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AN INTRODUCTION TO | CYNIC PHILOSOPHY | BY | JOHN MACCUNN
THE MORAL SAYINGS OF PUBLIUS SYRUS, | A ROMAN SLAVE | BY | PUBLIUS SYRUS | Translated by Darius Lyman
LIFE OF ANTISTHENES | BY | DIOGENES LAËRTIUS
THE SYMPOSIUM: | BOOK IV | By | XENOPHON | Translated By H. G. Dakyns
LIFE OF DIOGENES | BY | DIOGENES LAËRTIUS
LIFE OF CRATES | BY | DIOGENES LAËRTIUS
Further Reading: The Stoics
Stoic Six Pack 5 – The Cynics
An Introduction to Cynic Philosophy by John MacCunn. Originally published as The Cynics by John MacCunn in 1904.
The Moral Sayings of Publius Syrus, a Roman Slave by Publius Syrus. Translated by Darius Lyman. First published in 1856.
Life of Antisthenes by Diogenes Laërtius. From Book 6 of The Lives and Opinions of Eminent Philosophers by Diogenes Laërtius, translated by Charles Duke Yonge and first published in 1853.
The Symposium: Book IV by Xenophon. From The Collected Works of Xenophon in Four Volumes. Translated by H. G. Dakyns. Published in 1890.
Life of Diogenes by Diogenes Laërtius. From Book 6 of The Lives and Opinions of Eminent Philosophers by Diogenes Laërtius, translated by Charles Duke Yonge and first published in 1853.
Life of Crates by Diogenes Laërtius. From Book 6 of The Lives and Opinions of Eminent Philosophers by Diogenes Laërtius, translated by Charles Duke Yonge and first published in 1853.
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Stoic Six Pack 5 – The Cynics. Copyright © Enhanced Media 2015.
"Other dogs," said Diogenes, punning upon the designation of his School, "bite their enemies: I bite my friends for their salivation"; and it may be confidently affirmed that he and his friends were admirably fitted for the friendly office. Gifted with impressive intellectual force, with unbounded capacity of contempt, and with a pungent humor, they did not know how to spare either men or institutions. The retort of Diogenes to his fellow citizens of Sinope is typical. He was told that they had condemned him to banishment. "And I," was the rejoinder, "condemn them—to live in Sinope."
The attitude of Diogenes to the men of Sinope was the attitude of the Cynic school to society at large. Like most ascetic systems it had its roots, in part at least, in revolt against the world. Nothing pleased them. With a trenchant dichotomy, they divided mankind into the handful of wise men and innumerable fools.
"Of what am I guilty," once exclaimed Antisthenes, "that I should be praised?"
And the words came well from one to whom popularity was but "the babble of madmen." Even the most cherished ideas of the Athenian served only to point corrosive retort. Was it civic patriotism? "Why should I be proud of belonging to the soil of Attica with the worms and the slugs?" Was it the war-like spirit—that spirit that Plato, even in his idealized Greek state, weds so closely to philosophy? "Let a man apply himself to philosophy till he has come to regard the leaders of armies as the drivers of asses." Was it popular election? (The Athenians, it will be remembered, were so democratic that they elected even their generals). "They might as well nominate their asses to be horses." So all along the line. Political institutions, property, the family, luxury in all modes, culture at least in many aspects —all serve but as targets for Cynic projectiles. Even the Athenian attachment to ceremonial religion—so singularly tenacious despite all the free thought of the Sophistic era—finds short shrift in the blunt declaration that a temple is no holier than any-other place.
It might seem that views like these have at any rate the merit of being unambiguous. And it would not do to accuse the Cynics of saying anything they did not think, or of thinking anything they did not say. Yet for this very reason there is possibility of misconception. This in two directions. For we must not take these Cynic utterances too solemnly. The Cynics were philosophers; but they were also satirists and humorists. Like all the masters of vituperation, they had a zest in the commination service. And this being so, it would betray a lack of humor to read all these flings, flouts, sneers, sarcasms, as if they were meant for philosophic formulae. Once, it appears, Diogenes was shown some ingenious kind of dial; "Not a bad contrivance," was the rejoinder, "to avoid missing one's meals." We make take this seriously if we like. But it may be safer to put it alongside of Antisthenes' asseveration (wrung from him possibly in some moment of exasperation with dilettantism) that "a wise man will not learn to read so as not to be troubled by trifles." One must beware of the pedantic literalism of the men who cannot laugh.
