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Stoics And Epicureans Have Returned. So Where Are the Cynics?
Why Cynicism is absent from the modern world, and how it might reemerge
This month’s post is a guest essay by Andrew Perlot.
Andrew stumbled on Meditations at age sixteen, and Marcus Aurelius and Socrates took up residence in the back of his brain soon after. He’s a former journalist interested in ancient history, philosophy, and partner acrobatics. You can follow him on Twitter or at his Substack.
Your car pulls up to the red light, and there he is — barefoot and shirtless by the central median, standing in slushy ice deposited by last night's storm. Is the man homeless? His cardboard sign doesn't ask for money, food, or a job, but is merely adorned with the crude outline of a dog.
He takes a step toward your car, makes eye contact, and stands with a smile on his face, head cocked quizzically to the side.
You pause, uncertain, as his breath puffs in the cold air. After a moment, you roll down the window despite yourself.
“Do you need help?” you ask.
“I have everything I need, friend,” the man says with convincing certainty. “But I have to ask, do you? Do you really?”
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The Return of the Cynics
Modern Western cities have plenty of homeless people driven to the streets by addiction, mental illness, and astronomical housing costs. But drivers aren’t likely to encounter someone who wants to be homeless approaching cars in an attempt to lead people to happiness and excellence.
Yet this is the way of Cynicism, a philosophy that spread rapidly in the 1st century A.D. at the time its cousins, Stoicism and Epicureanism, were making their mark on the ancient world.
The common reasoning is that the loss of Greek independence — first to the Macedonians under Phillip and Alexander, and then to the longer-lasting Roman Empire — left many Greeks feeling disempowered and frustrated. Their discontent opened a space for philosophies emphasizing self-sufficiency and inner happiness to gain a foothold.
The ancient Cynics lived on the streets of Greece's city-states. They hectored their neighbors about their faults and urged them to do better with satyric mockery, brazen disregard for the mores of the day, and occasionally, grandfatherly warmth. They were famous for pillorying the powerful and the rich without regard for the consequences and gained a reputation for upstanding virtue and for being incredibly annoying.
When Rome devoured Greece, it caught Cynicism like a predator picking up intestinal parasites from tainted meat. An unwanted plague of itinerant beggar-philosophers spread to every major city in the empire, disturbing, infuriating, and occasionally impressing the Romans. Cynicism had staying power, and even after Christianity drove Stoicism and Epicureanism into decline, the Cynics remained at work. The last recorded Cynic of classical antiquity was Sallustius of Emesa in the late 5th century A.D.
The modern western world seems ripe for a wave of practical philosophies of life similar to what Greece saw during the Hellenistic period. The ideologically-rich cold war is long over, the bedrock of Christianity that supplanted ancient philosophies is giving way, democratic norms are under strain as perceived economic disparity grows, and interest in ancient Greco-Roman eudaimonic philosophies is on the rise.
Books related to Stoicism, such as Ryan Holiday’s Discipline Is Destiny, regularly top best-seller lists, and videos and podcasts discussing it get millions of streams a day. Epicurean philosophy has a few less popular book-length treatments, but we see many of its outward ideals — if not its exact philosophical underpinnings — at play in the popular F.I.R.E and minimalism movements.
But there’s no new groundswell of people embracing idealistic poverty and Cynic street lecturing. Celebrities and best-selling authors aren’t promoting Cynic ideals, or suggesting Cynic life hacks for our problems. So where are the modern Cynics?
There’s rarely a definitive answer for why something isn’t happening, but we can come to some reasonable inferences by examining how Cynics got along in the ancient world, what their philosophical cousins thought of them, and by observing how our cities and societies work differently than those of the ancient world.
What Cynics Do
Cynics believe they can thrive on the meagerest of provisions — a threadbare cloak to wear, a rucksack to carry their few belongings, and perhaps some beans and grains to eat — so long as they have one critical thing: virtue.
Luckily, Cynic virtue is achieved by means entirely within one’s control. Virtue can’t be retarded by the vagaries of genetics or fortune. It's achieved by voluntary choice, namely how we speak, think, and act. Cynics aim to be courageous, wise, and just, and model their lives around these ideals.
Cynics also believe many norms and our sense of propriety are socially-imposed falsehoods used to hide and distort our true nature. They view human beings as naturally good, but corrupted by civilization and its strictures.
