exertion and pain) and for pleasure.
Now, the Cynics may have a very good point (along the lines of a Thoreau or Augustine) that human beings have the fault (which they refuse to accept is innate but I would agree is partly a product of common culture or environment) of pursuing pleasure and leisure but by doing so in the consumerist way people do particularly in Capitalist society they deprive themselves from higher forms of pleasure and being; therefore though the Cynics make a rather large blunder of simplicity without explanation early on, they do make a point of critiquing human activity (regardless of its source or reason) that both a Virtue Ethicist and Utilitarian can agree with.
Also the cited quotation is simply not accurate with both the findings of modern science and timeless reasoning and experience. This is perhaps the main blunder of both the Cynics and the Stoics. One cannot use their mind to fundamentally alter the nature of an experience to them. A caress of the skin can no more bring pain than a feather can bring the sensation of a knife or a bullet entering the flesh give the sensation of dog kisses. There are those with strange and fascinating cases of perceiving sensation radically different from us, but this distinction from the norm is material, that is to say, produced by abnormalities in the brain of one form or another and not a result of Idealist superpowers.
People do in fact have a seemingly infinite distinction in psychological reactions to things, but this again is not a matter of choice. The modern Cynic or Stoic might reference data of how the brain can “change itself” and how a person can “choose” to do certain things that will change in typically minute ways their brain composition. What they ignore or fail to recognize is the brain’s state X (which we have no control of) is what is producing the action and genera mentality to make the radical alteration to brain state X-1. Though a human to the most extreme degree of this sort could be a Buddhist monk who can control his brain waves and survive extremely low temperatures with little clothing we must remember that these marvels are achieved through the material dictates of a person’s brain. And that a person cannot radically choose to be a Buddhist Monk, Gandhi or Superman. Those who are any of those three things are such because and only because of their pre-determined nature – assuming Kryptonians conform to physical law and their brains are at-least somewhat similar to our own.
We have found two blunders in one quote, but I feel it necessary to further flesh out the perception Cynics have of virtue to see what it is and what weight it has. I mentioned the Cynics’ strong disapproval of extravagance, decadence and hedonistic pleasures, yet there are repetitious accounts of Diogenes (known by some as the founder of Cynicism) masturbating in public. Is he making himself a hypocrite to the tenants of the philosophy he helped create, or is there an explanation for this seeming contradiction? I would contend there is and that he himself explains it (Ibid p.43). In this statement we see an acknowledgement of human desire, and that at-times it must be dealt with rather than driven back by sheer willpower. He is (he would claim) masturbating not for pleasure but to have full control of his mind, freed from lust, to pursue virtue. But what is virtue for the Cynics?
Essentially what it is for Socrates, and loosely speaking Plato and Aristotle as well. For all four claim that virtue is sufficient for and necessary for “happiness.” And that eudaimonnia exists so that men might be happy; that is, the end goal of virtue to the virtue ethicists is their definition of “happiness” which is closer to the English word “flourishing” then the momentary subjective state-of-being that the word conotates to typically. Now I used the term “loosely” because while they agree on the main definition virtue as what is necessary for “happiness,” they can and do differ radically on what that “virtue” consists in. We see for the Cynics that there highest virtue is freedom (ibid. p. xiii) for while they had many listed virtues, none of them asides from freedom would be good in themselves, and it’s clear they practice their other virtues only so they might be free – not homeless for homelessness’ sake. This is why they reject the conventions of wealth, fame, opinion and the other virtues of Greek and larger bourgeois society.
Without a certain notion of freedom the entire Cynic philosophy becomes senseless. The notion of freedom they posit is a bohemian lack of attachment (ibid. p. 63). It is not a political interpretation first and foremost, but simply how one can live “according to nature” and without the burdens of society they deem to be more trouble then they’re worth. So their fundamental project is very much like Thoreau’s, aiming to free us from the vices of convenience and ownership that chain us to lives of drudgery and passive participation in an economic system that perpetuates the illusion of values (i.e. human worth is established by what a person has or what “rand” he has, not his nature or actions) while fulfills our most crass nature that we’ve been encouraged to stimulate and value over the virtues of intelligence and asceticism that various philosophers of various camps have told us will lead us to the ideal life.
