Robert Wright, the New York Times online columnist and author of The Evolution of God, is pretty much what you’d call a cynic. That’s why I was surprised when he spoke with such reverence of the period he spent meditating at a silent Buddhist retreat. “When I came out, I was quite different,” he told me. “It was one of the best things I’d ever done.”
Apparently he doesn’t know what the fuck a Cynic actually is.
So here’s some help for him — and all of you:
CYNICISM. One of the strangest movements in all of philosophy is that of the Cynics who held that we attain happiness and tranquility by denying established convention. Known as the “dog philosophers” for living like dogs, Cynics denied conventions of wealth, reputation, pleasure, property, family duty, and religion. They were typically ascetics since they viewed money as an artificial convention. Of all the Eudimonean schools, Cynicism was the least systematized, having no official treatises; the descriptions we have were authored by people outside the school itself. Rather than making their points in written argument form, the Cynics themselves attempted to teach by example through their lives, which often involved deliberately shocking speech and conduct. Their goal was to grab attention and vividly illustrate the problems with established convention. Cynics used several metaphors to describe their self-appointed task. For example, they considered themselves as messengers of God, the watchdogs of humanity who would bark at illusion, and surgeons whose knife sliced the cancer of pretentiousness from people’s minds.
Antisthenes and Diogenes. The founding father of the school was an Athenian named Antisthenes (440-370 BCE), who first studied rhetoric under the Sophist Gorgias. Dissatisfied with Gorgias, Antisthenes soon gravitated to Socrates, bringing a several of Gorgias’s students with him. While a student of Socrates, he wore tattered clothes, had a matted beard and carried around a bag like a beggar. According to one anecdote, Socrates commented to him, “Why are you so pretentious? Through your rags I see your vanity.” Nevertheless, Antisthenes continued with this manner of appearance. After Socrates’ execution, Antisthenes started his own school, which captured some of the flavor of Socrates’ teachings in extreme form. Following Socrates, he focused on moral concerns and taught that virtue is needed for true happiness. Achieving virtue, though, involve mental and physical toil. In our quest for virtue, we need to exercise self-control, deny pleasures, and study the names of things and their definitions. Also like Socrates, as suggested by the above anecdote, Antisthenes saw foolishness in the established views of the many, and was bold in exposing his discontent. Antisthenes’ attacks on conventional politics were so strong that his school became increasingly unpopular, and many of his more scholarly students abandoned him.
The second great Cynic was a loyal pupil of Antisthenes named Diogenes (4th century BCE). Nicknamed “The Dog”, Diogenes followed Antisthenes manner of appearance and contempt for convention. A highly visible ascetic in Athens, Plato went so far as to call him as “Socrates gone mad.” Events of Diogenes’ life are sketchy. He was exiled from his home country of Sinope when he and his banker father defaced a coin. He arrived in Athens and sought to be a disciple of Antisthenes. Annoyed by Diogenes’ persistence, Antisthenes hit Diogenes with a stick, to which Diogenes replied: “Strike me, Antisthenes, but you will never find a stick sufficiently hard to remove me from your presence, while you speak anything worth hearing.” Impressed by this, Antisthenes accepted him into his school. Diogenes’ behavior was no less strange than his teachers’. He once embraced a cold statue in winter, illustrating how even our perceptions of pain are conventional. During the daytime he carried a lit oil lantern, holding it up to people, illustrating his search for a virtuous person. Another anecdote, of questionable historicity, describes how Alexander the Great sought to meet the strange Diogenes fellow that he heard so much about. Finding Diogenes living in a tub, Alexander said, “I am Alexander the Great” to which Diogenes replied “I am Diogenes the Cynic.” Alexander then asked if Diogenes needed any special favor from him. As the sun was shining brightly that day, Diogenes replied,” You could stand between me and the sun.” Alexander then said, “If I wasn’t Alexander, I’d want to be Diogenes.”