Many Cynics, such as Diogenes of Sinope, thought public masturbation, urination, and sex were perfectly acceptable. After all, animals make no attempt to hide these activities. The Cynics considered criticism of their lack of shame hypocritical; everyone does these things, but Cynics are honest enough to do them openly because they consider them perfectly virtuous. Cynics were thus considered dog-like for their shamelessness. The dog became the unofficial mascot of the Cynics, and they embraced the comparison, seeking to hound their countrymen into better living.
The ancient Cynics clearly leaned into the derision they faced. They found unorthodox behavior and unbridled speech could shock the masses out of complacency. Anything that made people rethink their acceptance of traditional social values such as wealth-seeking, religion, pleasure-seeking, family duty, and reputation were welcome tools.
Cynics also believe in hardening themselves against discomfort so the body can serve the reasoning mind. They walked barefoot in the snow, hugged cold bronze statues in winter, and rolled in the scalding summer sand.
Perhaps the best overall summation of Cynicism’s aims is a surviving prayer from Crates of Thebes, a 3rd century B.C. Athenian Cynic philosopher who gave up a great fortune to live a life of poverty on the streets:
Pierian Muses, hearken to my prayer!
Grant me food without fail for my belly,
Which has ever made my life simple and unenslaved…
Make me useful rather than sweet to my friends.
Glorious goods I do not wish to gather, as one
Who yearns for the wealth of a beetle or riches of an ant;
No, I wish to possess righteousness and collect riches
Which are easily borne, easily gained, and conducive to virtue.
If these I win, I will propitiate Hermes and the holy Muses
Not with costly offering but with pious virtues.
So Crates wanted simple food and enough shelter to survive, virtue, and to improve people rather than please them with agreeable company.
Crates’s austere lifestyle and virtuous behavior earned him the respect of his Athenian neighbors. They gave him the nickname “door opener,” because he entered houses uninvited, seeking family members at war with each other. Once ensconced inside, he listened to everyone without casting blame, gently reconciling siblings and parents and guiding them toward virtuous behavior.
This was Cynicism at its most gentle and palatable, though ancient sources described a far more antagonistic side of Cynicism as well. Cynics weren’t afraid to loudly admonish those they saw as wasting their lives in vice.
Diogenes was once battling a fever on the streets as fans streamed past on their way to an athletic event. “Idiots!” he yelled at them, “where are you going in such a hurry? You are going a great distance to see those damned athletes compete; why not stop a bit to see a man do combat with illness?”
During the Roman period, Cynics criticized even the emperors.
Demetrius, a well-regarded Cynic who eschewed all wealth and possessions, was once offered 200,000 sesterces by the emperor Nero. This was a vast sum — about half of what was required to become an equite, or Roman knight — and enough for him to spend the rest of his life in modest luxury.
He turned down the gift and laughed. No amount of money was enough to silence his criticism of the emperor. When Nero proceeded to threaten his life, Demetrius said, "you threaten me with death, but nature threatens you."
Demetrius would, at various times, be publicly beaten and eventually exiled by Nero’s praetorian prefect because he wouldn’t shut up. For Cynics, staying silent in the face of such behavior isn’t really an option, because they’re on a mission.
An Evangelical Philosophy Without an End Game
Historical Cynics weren’t anti-social curmudgeons, as the modern word cynic suggests. Many were endearingly eccentric individuals with great wit and many friends. They distrusted pleasure, not people, though they certainly considered the masses wanting in many ways.
Cynics refuse to abandon the rest of society as a hopeless cause. They believe their examples and exhortations can “save” individuals from themselves. Most Greco-Roman philosophical teachings had to be sought out, but Cynics seek others out, badgering them to do better, even if they prefer to do worse.
Epictetus, a Stoic philosopher who spoke highly of Cynicism, said a Cynic “must know that he is sent as a messenger from Zeus to people concerning good and bad things, to show them that they have wandered…It is his duty then to be able to say with a loud voice… like blind people you are wandering up and down: you are going by another road, and have left the true road: you seek for prosperity and happiness where they are not, and if another shows you where they are, you do not believe him. Why do you seek it without?”
But this raises the question — what did the Cynics actually hope to achieve with their evangelism?
Clearly, they believed that virtue was enough for a good life, but part of living virtuously was helping their countrymen see the light.
