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Ascetical philosophers who appeared first in Athens in the 4th century, b.c.; their name (ο κυνικοί), derived from the Greek for dog (κύων), was applied to them chiefly for their vulgar and often shameless public behavior. Reliable testimony about the origins of the movement is lacking, and different hypotheses have been proposed regarding the first Cynic and originator of Cynicism. Recent research favors Diogenes of Sinope rather than Antisthenes or Crates.

Antisthenes. While he had listened to Gorgias of Leontini (c. 483375), Antisthenes (c. 445c. 365) was a faithful disciple of socrates and was present at his death (Phaedo 59B). He was a prolific writer in rhetoric and philosophy and had interests in politics as well. There seems to be a considerable difference between the doctrines of Antisthenes and the tenets of the Cynics. The chief sourcesnamely, Xenophon, Aristotle, and Cicerodo not speak of him as a Cynic. Both the historians of the successions of the philosophers and the Stoics traced the lines of descent from Socrates to the Stoics through Antisthenes, conceiving him as the founder of Cynicism. This genealogy seems to be without solid basis.

Diogenes of Sinope. Exiled from his native city of Sinope in Pontus, Diogenes (c. 410c. 320) went to Athens in about 350 b.c., where he was named Diogenes the Dog ( κύων), as Aristotle reports (Rhet. 1411a 24). Unfortunately the Diogenes of history is little known, whereas the Diogenes of legend and anecdote is a familiar character the world over. Both the historians of the successions of philosophers and the Stoics make him a disciple of Antisthenes, though there is scant justification for the relationship. Indeed, if modern chronology is even approximately correct, it would seem impossible. Nevertheless it is most likely that Diogenes was the first Cynic, the one who gave the movement its essential characteristics, namely, asceticism and individual freedom (λευθερία). Though Diogenes Laertius attributes both dialogues and tragedies to him, none have survived. Some scholars believe he wrote nothing. The disciples of Diogenes are traditionally said to have been Onesicratus, Monimus, and Crates.

Crates. A native of Thebes, Crates (fl. 328 b.c.) contributed to the development of Cynicism by introducing the element of concern for mankind (φιλανθρωπία). He is regarded as the link between the Cynics and the Stoics since he was the master of Zeno of Citium, the founder of stoicism. Crates was considered the Cynic par excellence

in antiquity, along with Diogenes. His strange marriage (κυνογαμία) with Hipparchia was discussed widely by ancient writers. Only fragments of his literary works remain, but these are of a fairly high order and brought Cynic literary genres into Greek literature. It is he who first wrote of the Cynic paradise, the Isle of Pera. Besides Crates other early Cynics who contributed to the tradition were Bion of Borysthenes, Menippus, Teles, and perhaps Cercidas, all of whom belong to the 3d century b.c.

Cynic Teachings. There is no systematic Cynic doctrine, for the Cynics purposely avoided speculation and imparted a way of life (κυνικòς βίος) instead. At no time in their long history did they form a school in the strict sense, for their extreme individualism and mobile existence made this impossible. The Cynic life varied with different personalities and from age to age; yet a family resemblance existed in their extremely individualistic and ascetical tendencies. As a rule the Cynics spurned human conventions and artificial institutions; they advocated life according to nature and an overturning of the prevailing structure of civilization. Rejecting political boundaries, they considered themselves citizens of the world with unlimited freedom to criticize political authorities. They strove also to develop complete self-sufficiency, spurning material possessions and training themselves to endure pain and hardship. Though ambitioning complete indifference, they did not deny themselves gross sensual indulgence and on occasion practiced sexual immorality in public. Such conduct notwithstanding, the individual Cynic became convinced that he was a preacher of morality to the common people and characterized his vocation as scout of God (πισκόπος), as teacher (παιδαγωγός), and as doctor of souls (ατρος). The mendicant Cynic preacher was a familiar figure in the ancient world, recognizable by his cloak, wallet, and staff.