For two reasons any such misinterpretation would be grossly unjust, (a) One that the Cynic revolt against society was far from unprovoked. In our gratitude for what Greece has done for us (and what has it not done for us?), we must not forget that even the Greece of Pericles had its blots. It was devastated by constant wars, and it could be ruthless in its manner of waging them. It was split up into little municipal states which hated each other with a perfect hatred, as Athens hated Thebes or Sparta, or as Thebes hated Athens. It was built upon slavery —the horrible slavery of the mines as well as the milder bondage of the household; and it grew into slavery rather than out of it. Beautiful in so much, even as its own Parthenon, Greek civilization could as little assimilate this servile substratum as could the Parthenon transmute into frieze and columns the native rock of the Acropolis. And then these little States were torn by those intestine rivalries, and cursed by those unscrupulous ambitions which led to the political inferno described in lurid pages by Thucydides. Add to this the perennial vices that may only too surely be reckoned upon where wealth has grown, and luxury increased, and command of leisure and facilities for culture borne their usual harvest of dilettantism. Who will say that such a society did not need its censors and satirists? There was a word of advice once given by Diogenes. It may be commended to all those, whether individuals or nations, who wince under the lash of their critics: "Associate with your enemies: they will be the first to tell you of your faults." The second point—the second consideration which forbids us to take Cynicism too lightly—is that, despite all its extravagances it rested on a principle. Disgust with social life was part of it. But it was not the main part, nor would it ever have been so bitter had it not found inspiration elsewhere in the life, and in the doctrine, of Socrates.
It sometimes happens that a great man, though himself far enough from being sectarian, becomes the founder of sects. He cannot help it. He is so great that his followers, being lesser men, and quite unable to see around him, come to mistake the part for the whole, to fashion their god in their own imperfect image, and to subsist each of them upon his own favorite fragment of the master's example and teaching. This, at least, was what happened to Socrates. None of the world's great thinkers has ever gathered into discipleship men of such varied types; and never did philosopher trouble himself less than did this philosophic genius to keep all his utterances formally consistent, or to hand on to successors the doubtful legacy of a dogmatic system. The result followed. When he passed away, it was Plato alone who reproduced him in his splendid many-sidedness. For the rest, the varied aspects of truth that had found unity in the Socratic personality fell asunder into fragments, which were portioned out among followers who, as usual, all claimed the true apostolic succession, and all repudiated every succession but their own. Hence arose those schools so fitly called the incomplete Socratics; and among them, arrogant in their incompleteness, the Cynics.
When Antisthenes, the founder of the school, first made the acquaintance of Socrates, he could hardly have appeared a promising disciple. He was already middle-aged, "too old to learn." He was himself already a teacher of philosophy; and who does not know that for a man to have disciples is by no means the surest way to become a disciple himself? Yet Antisthenes was not deterred. We see him, cross-grained and cantankerous though he seems to have been, tramping his five miles from the Peiraeus to meet with Socrates in the Agora, and to learn from his lips the open secrets of a deeper philosophy. And then there was so much in Socrates that came half way to meet his admiration. For Socrates was anything but the typical Greek. He was rugged and plain. His dress was coarse. His manner of life was frugal. He was an admirable campaigner. Hunger and thirst, cold winds and scorching suns, could make no impression on that iron frame. He often went barefoot. And though he could enjoy himself in due season—witness The Symposium of Plato—he could also be abstemious to asceticism. Nor was he fastidious in his company. Rich men and poor came much alike to him. And as for his talk, it was not at all of the kind that the Greeks, or most of us since, have been accustomed to hear from philosophers. For it seemed to deal little with the high themes of the schools, with the cosmologies of the early philosophers, or with the abstract science of some of his contemporaries. Has not Zeller even called him "philistine"? In truth, there were men who, when they met him, were shocked to find to what an extent his conversation ran upon smiths, tailors, tanners, saddlers, and such like. And though in this homely talk, in these analogies, thrice-vulgar to Greek ears, there lay in germ nothing less than the idealism of Plato, this did not appear upon the surface.
There were remarks, too, which must have found in Antisthenes a receptive soil. "To need nothing is divine, to need as little as one can is all but divine." It was sayings like this that Antisthenes carried with him to bear their fruit in due season in Cynic life and doctrines. There were, of course, other sides to Socrates—urbanity, zest in the gaiety of life, humorous toleration for human weakness, reverence for the laws of the land, a profound religious spirit. But Antisthenes cared for none of these things. Enough for him that he had found a pattern of austerity, conviction, and rationality.
Yet it was not the character only of Socrates that wrought upon the Cynics. It was also his doctrine.