But did they really want everyone to live like them? What would that look like, given their parasitic — or the Cynics would argue, symbiotic — relationship with their host cities?
After all, ancient Cynics expected food handouts as the price for their moral teachings, and often slept under the porticos of grand public buildings that wouldn’t have existed without the underpinning economic systems and wealth the Cynics lambasted.
We have stories of a few Cynics living in the wilds between city-states, foraging for food and living like hermits, but it doesn’t seem that most Cynics had this end game in mind.
Our best hint comes from a poem Crates wrote describing his ideal Cynic utopia, which he called Pera:
There is a city Pera in the midst of wine-dark Tuphos,
Fair and fruitful, filthy all about, possessing nothing,
Into which no foolish parasite ever sails,
Nor any playboy who delights in a whore's ass,
But it produces thyme, garlic, figs, and bread,
For which the citizens do not war with each other,
Nor do they possess arms, to get cash or fame.
At first glance, it sounds like he’s describing an undeveloped land of poverty, devoid of vice and war, full of virtuous people and enough simple food to satisfy everyone — some sort of hunter-gatherer society in the wilds, perhaps.
But the word “pera” in Greek refers to the beggar’s bag every Cynic carried, and the word “tuphos” means smoke or mist, and was used by the Cynics to describe the mental confusion most people are fogged by.
So an argument can be made that the paradise the Cynics sought wasn’t a separate utopian place at all, but simply the state of having enough — in their beggar bags — while living on the margins of societies created by their deluded countrymen. A kind of refuge of virtue amid the madness.
It’s probable the Cynics never believed they would get society at large to live like them.
Diogenes Laertius, an ancient biographer of Greek philosophers, wrote that Diogenes of Sinope “used to say that he followed the example of the trainers of choruses; for they too set the note a little high, to ensure that the rest should hit the right note”.
In other words, the Cynics may well have believed they were setting an unrealistically high standard that wasn’t achievable by society as a whole, and that they would always be a small, isolated, virtuous elite urging their countrymen to be better.
Epictetus, the Stoic philosopher, was of the opinion that Cynicism wouldn’t be a popular philosophy in a world where men lived more moderate and virtuous lives.
“If…you grant me a city of wise men,” he said, “it might very well be that no one will lightly adopt the Cynic's profession. For in whose interest would he take on this style of life?”
Even in Hellenistic times there were too many humans for a return to hunter-gatherer living arrangements to be realistic. Today, that’s even more so. So while Cynics might lambast the modern economy and the materialism and hedonism that drives it, it’s unclear that they have anything to offer mankind as an alternative. If everyone adopted the Cynic way of life, humanity wouldn’t even have enough of the simple lentils and grains Cynics prized to stave off famine.
Cynicism’s Penetration Problem
Stoic and Epicurean ideas filtered down through society during antiquity, penetrating beyond the narrow educated elite who had the time and resources to pursue philosophical training.
For instance, if you look at ancient Roman gravestones for slaves, freedmen, and the presumably unphilosophical lower classes, you’ll find the term, “Non fui, fui, non-sum, non-curo,” etched on a surprising number of them. It translates to, "I was not; I was; I am not; I do not care", an Epicurean consolation suggesting that before we’re born, we don’t exist and can’t care about anything, and after death, we won't exist and can’t care about dying. Therefore there is nothing to worry about.
Even if this represented just a surface-level understanding of Epicurius’s teachings, it shows that his ideas penetrated society.
On the other hand, there’s little indication that Cynic ideas had much clout in society at large. City dwellers often encountered Cynics on the street, and probably heard their harangues. But there’s no evidence that a wide swath of society bought into elements of the philosophy, perhaps because it always seemed to have the whiff of the ridiculous about it.
The satirist Lucian, who wrote a straightforward defense of Cynicism, had no qualms about also satirizing ridiculous Cynic philosophers and pointing out that many of them fell far short of Cynic ideals. In Lucian’s “The Passing of Peregrinus,” the Cynic Peregrinus is shown to be playacting at Cynic beliefs to gain followers, avoid work, and accumulate wealth. The true diehards who follow Peregrinus are fanatics devoid of reason.
Lucian wrote that "every city is filled with such upstarts, particularly with those who enter the names of Diogenes, Antisthenes, and Crates as their patrons and enlist in the Army of the Dog.”