Revival in Roman Empire. From about 200 b.c. to the 1st century a.d., Cynicism exerted little influence; Rome, for example, was unconcerned with the movement until it became popularly identified with Stoicism. The Stoics all revered Diogenes, and the Stoic epictetus heaped eloquent praise on the Cynic ideal. Both movements rose in opposition to the luxury and moral decay of the empire. The Stoics appealed to the aristocrats, while the Cynics preached to the massesthough Lucian excoriated the Cynics for their ignorance and vulgarity. While there were charlatans and imposters among them, Dio Chrysostom (b. a.d. 40), the celebrated preacher, was an admirable character who became a friend and adviser to Trajan (a.d. 53117). Other important Cynics were Demonax (c. a.d. 50150), who was revered in Athens, and Oenomaus of Gadara.

Cynics and Christianity. Only fragmentary evidence remains concerning the relations between Cynics and Christians. Peregrinus presents the first clear case of a Christian who embraced Cynicism. He was born at Parium on the Propontis at the end of the 1st century a.d. and joined the Christian community in Palestine. Imprisoned by the Romans, he was then released and lived as a Cynic; he was accepted by Christian society until expelled some years later for a misdeed. In a.d. 167 he sensationally burned himself to death during the Olympic festival. Tatian, the famous author of the Diatesseron born in Syria c. a.d. 120, was a convert and disciple of St. Justin. Later he became a Gnostic and founded the heretical Encratite (Gr. γκρατερία, self-restraint) sect, which was similar to that of the Cynics in mode of life. In the 4th century another Christian, Maximus of Alexandria, who became a trusted friend of gregory of nazianzus, lived as a Cynic. Gregory publicly praised Maximus for both his Christianity and his noble Cynic life. Later he had cause to regret his words, for Maximus was clandestinely consecrated bishop in Constantinople. After unsuccessfully trying to gain support of various groups, Maximus disappeared from history. In addition to St. Gregory, other Christian leaders entertained a high regard of Cynic asceticism, among them St. basil, who admired what he took to be the virtues of Diogenes of Sinope. The Cynic qualities of endurance and indifference, in stark contrast to the luxury and dissipation of the other pagans, were held up as models for Christians. Perhaps the development of Christian asceticism was somewhat influenced by the Cynic ideal, even though the obvious vices of the Cynics were continually being condemned.

See Also: greek philosophy; asceticism

Bibliography: f. c. copleston, History of Philosophy (Westminster, Md. 1946) v. 1., Greece and Rome (1946; 2d ed. 1950). a. h. armstrong, An Introduction to Ancient Philosophy (3d ed. London 1957). j. owens, A History of Ancient Western Philosophy (New York 1959). d. r. dudley, A History of Cynicism from Diogenes to the 6th Century a.d. (London 1937). f. sayre, Diogenes of Sinope: A Study of Greek Cynicism (Baltimore 1938); "Greek Cynicism," Journal of the History of Ideas 6 (1945) 11318.

[l. a. barth]

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The word cynic generally conveys negative ideas in modern languages. It describes someone who is unduly critical and suspicious, apathetic about certain issues and rebellious in response to others, selfish, and indifferent toward traditions and accepted beliefs, and unconcerned with the public welfare. The cynic is often viewed as a person who has severed all ties with his social context. To be cynical in the midst of political issues and events is equivalent to being aloof from such thingsthe cynic does not participate because he has lost his faith in others.

Cynicism, however, has an ancient meaning, the roots of which are traceable to the classical Greeks, specifically to Socrates and his associates in the late fifth century b.c.e. A review of the history of Cynicism reveals that its meaning is significantly different from what modern cynicism has come to mean, and it is not unreasonable to agree with what Bertrand Russell saidnamely, that modern cynics have hardly anything in common with the classical Cynics. As a result of a curious perversion of language, the meaning of modern cynicism appears to have been transformed into the opposite of what it once meant, despite undeniable external similarities between the old and the new cynics.

The word cynic is etymologically related to the Greek word kynikos, which literally means "like a dog." When Aristotle, for instance, refers to Diogenes of Sinope (d. c. 320 b.c.e.), he calls him "the Dog" because that is how Diogenes was known. Likewise, when Lucian speaks of the crowds of Cynics found in every Roman town in the second century c.e., he calls them "the Army of the Dog." The association between the Cynics and dogs seems to have originated not among the Cynics themselves, but among outsiders who discerned in them behavioral traits reminiscent of dog behavior. Beginning with Diogenes, however, the Cynics accepted the uncomplimentary appellation with enthusiasm and were happy to call themselves "the dog philosophers."