Socrates was not merely a moral philosopher. Like Plato and Aristotle after him, he was also, and even more, a moral reformer. For his lot was cast in an age of transition. The unsuspecting confidence of the morality of tradition was passing. Not all the forces of reaction, with Aristophanes to head them, could bring it back. Athens had turned that earlier page. The swift brilliant expansion of national greatness that followed the Persian war had brought new problems; and a widened horizon had opened Athenian eyes to the diversity and variability of moral standards. Not least, there was at work the searching solvent of those great thinkers of the Attic illumination— the Sophists. In their hands a rhetorical sensationalism was raising doubts as to the possibility of knowledge of an objective moral order; and a rhetorical egoism in ethics rapidly preparing the way for an identification of right with might, of law with force, of obligation with fear, of justice with a perishable and changing thing of human institution. Can it be wondered at if there were those who feared that before this the very props of moral and political obligation were going, and that an urgent practical need called for a supreme effort of reconstruction. Among these were the great constructive thinkers of Greece.
Two courses lay open. The one was to recognize the organic dependence of morality upon social conditions; and in the light of that, to attack the vast problem of reconstructing society upon a more rational basis. This was the way of Plato and Aristotle. But it was not the way of Socrates. In the eyes of Socrates the one vital reform was the reform of individual men. And the needful specific was of the simplest. It was what has now become the good old way of hoisting scepticism with its own petard, of meeting the critical and sceptical reason by appeal to reason that was critical and not sceptical. This was the way of Socrates. In season, and sometimes out of season, he insisted that morality stood or fell simply with the possibility of bringing men to think, or (to be more precise) of bringing them to clear, well-defined, and sound ideas of what their duties were. As all the world knows, he taught that virtue is knowledge. And though an exact interpretation of the formula is far from easy, the dictum meant (and this is what concerns us) that, if the moral life is to be set upon a sure basis, it must be through the enlightening of the will—the will which, to Socrates, as to the Stoics, to Spinoza, to Kant, meant the reason of the individual.
It was here the Cynics laid hold. One may not say they reproduced their master. It is evident that reason in their eyes had not the same function as in his. There was less of knowledge, less emphasis on definitions. There was more of simple strength of rational personal conviction. But on one point there was entire agreement, on the vital point that, in things moral, it is the spirit that profiteth, or, as Antisthenes. has it, that "men are rich and poor not in their establishments, but in their souls." No philosopher of either the ancient or the modern world, not even Kant, has so insisted that in comparison with the good will all else is as dross.
It was in fact just this which led them to leave their master far behind. In identifying virtue with the enlightened or rational will, Socrates had made virtue inward. But he had never meant that, therefore, virtue was not outward. On the contrary, he had frankly accepted the life of Athens as he found it. He had done his duty as a citizen on the field and in the dicastery. He had submitted himself to the laws, even when they adjudged him to die. And in giving his life to the mission of personally influencing individuals, he had taken it for granted that the men he dealt with were, like himself, living the ordinary civic life of the average Athenian. Not so the Cynics.
Seizing upon the truth that virtue is, in its essence, inward (a state of will or reason), they went on to infer that, therefore, it must not be outward; and in that uncompromising spirit declared that there is no true moral life for man till he has cut himself loose from every tie, every resource, every institution which social life has to offer.
They had a certain justification. "He who hath a wife and children hath given hostages to fortune." Extend the trite aphorism and we have Cynicism in a nutshell. Not wife and children alone, but friends, wealth, reputation, public position, institutions, all things on which men have set their hearts—are they not all "hostages to fortune" ? For all ordinary life is at best precarious. It is precarious even by reason of its outward resources, which, whatever security they may bring, do, as a matter of fact, in proportion as they widen the range of interests, offer thereby a larger target to the slings and arrows of misfortune, and stake our happiness upon eventualities beyond our own control. There is but one effectual security. Care for none of these things. Give never a hostage to fortune. Minimize wants even to the vanishing point. Be independent.
"Rally the good in the depth of thyself."
Such is the message of the Cynics. All external goods were in their eyes obstructions, all social interests distractions, all dependence, whether on men or on things, an impediment, a sacrifice of the soul's ‘self-sufficingness.’ Like the Stoics when they asserted their freedom in the last abnegation of suicide; like the Christian anchorites when they sought for their own souls in the desert; like the monks when they strove for spirituality of life in the austerities of the cloister; like the begging-friars who raised mendicancy into an article of their faith, so did these Cynics turn their backs upon all the world had to offer, in the conviction that this was the path to moral victory. "He taught me," said Diogenes, of Antisthenes, "what was mine and not mine. Property was not mine. Kith and kin, acquaintances, friends, fame, intimate associates, places of abode, occupation— all these he taught were no concern of mine. What then was thine? The exercise of my own thoughts. This I might possess unhindered."