While a number of ancient writers praised the virtue of men like Crates, Diogenes, and Demetrius, the overwhelming consensus seemed to be that most Cynics were cranks and opportunists who preached about virtue while failing to live up to those values.
“I fear we don’t appreciate [Cynicism’s] grandeur,” Epictetus said, “nor do we have a fair idea of Diogenes’ character. We are influenced by the sad spectacle of today’s Cynics, these dogs who beg at the table and hang about the gate who have nothing in common with the Cynics of old except maybe for farting in public, not much else.”
Aelius Aristides, a Greek Orator, observed that Cynics “frequent the doorways, talking more to the doorkeepers than to the masters, making up for their lowly condition by using impudence."
The majority of antiquity’s Cynics seem to have been marginal figures who were often ignored, even when they were being outrageous. Powerful men concluded they were loud but impotent, and didn’t have enough support to affect meaningful change.
It’s telling that the before-mentioned Cynic Demetrius embarrassed Nero on a number of occasions, yet the emperor never bothered to kill him.
Once, when Nero was being carried through the streets of Rome, the Cynic Isidorus passed by, calling out, "You sing the misfortunes of Nauplius well (Nero shocked Roman society by performing on stage), but behave badly yourself." Nero promptly banished Isodorus from Italy, but didn’t bother to kill him.
On the other hand, Nero quickly executed Stoic philosophers who posed a threat to him, even when their condemnation was subtle.
Thrasea Paetus, a Roman Stoic and senator, refused to swear oaths of loyalty to Nero, ignored orders to attend senate meetings, and wouldn’t vote divine honors upon Nero’s wife or attend her funeral. For this, Nero had him killed.
Other Stoics who held high positions within society, such as Rubellius Plautus and Barea Soranus, were also executed by Nero when they refused to toe the line, even when their defiance was relatively quiet.
The emperor Vespasian executed a Stoic senator named Helvidius Priscus for opposing imperial power, denouncing kingship and hereditary succession, and championing the restoration of the Roman Republic.
His successor, Domitian, executed a half dozen more Stoics, often for simply eulogizing the Stoics Domitian had killed earlier.
These Stoic philosopher-statesmen were actually part of society, and had the respect of many of its leading men and the lower classes. Their condemnation threatened the emperors, and so they had to be killed before their grousing could spread and threaten imperial power.
When a Cynic named Diogenes (not of Sinope, mentioned above) stood up in a packed Roman theater and yelled insults down at the Emperor Titus and his mistress for their misdeeds, Titus must have felt humiliated. But the emperor merely had Diogenes flogged, and then let him go.
Titus likely knew that Diogenes and the other Cynics were too otherly to really be part of society and capable of rallying much support for their views. They’d walked away from society, and were outside of it, and so had almost no power. No one was going to follow Diogenes into rebellion, loud and annoying as he was.
Modern Cynics would likewise be marginal figures at best, not a part of society, and probably unable to shake it up unless they compromised on some of their stances.
The Siloed City Problem
The modern world doesn’t lack public scolds. Walk around the downtown core of any major American city and you’ll soon find someone haranguing passersby with bible verses, promising fire, and brimstone. The drug-addled and mentally unhinged join them, barking out threats.
Almost universally, pedestrians walk past these people without a second glance. The number of people they manage to “save,” and the effect they have on society, is marginal at best.
It’s not implausible to imagine Cynics joining this crowd, perhaps rounding out their diatribes for virtue with performative humor and irony. Some might be really good at it. Given the number of panhandlers on the street and the existence of food pantries and soup kitchens, it seems likely that Cynics could find enough handouts to live on.
But by and large, modern Cynics are likely to reach even fewer people than their antique predecessors seemed to because the nature of our public life has changed dramatically.
Ancient Athens — considered a large city — was 0.7 square miles, and could be traversed in fifteen minutes. At its height, Ancient Rome was 5.25 square miles and had a population of at least a million. You could walk across it in about an hour. The island of Manhattan, one of the densest places in the United States, has 1.69 million people spread across its 33 square miles. Most cities are far less dense — Houston’s 2.3 million people are scattered across 599 square miles. Modern Americans don’t go about their lives beside other people so much as siloed off in metal boxes which deliver them from one enclosed area Cynic homeless people wouldn’t be able to access to another.
An Athenian archon heading to work or the Assembly would walk the same streets as slaves, freedmen, and philosophical hectors. A busy householder seeking provisions would trek to the outdoor agora like everyone else, and if a philosopher wanted to confront him while he was buying olive oil and figs, there wasn’t much he could do about it.
