The cynics were a niche movement within Greek philosophy. They didn’t leave much of a written record of their thinking, because they weren’t part of a scholarly tradition. They were more like performance artists and troublemakers. “Their mode of life was a philosophy of doing,” says M D Usher in his introduction, and this little book gathers together a variety of original sources describing their actions and thought, in a modern translation.
It’s worth bringing the cynics to new audiences for a number of reasons. For one thing, they were having a lot more fun than most philosophers – more than the modern definition of ‘cynicism’ implies. Diogenes, one of the best known cynics, was by all accounts rude and provocative, witty, and above all highly skilled at embarassing the rich and powerful. There is a story in the book that I hadn’t heard before where he turns up at the Isthmian Games and upstages the whole event with a series of subversive acts, including crowning a horse.
Better known stories of Diogenes include him carrying a lantern around the marketplace in the middle of the day, or choosing to live in a barrel to demonstrate how little people really needed. Or deflating the most powerful man on the planet at the time, Alexander the Great, by telling him to stand out of his sun. Diogenes was exiled from his home town for defacing the currency. This was his defining act of defiance – a rejection of money, of human authority, of society’s values.
Diogenes wanted no favours from kings because he was committed to radical simplicity, and this is another reason to learn from the cynics. They were early minimalists, fore-runners of anti-consumerism. “You don’t think your own land and sea are enough in themselves,” says Kynikos in a street argument related in the book. You “import your pleasures from the corners of the globe and always prefer what is foreign to what is locally produced, what is costly to what is inexpensive, and what’s hard to procure to what’s easily acquired.”
Greed and the constant desire for more was futile to Kynikos. “Civic conflicts, wars, conspiracies, and slaughter,” he tells his listeners, “all these things have their source in the desire for more. May that desire be far from us. May I never overreach to grab more.”
More, in the form of economic growth, is the highest aspiration of our politicians and their central promise to us. So the cynics’ attitude to growth and greed is as relevant as ever. So too is their disregard for human hierarchies. We live in a society that constantly tells us that we are all equal, while simultaneously communicating that some people – the rich, the famous, the royals – have greater value than we do. Diogenes would fart in their general direction.
M D Usher has made some judicious selections in this little volume, including the story of some Greek philosophers meeting some radical Indian ascetics and comparing notes. There’s a section on St Symon Stylites, not quite one of the cynics but along similar lines, who lived on top of a pillar for 35 years.
One thing to be aware of is that the book is presented as a parallel language edition, something that wasn’t mentioned in the publisher’s online blurb or on the book itself. Each page has the English on one page and the original Greek or Latin on the other. That’s interesting for a very small minority of readers, though to me it felt like I was only getting half a book.
As always with these sorts of stories, readers aren’t supposed to emulate the extreme choices the cynics made. I have no plans to start living in a wheelie bin on my driveway as a radical protest against consumerism. M D Usher prompts the right question for applying the insights of the cynics to our own lives: “What will you and I say no to? Screen time? Empty relationships? Laziness? Pride? Prejudice? Privilege? Manipulation? Self-centreness? Dishonesty? Ambition? Violence? Indulgence? Waste? Greed? Indeed, cynicism?”