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Mummy, mummy, what’s a Cynic?

In everyday use, the word cynic means someone who has a jaundiced view of human nature, seeing even apparently good actions as having some underhand or base motivation. However, the original cynics weren’t exactly like that although they were fairly distinctive in their own sweet way.

The original Cynics were a school of philosophers in ancient Greece. The first person to be called a Cynic was Diogenes of Sinope, in the 4th century B.C. Worried, perhaps, by the instability of the Greek citystates at the time he preached the values of self-discipline, self-sufficiency and withdrawal from society. He argued that if you rely on other people, or on your material possessions, you may be betrayed, so the only sure way to achieve happiness is to find it within yourself. Diogenes believed that people were too easily distracted from this central truth by inessentials like having a nice house, a shiny new chariot or a wellpolished set of table manners. He made it his business to demonstrate by practical example that it was possible to live without all these peripheral things. For years he lived in a barrel, to show that elaborate housing was unnecessary. He became famous for this, and Alexander the Great came to see him, and stood at the entrance of the barrel to ask if there was anything he could do to help. “Yes”, replied the philosopher, “Get out of my light”.

Diogenes rejected all other refinements, too – he didn’t wash, and often didn’t dress either. His fellow citizens found this disconcerting and called him a Cynic (kynikoi ), which means “dog-like”, because he had no shame. He was, however, regarded by many as a very moral man, and inspired a number of people to follow his example of austerity and indifference to convention.

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