An Animated Introduction to Cynicism, the Anti Conformist Philosophy That Originated in Ancient Greece

The word “cyn­i­cal,” like “sto­ic,” has come to have a very spe­cif­ic mean­ing in Eng­lish, one that bears only a par­tial resem­blance to the ancient Greek phi­los­o­phy from which it came. “Cyn­ics,” writes psy­chi­a­trist Neel Bur­ton, “often come across as con­temp­tu­ous, irri­tat­ing, and dispir­it­ing.” They are bit­ter, unhap­py peo­ple, defined by thor­ough­go­ing pes­simism, summed up in the Oscar Wilde quote about those who “know the price of every­thing and the val­ue of noth­ing.” This char­ac­ter­i­za­tion is part­ly the result of ancient slan­der.

As with many move­ments of the past, the first Cyn­ics were named by their ene­mies. Dio­genes of Sinope, often cred­it­ed as the first Cyn­ic (though there were oth­ers before him), was “an indi­vid­ual well known for dog-like behav­ior,” notes Emory Uni­ver­si­ty pro­fes­sor Julie Pier­ing at the Inter­net Ency­clo­pe­dia of Phi­los­o­phy. “As such, the term [Cyn­ic, from kunikos, or “dog-like”] may have begun as an insult refer­ring to Dio­genes’ style of life, espe­cial­ly his pro­cliv­i­ty to per­form all of his activ­i­ties in pub­lic.” His shame­less­ness and exile from Greek civ­il soci­ety for the crime of coun­ter­feit­ing made him unwel­come in polite com­pa­ny.

But Dio­genes turned his pub­lic humil­i­a­tion into exper­i­men­tal phi­los­o­phy. Like many who have insults hurled at them reg­u­lar­ly, the ear­ly Cyn­ics “embraced their title: they barked at those who dis­pleased them, spurned Athen­ian eti­quette, and lived from nature…. What may have orig­i­nat­ed as a dis­parag­ing label became the des­ig­na­tion of a philo­soph­i­cal voca­tion.” Of what did their phi­los­o­phy con­sist? In the TED-Ed video above, script­ed by Maynooth Uni­ver­si­ty pro­fes­sor of Ancient Clas­sics William Desmond, we learn the basics.

Like the Sto­ics who came after them, Cyn­ics val­ued sim­plic­i­ty and self-suf­fi­cien­cy. But unlike many a famed Sto­ic philosopher—such as Nero’s advi­sor Seneca or the Emper­or Mar­cus Aurelius—Diogenes and his dis­ci­ples cared noth­ing for mate­r­i­al com­forts or polit­i­cal pow­er. The Cyn­ics were vagrant exhi­bi­tion­ists by choice. Dio­genes “did not go about his new exis­tence qui­et­ly but is said to have teased passers­by and mocked the pow­er­ful, eat­ing, uri­nat­ing, and even mas­tur­bat­ing in pub­lic.”

If the philoso­pher lived like a dog, this does not mean that he had aban­doned all human val­ues, only rede­fined them. Dogs aren’t bit­ter, angry pes­simists. “They’re hap­py crea­tures,” Desmond’s les­son points out, “free from abstrac­tions like wealth and rep­u­ta­tion.” The “dog philoso­phers” were a seri­ous irri­ta­tion, liv­ing exam­ples of a social alter­na­tive in which mon­ey, fame, and pow­er meant noth­ing. Their con­tent­ment posed a chal­lenge to the estab­lished order of things.

Cyn­ics fol­lowed Dio­genes’ exam­ple for almost a thou­sand years after his death—and even far longer, we might argue, if we con­sid­er them fore­run­ners of hobos, hip­pies, and every inten­tion­al­ly home­less wan­der­er who decides to rid them­selves of prop­er­ty and soci­ety and live ful­ly on their own terms.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

An Ani­mat­ed Intro­duc­tion to Sto­icism, the Ancient Greek Phi­los­o­phy That Lets You Lead a Hap­py, Ful­fill­ing Life

Watch Ani­mat­ed Intro­duc­tions to 35 Philoso­phers by The School of Life: From Pla­to to Kant and Fou­cault

A Short Ani­mat­ed Intro­duc­tion to Hypa­tia, Ancient Alexandria’s Great Female Philoso­pher

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

by | Permalink | Comments (1) |

Sup­port Open Cul­ture

We’re hop­ing to rely on our loy­al read­ers rather than errat­ic ads. To sup­port Open Cul­ture’s edu­ca­tion­al mis­sion, please con­sid­er mak­ing a dona­tion. We accept Pay­Pal, Ven­mo (@openculture), Patre­on and Cryp­to! Please find all options here. We thank you!

Comments (1)
You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.
  • Bruce E Clark says:

    This ani­ma­tion states:

    “A Mod­ern day mean­ing is that a cyn­ic is a per­son who thinks every­one else is act­ing out of pure self motive even if they claim a high­er motive.”

    This is a total cor­rup­tion of the def­i­n­i­tion of “cyn­ic.” Yes, some peo­ple can act with self-motive. A cyn­ic can call that out. But nowhere is cyn­i­cism defined as being against all human­i­ty.

Leave a Reply

Open Culture was founded by Dan Colman.