This result is even more apparent if we glance from the Cynic doctrine to the Cynic life. The typical figure is of course Diogenes. When he came to Athens, it appears he had a slave who ran away. The owner's consolation was peculiar: "If Manes can do without Diogenes, so, surely, can Diogenes without Manes." This was the keynote of all his long life. It is all a progressive discovery of how many things he can do without, a prolonged process of self-denudation. It went on till his death, which was characteristic. His friends found him one morning lying on the stones of one of those porticos which were his usual sleeping place. They thought him asleep. But he had in truth at last achieved the final minimization of wants.
We can now perhaps understand how the two aspects of Cynicism stand related. There was the revolt against society; there was the conviction inspired by Socrates that the seat of virtue is the rational will. These two joined hands in the lifelong struggle after a moral independence, an individual self-sufficingness, which carried in it an affirmation at once of the supreme moral worth of life, and of the worthlessness of everything that life had to offer.
If we are to do justice to this strange and picturesque philosophy we must not dwell too much upon its externals. Ascetics are never to be judged by the singularity of their austerities; and in this case rags, filth, and indecency must not obscure the fact that Cynicism was the first thorough-going plea for moral freedom which the western world had seen. In this aspect it is in advance even of Plato and Aristotle. For these, though by far the greatest ethical thinkers of the ancient world, have yet their limitations. To both of them, the moral life is still identified with the peculiarly Greek form of civic organization. It is so even in the ideal republic of Plato, which is, after all, no more than the Greek state glorified. Hence that intense civic exclusiveness persistent even in Platonic and Aristotelian ideals, to which the larger unities, national or cosmopolitan, were hardly yet above the horizon. Hence the profoundly aristocratic spirit even of the municipal so-called democracies; and hence, too, the basal institution of slavery of which the great philosophers were the apologists. These limitations were, in time, to disappear, and it needed other forces besides theory to demolish them. But it is to the credit of the Cynics to have declared, and that while the way was still in full vitality, that the moral life of the individual did not stand and fall with Greek civilization. They were cosmopolitans when as yet the Christian and Stoic cosmopolitanism was a long way off. Nor had they anything of the aristocratic leanings of Plato. Far from it; "philosophers of the proletariat" they were, after their own fashion, men with a mission who were convinced that philosophy had its message to the multitude—the multitude whom Plato declared to be inherently incapable of philosophy. And as they were certainly no respecters of persons, to them the barriers between bond and free, so insurmountable even to Aristotle, were broken down. Nor is it easy to exaggerate the importance to ethical thought of the idea upon which all this indifference to externals rested; the conviction that in all moral estimates it is the good will that is alone significant. It was a doctrine which was peculiarly needed in Greece. For where—as in Athens—private life and public life were so intimately related, and where the individual found free and satisfying expression for himself in political activities, as well as in attainable enjoyment of the best literature and art, there was a risk that the inward life might receive less than its due. Lives that find a quite congenial environment are apt to lack something of spiritual intensity. And though it might be maintained that the antidote was already there in the teaching of Socrates, and the deepening of the moral consciousness which it involved, it may be doubted whether, without Cynic exaggeration of Socratic doctrine, Plato and Aristotle would have laid such impressive stress upon the spirit in which an action is done as the supreme condition of its goodness. It is a lesson that has never been lost. Caught up by the Stoic philosophy, and incarnated in the Stoic life, it became one of the great legacies of ancient thought to modern ethics.
Nor is it to be denied that even the Cynic gospel of self-detachment from social life rests on a truth. We are all in some sense monads, self-centred in our being, however manifold our relations to others. Our thoughts, our hopes, our fears, our sorrows, all our experiences, are in a very peculiar sense our own. "It seems to me," says Sir J. F. Stephen, "that we are spirits in prison, able only to make signals to each other, but with a world of things to think and to say which our signals cannot describe at all." Or, as Wordsworth has it—
"Points have we all within ourselves
Where each stands single."
And, indeed, it is something of a common-place that when the world—even our own intimate world—has done its utmost for us, a limit is reached in every grave crisis beyond which we must be ourselves or succumb. It is but a half-truth perhaps. But then it was precisely the strength of the Cynics to belong to that order of one-sided minds without which mankind would never know what whole truths mean.
Mankind, however, and more especially philosophic mankind, are never content to live long upon half-truths. They have an irresistible tendency to pass to the other halves. And it is a striking comment upon this text that when Antisthenes was declaring that he had rather be mad than feel pleasure, Aristippus was maintaining the supreme end of life to be the pleasure of the moment. Hence that line of criticism which sets itself to show that Cynicism does but scant justice to the volume and variety of human life.
This, however, is perhaps beyond our limits. It must suffice at present to point out that, taking these Cynics upon their own ground, the manner of life they praised and practiced was anything but well fitted to compass the end they so strenuously laid to heart.