By Jacob Bell, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom
I’ve made some rather strange and unexpected decisions that fall outside of the social and economic norms of our 21st century. The American Dream, at least for me, is dead… and in a way, I may be loosely following the Cynic dream instead. I say loosely because the Cynics of Ancient Greece were a very radical group.
The school of philosophy known as the Cynics emerged sometime around the 5th century B.C.E., and began to fade out nearly one thousand years later, in the 5th century C.E. The Cynics played an important role in influencing several other schools of philosophy, such as the Stoics, who adapted and evolved many of the core tenets of Cynicism (and left out much of the craziness, such as public defecation…)
As opposed to the speculative philosophy of figures such as Plato and Aristotle, Cynical philosophy was a lived philosophy. The Cynics developed philosophical theories as a means to living well, and they disregarded the majority of abstract philosophy.
The Cynics argued against a superficial life, in favor of “a life lived in accord with nature.” For them, living in accordance with nature meant following a path of self-sufficiency, freedom, and lucid reasoning. They believed that social conventions had the ability to hinder the “good life,” and could lead to corruption by, “compromising freedom and setting up a code of conduct that is opposed to nature and reason.” Kinda sounds like the hippy at the house party if you ask me…
For the Cynic, nature could provide plenty of entertainment and pleasure. They found comfort and happiness in simple pleasures such as going for a walk, feeling the warmth of the sun, and drinking a glass of cool water on a hot day.
All of which I agree with by the way… except I would swap out the water for a nice cold craft beer, which would probably be too pretentious for the true Cynic. Oh well.
This is because the Cynics denounced luxury and wealth. They believed that in its pursuit, man had to busy himself day in and day out with unnecessary tasks. For the Cynics, a life of frantic action for the sake of wealth or power was absurd. This sort of living would cause both the ancient and modern man to stray from nature, and would instill in him a need for superficialities that would never be satisfied. Never being satisfied, and always wanting more, man would become a slave unto his desires.
The most famous among the Cynics was a man named Diogenes of Sinope, often referred to as Diogenes the Dog due to his radical behavior, including public defecation. Clearly, he took Cynical philosophy to the extreme. He embraced pain, hardship, and poverty. He lived in a ceramic tub, ate scraps, and gained most of his goods through begging. Diogenes the Dog passed the time by making fun of social convention, and calling attention to the absurdity of robotic-like behavior by those around him (even to the likes of Alexander the Great!)
Diogenes viewed much of mankind’s pursuits in a Sisyphean manner. That is, just as Sisyphus carried the boulder up the mountain day in and day out, just to have it roll back down, man’s pursuits for wealth and power were just as futile and meaningless.
We needn’t follow the exact values set forth by the Cynics in order to benefit from their wisdom, because, well, that would be following a social convention and would defy the whole idea of Cynical philosophy! Instead, we can see the benefit in simplicity, and we can look inward to our own values. We can unchain ourselves from restrictive social convention, and cultivate a life that we find fulfilling, and which brings us meaning.
I’m not suggesting that you quit your day job, or that you pursue an ascetic life. In staying true to the Cynics, it would be wrong for me to tell you how to live. But it’s not necessarily a bad idea to take a Cynical perspective and reevaluate things from time to time in order to pursue what you find internally fulfilling and meaningful. After all, no matter our state of wealth or poverty, none of us gets out of this alive, and so we might as well be the ones to choose the boulder that we carry up the mountain day in and day out.