People aren’t eager to be confronted about their vices, and if modern Cynics tried to preach in the supermarket or the mall, security would throw them back on the street.
It seems unbelievable today, but Roman Emperors and Senators were regularly accosted by opinionated subjects displeased with their work. The previously-mentioned Demetrius managed to crash at least two separate opening ceremonies for Nero’s public work projects.
Can you imagine the secret service letting a disheveled street dweller get that close to a modern US president during a public function? Even a city’s mayor will shuttle from his gated home to City Hall in an SUV, giving Cynics little opportunity to accost him.
Sure, a Cynic can sign up to give a three-minute diatribe during public comment periods at city council meetings like everyone else, but if he doesn’t stop talking, the police will show him the door.
Overall, the changing nature of cities and civic life has dramatically reduced the friction points through which Cynics traditionally reached society. Modern Cynics would end up far more marginalized, preaching more to fellow homeless people than society at large. That might be acceptable for people who recognize virtue to be the sole good, but it does make it a lot harder for them to spread their philosophy and impact the people who need it most.
The Modern Cynic Opportunity
Given what Cynicism asks people to give up, and how hard it is for public scolds to make an impact on the modern world, there’s no obvious groundswell of traditional Cynic philosophers on the horizon.
Those inclined to virtue ethics have Stoicism, which many find more palatable. But that doesn’t mean Cynic ideas have lost their relevance. In antiquity, the Cynics who made the most impact (on society as a whole rather than on the narrow philosophical elite) were probably not the Crates and Diogenes-style philosophers who lived on the streets, but rather fringe Cynics who moderated some of their stances so they could reach a wider audience.
The most impactful of these was likely Menippus of Gadara, a Greek slave and Cynic philosopher who earned his freedom, moved to Thebes, and created an entirely new satirical literary genre adopted by generations of subsequent writers. Though Cynic, he was apparently flexible enough to acquire papyrus, pens, and inks, and presumably, a humble but secure place to live where he could store his writing as he worked on them.
The purpose of Menippean satire, according to literary theorist Eric McLuhan, was the creation of stories that do what a Cynic would, were he or she physically present — to shake the reader out of complacency.
Menippean satires break with the classical tradition of attacking specific individuals and instead satirize mental attitudes — the very ones the Cynics thought were so damaging. This hybrid model built on what the Cynics were already doing best. The “traditional” street-dwelling Cynics were already noted for their wit and for thinking quickly on their feet.
They had nothing but scorn for the pen-and-ink theoretical philosophers of their day who created brilliant theories of little utility. When Diogenes of Sinope sat in on one of Plato’s lectures and heard him define humans as, “featherless bipeds,” he knew he had a great opportunity on his hands. He rushed out, plucked a chicken, and hurled it into the meeting.
“Here’s Plato’s Man!” he cackled as the chicken ran about.
Plato, perhaps not finding this particularly funny, revised his definition of humans as “featherless bipeds with flat nails.”
Diogenes also brilliantly mocked Alexander the Great, who went out of his way to greet and praise him. Rather than bowing down to the great king, Diogenes wanted to remind him what he really was, and how unimpressive kings were to a man who was truly free. When Alexander first came upon Diogenes, the philosopher was relaxing in the morning sun. Alexander asked him if there was any favor or boon he might grant Diogenes.
"Yes,” Diogenes said. “Stand out of my sunlight.”
Alexander apparently took this magnanimously, declaring, "If I were not Alexander, then I should wish to be Diogenes."
“Diogenes eyed the king, replying, "If I were not Diogenes, I would still wish to be Diogenes".
The modern world has no lack of patently ridiculous follies. There are plenty of immoral politicians to lambast, over-the-top materialism to skewer, and harmful societal norms to call into question. But the place to highlight these follies is probably no longer the town square.
We may be asking the wrong sort of question when we wonder why there aren’t any Cynic philosophers downtown or breaking into homes and reconciling families. A better one might be — what might a modern Cynic with a fierce wit and enough flexibility to own a laptop and a camera be able to accomplish on Youtube?
The strength of Cynicism has always been its humor and mockery. If Cynics can find a way to lean into that legacy and amplify it, just as Menippus did, the army of the dog may yet have a second act.
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