So would Cynicism be livable today? Well, if we follow the theory that they want to maximize “bohemian freedom,” freedom as defined by the potential to do what you want when you want then overall the answer would be yes. They would be in favor of technology only to the extent that it enables us to practice our virtue (e.g. movie making technology, printing press, etc) but otherwise would recommend we live a rather frugal existence. But how frugal is hard to say, for there is evidence that they did not wish everyone to abandon all possessions and live as they (ibid. p. 46) but instead simply transition to a more simplistic social arrangement that maximized freedom (something more in-lines with Stoicism then) and merely wished to show how little a human being could voluntarily do without and still with pride and conviction call himself superior to those who have much and are slaves to their possessions.
This however should be contrasted with Epicurus, another ascetic of Ancient Greece. For him pleasure (Negative Hedonism – defined as absence of pain as ultimate good) is what is only intrinsically good, so while the Cynics would immediately be against the immorality of American consumer existence (e.g. cars, television, large houses and having more than one needs while others live in want and desperation) the Epicureans in the short-term would be all in favor unless it had the effects of alcohol or rich food (for them being more trouble than it’s worth). However, in the long-term Epicureans would look at the data and view what the excessive driving of the apathetic and sedentary will pollute the atmosphere (among other practices existing in America due-to either greed and short-sighted selfishness among the upper-class or the stupidity and crass nature of the lower-class) to the extent that it will produce far-more pain (and death) than it will pleasure.
This is an illustration of why I think as long as we are dealing in the “real world” (not in a Matrix) Virtue Ethics and Utilitarianism are largely synonymous. However this does not directly regard the thesis of my paper, so I’ll simply close by saying that despite their lack of effective contemplating of human nature and moments of insanity not attached to the main tenants of the philosophy the Cynics purport a school of thought that can both be seen as a individual’s guide to finding happiness against the norms of consumerist society, wisdom showing societies false values supported by unjust hierarchical systems and a general source of brilliant satire in the snide and irreverent tone they are known for and most could benefit from (ibid p. 46). Also in having “larger” statements of a cosmopolitan, anti-authoritarian tinge (having sentiments much like Bakunin – ibid p. 36 & The Basic Bakunin p. ) and even depicting at-least one specific fault with our modern capitalist system (ibid p. 6) that makes it a noteworthy precursor to Social Anarchist thought.
 You can derive pleasure from despising pleasure once you have got used to it. Then pleasure becomes as distasteful an experience as being deprived of pleasure is for people who have not acquired self-discipline.
 Caught regularly masturbating in public, he would say, ‘if only rubbing the stomach could alleviate hunger pains as easily.’
 They promoted ideals other than the traditional virtues, qualities that hardly qualify as virtues at all: self-sufficiency, freedom, detachment, training aimed at instilling physical and moral toughness or endurance.
 …influenced Crates to at last rush off to the centre of the city and publicly renounce all he owned as so much filth and excess baggage, more hindrance than help. When his actions drew a crowd, he announced in a loud voice, ‘Crates hereby grants Crates his freedom.’ And from then until the day he died he not only lived alone, but remained scantily clad, freed of property – and happy.
 He said he modeled himself on conductors of the tragic choruses; they also encouraged the choristers to sing a little sharp, with the result that they ended up singing right on key.
 Asked what kind of wine he preferred, ‘Other people’s,’ he said.
 He told Xeniades, the person who bought him that he, Diogenes, should be obeyed, even though he was the slave. After all, doctors and pilots who are slaves are also deferred to in their area of expertise.
You resemble the guest who, in his greed and gluttony, helps himself to everything – and not just what’s easy of access from local land and water… in short, instead of a simple life you choose to fill it with unnecessary complication. Because all this expensive stuff which is supposedly so conducive to happiness and which you hold so dear costs a lot in terms of pain and aggravation. Just look at gold, which is so sought after, or silver, or expensive houses, fancy clothes, and all that goes with them. Then consider at what price they’re acquired in terms of trouble, pain and danger – or rather in terms of blood, death and shattered lives, not just because many people die at sea searching for luxury goods or ruin their health manufacturing them, but because they are the source of so much intrigue and conflict among you, setting friend against friend, child against parent, even wife against husband.