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The Ancient Cynics: The First Environmentalists
Tim Madigan asks, why did the featherless biped cross the road?
“When some one reproached him with his exile, his reply was, ‘Nay, it was through that, you miserable fellow, that I came to be a philosopher.’ Again, when some one reminded him that the people of Sinope had sentenced him to exile, ‘And I them,’ said he, ‘to home-staying.’”
– Diogenes Laertius, Diogenes
Webster’s Dictionary defines ‘cynical’ as “1. Believing that people are motivated in all their actions only by selfishness; denying the sincerity of people ’s motives and actions, or the value of living 2. Sarcastic, sneering, etc.” Not exactly words of recommendation. But I’d like to give a defense of cynicism, and show that it has much in its favor, especially the way it was practiced by the Ancient Greeks. In fact, it was arguably the first mass ‘Green’ movement. In his 1987 book Critique of Cynical Reason, the philosopher Peter Sloterdijk goes so far as to call the Cynics the precursors of modern-day environmentalism.
Socrates was famous for walking through the marketplace of Athens, asking questions and showing how the ‘learned’ men of his time were not nearly as knowledgeable as they claimed to be. He demonstrated that it is better to profess one ’s ignorance than to act as if one knows something when one does not. His most noted follower, Plato, set up an academy outside of Athens, and began to teach about eternal truths. The body, according to Plato, is merely a decaying receptacle imprisoning the immortal soul, which once resided in a world of pure ideas and which longs to return there. But not all of Socrates ’ associates agreed with Plato. Antisthenes, who had also been trained in the ‘Socratic method’, felt that Plato’s idealism actually betrayed the more down-to-earth teachings of their beloved master. While Plato looked for happiness in the world to come, Antisthenes sought happiness in the here and now. He is considered to be the founder of the philosophical movement called Cynicism.
The most notorious Cynic was Diogenes of Sinope, about whom many legends have accrued. It is said that when the noted philosophers of Plato ’s Academy stated that the best definition of a human being is ‘a featherless biped’, Diogenes rushed into their midst waiving a plucked chicken: “Here is Plato’s man,” he declared. Diogenes was also famous for walking through the streets of Athens in broad daylight with a lantern, announcing that he was looking for “a real human being.” The point of this was to show that reality does not exist theoretically, but in day-to-day experiences. There is no abstract ‘man’ – there are only concrete human beings.
The basic message of the Cynics was that one should live according to nature. Civilization is artificial, and the more one gets caught up in its clutches, the less one is true to oneself. The Cynics held that rather than living one ’s life according to time schedules and rules of etiquette, one should follow the model of the animals, who eat when they are hungry and sleep when they are tired. Their opponents therefore began to refer to them as ‘dogs’ (kunikos), from which the word ‘cynic’ is derived. These ‘dog philosophers’ cultivated a deliberately provocative and earthy lifestyle. Legend has it that Diogenes was once spotted masturbating in the marketplace. When someone loudly protested, he blithely responded, “Wouldn’t it be nice if one could alleviate hunger by merely rubbing one’s stomach?”
The Cynics felt that happiness is achievable during one’s lifetime, if one leads a virtuous existence by simplifying one’s wants and desires, and attempts to live in harmony with others in a natural setting. Diogenes prided himself on having only one possession – a cup for drinking. When he saw a young child using his hand to hold water, Diogenes smashed the cup and said “that boy has bested me!” True freedom equals being self-sufficient, and the fewer attachments one has to the niceties of society, the better off one will be. Furthermore, the Cynics felt that humans should be comfortable with their own bodies, and not be ashamed of their animal nature. In the words of their later admirer Friedrich Nietzsche, “For the happiness of the animal, that thorough cynic, is the living proof of the truth of cynicism.” The bodily functions are natural, and should not be taboo.
One can trace many latter movements from the Cynical attitude, including the Epicureans, the Romantics, the Beat Generation, the Hippies, and the Burning Man devotees. By living close to nature and spurning the trappings of a consumer society, the Cynics did their best to maintain ecological balance.
Perhaps most importantly, the Cynics were suspicious of political power. Another legend about Diogenes is that he was visited by Alexander the Great, the conqueror of the known world, who wanted to see this much-talked-about philosopher. “Ask me for anything, and I will grant it to you,” Alexander is said to have told him. “Get out of my light,” Diogenes replied, “you’re blocking my tan.” To take anything from Alexander would be to compromise his integrity. As Irving Berlin would later put it, “I’ve got the sun in the morning, and the moon at night... who could ask for anything more? ”
So the early school of Cynicism (if it can be called such, since it was composed of genuine individualists) advocated a simple lifestyle, an enjoyment of worldly pleasures (including sexual activities of all sorts) and a disdain for political power. It was not ascetic – one should renounce the baubles of society, but not life itself. It attacked conventions, abstract ideas, and bureaucracy. Indeed, it was anti-nationalistic. Diogenes declared himself to be a citizen of the world. And, unlike the Webster’s definition given above, it most certainly did not deny the value of living. Why then is cynicism now considered to be solely negative? As Sloterdijk ’s book makes clear, Cynicism took a dark turn. By the time Christianity dominated the Western world, Cynicism had lost its puckish flavor, while retaining its critical view of idealism. It started to accommodate itself to powerful institutions, while remaining contemptuous of them. Sloterdijk refers to this as “enlightened false knowledge” – the feeling that life is basically worthless, and the best that one can do is ridicule those who believe otherwise. In his chapter ‘In Search of Lost Cheekiness’, Sloterdijk calls for a return to ancient Cynicism and its positive assertion that a life without ideals or metaphysical certainty can be a lot of fun. There is such a thing as positive disillusionment, as Plato and his friends were so rudely reminded. (They were not daunted by Diogenes ’ plucked chicken, by the way. They merely added to their definition of ‘man’ that he is a featherless biped with flattened nails.)
A healthy dose of old-fashioned Cynicism wouldn’t do the world any harm. And for those who find this life an interesting one, and would prefer to postpone any possible afterlife for as long as possible, it is good to remember that Diogenes, for all his cheekiness, is reported to have lived to the ripe old age of ninety. Cynicism, it seems, can be good for one ’s health.
© Timothy Madigan 2008
Tim Madigan teaches philosophy at Saint John Fisher College in Rochester, New York, and is a US editor of Philosophy Now.