Enlightened self-interest is wisdom. Everything has a cost and you will have to pay in one way or another. If you’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t, I feel it’s better to do what you will and accept the consequences.

Classical Cynicism in Cynicism


I am not talking about being grouchy, but classical cynicism which is a life philosophy. It’s a philosophy that does have its roots in the teachings of Socrates, and if anything focused on putting them into very literal action.

Cynics believed that virtue was sufficient for a happy life, and virtue was in evidence in what is present in nature. They saw both the ambitions of “society” and their conventions as being the cause of many ills. At best deluded falsehoods that weaken us, and at worst aggressive actions taken by those it served to keep the populace at large tractable. They were not actually critics of the religions of the time, but were critics of the institutions they had become, and they were not a well liked body of philosophers.

One of their primary tenants, or items of belief, was the cultivation of virtue through exercise. They saw exercise as a test of self. So walking long distances was not only exercise for your body, but a way to become aware of the nature of your own mind. They saw physical and mental exercise as the same, and they saw becoming more “self sufficient”, or fit to survive in a strictly natural way, as one part of the path to virtue and thus a happy life.

Tempering of the will? Yes, they did see it that way. They in practice eschewed anything that was not absolutely necessary to survive. So they would not accumulate money and would limit what they accepted as shelter. One notable actually living on the streets of a Greek city in a tub, and their firm belief was that anything beyond the natural and immediate was baseless arrogance.

Like Hermeticism or the Buddha? Indeed, and another less radical cynic is notable for being rather much like the Buddha. They had a doctrine of “shamelessness.” Anything natural to the human body or mind was nothing to be hidden. So they often would defy convention by doing things in public that were seen as something only to do in private, like eat, or satisfy any other need.

The shameless hussies! If they heard you say that, they would thank you for saying so.

From the cynics point of view, the desire to have a mate was natural and therefore virtuous.  Their cultures view of marriage was not, but they were not necessarily polygamous. That view varied widely, and cynics were not a unified body all in agreement. This is how you could tell a cynic meeting, and they were considered to be rude to even each other, because there would be a lot of yelling and interrupting each other though they didn’t war on each other. They were just practicing their philosophy.

Embracing desire? Embracing desire was part of their belief, as was embracing pain. They didn’t avoid harsh weather or even hardship. Many of their practices were much like what we attribute to monks today, like fasting and reflective retreat. But though they had the doctrine of shamelessness regarding anything natural, that doesn’t mean they didn’t think anything shameful. There is one story in which a cynic sage is approached by a citizen, and asked why he didn’t pay court to Dionysius, a leader of Athens. The man told him if you had paid court you would not be washing lettuces, which was his dinner at the time. He responded back: Had you been washing lettuces you would not have had to pay court to Dionysius.

Even to Alexander the Great who had approached Diogenes, a famous cynic philosopher, asked Diogenes as he was relaxing on a rock if there was anything he could do for him. Diogenes merely said “stand out of my light” as he had been enjoying the sun. Alexander was quoted as saying if he could be anyone other than himself he would want to be Diogenes.

Another reason the cynics were not liked is that they were quite vocal in their criticism of any philosophy, if they felt inclined to criticise at all. So they would often be noted for their impiety in general. They would respect anyone who sincerely sought to engage them in philosophical debate, but would literally bark at anyone they felt was offering stupid feedback. Cynics were known as “dogs” for a variety of reasons, though exactly how it got started is heavily debated. They actually didn’t espouse immorality, but quite the opposite.

“I am Diogenes the Cynic, called a dog because I fawn on those who give me anything, I yelp at those who refuse, and I set my teeth in rascals.” He wasn’t at all ashamed of that. They did beg for food and were friendly to those who would give what they asked. But there is a difference between a begging cynic and the more common beggar. If you give a cynic nothing and leave them in peace, they don’t respond hostilely. If you attack them for asking though…

Cynics did have ideas of morality, and this is part of why they were such critics of convention. They had a firm belief in personal responsibility, and they didn’t feel any guilt about asking for food, because that was just trusting in compassion not of an institution, but of individuals. When asked where they were from, they would not declare citizenship, because they didn’t like that concept of privilege, instead saying they were citizens of the world. To a cynic you are beholden only to yourself and your own conscience.

The dude masturbated in the marketplace, because he wanted to. That’s just awesome. That’s correct and he did, and if he heard anyone criticising their own physical limitation he would call them to task on it. If you were weak, to a cynics view that’s fine. If you were clumsy, that was fine too. Nothing to be ashamed of. If you didn’t like either then you exercise, and also accept your limitation, but you learned those by doing and not by obeying convention.

I can see why the oligarchy wanted those cynics punished. That is true. It did happen.

A great sense of balance is needed to be this way. Actually, a great sense of balance was seen as needed. This was one of the cornerstones of their teaching. They revered balance highly.

Your thoughts are welcome. Be well friends.

Travis Saunders
Dragon Intuitive


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  1. Fred

    Well said and well done. Quite accurate historically to the best of my knowledge. Makes one think too, even centuries ago egotism, materialism and hypocrisy were rampant, providing plenty of fodder for the Cynics attack. Fred

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