The question as to who the first dog philosopher was has been often raised. Some argue that it was Antisthenes (c. 445365 b.c.e.), an associate of Socrates, and others opt for Diogenes, a disciple of Antisthenes, and see Diogenes as the "founder" of Cynicism. It must be borne in mind, however, that Cynicism was not a school of philosophy comparable to Plato's Academy or Zeno's Stoa. Accordingly, it had neither a founder nor an identifiable place of origin nor a set of principles or beliefs. For this reason, the classical Cynics constitute an assortment of different types of individuals (men and women) who exhibited diverse styles of life and held a variety of beliefs. What allows us to distinguish them from other philosophers is a certain attitude toward their cultural and political world, as well as a distinctive way of expressing their rejection of that world.

The history of Cynicism begins in the early fourth century b.c.e. and ends in the fifth century c.e. We can define Cynicism as a practical philosophy that exhibits a permeating and inflexible commitment to saying no to the values, norms, beliefs, practices, traditions, and all other forms of living which, in the light of what the Cynics called clarity of mind, appear to be senseless or misguided. The Cynics persisted in the conviction that most people live as if immersed in a cloud of smoke (typhos ) that prevents them from seeing clearly and does not allow them to use that which distinguishes humans from animalsnamely, the capacity to reason. In abandoning this capacity, people forsake their true nature. Diogenes often said that the human world is an enormous madhouse in which every sort of madness is found everywhere: cruelty, greed, deception, mendacity, brutality, uncontrolled hedonism, and the rest of the all-too-common diseases that afflict humanity and have become endemic in the form of things such as religion, patriotism, tradition, and other manifestations of irrationality. It was against such a condition that the Cynics declared war.

Cynicism can be understood, accordingly, as a philosophy of revolt. Although certain principles can be identified in it, the scarcity of primary sources makes this task difficult. Cynic writings are mostly nonextant, and we suspect that even if they were available they would not be helpful because the Cynics expressed their convictions not so much through writings, but through actions and speech. It is, for example, difficult to understand precisely the sense in which the Cynics understood the concept of reason except by literally looking at what they did. A good idea of Cynicism can be gathered by reviewing the countless anecdotes found in secondary Greek, Latin, and Arabic sources, in which we encounter the Cynics in action and in many of which there is probably some element of historical truth. From such sources we can compile a list of Cynic virtuesthat is, modes of behavior through which the Cynics sought to combat the world: they opposed avarice and greed with poverty, servility and submissiveness with independence and self-sufficiency, patriotism and factionalism with cosmopolitanism, addiction to pleasure with abstinence and asceticism, deceptiveness and fraud with truth-telling, social distinctions and prejudices with egalitarianism, faith in religion and superstition with skepticism and agnosticism, chatter and gossip with silence, prudishness with impudence, and irrationalism and brutality with an undeviating attachment to reason.

Although Cynicism eventually came to an end, it is undeniable that its influence has persisted until our time. After all, the Cynics exemplified a human tendency found among a small number of people of every culture and time to stand in opposition to what is unnatural and irrational. Stoicism, for instance, owed its inception and development to the ideas of the Cynics. Indeed, as long as the world remains the madhouse recognized by Diogenes, there are bound to be cynicsboth in the modern sense of this word and in its ancient sense. In the former, cynicism takes the form of rebelliousness born out of selfishness and irrationality, and in the latter, it assumes a stance of defiance rooted in a desire to return humanity to its true nature, which entails a return to reason.

See also Dialogue and Dialectics: Socratic ; Stoicism .


Bracht, Branham R., and Marie-Odile Goulet-Gazé. The Cynic Movement in Antiquity and Its Legacy. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1966.

Navia, Luis E. Antisthenes of Athens: Setting the World Aright. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 2001.

. Classical Cynicism: A Critical Study. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1996.

. Diogenes of Sinope: The Man in the Tub. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1998.

. The Philosophy of Cynicism: An Annotated Bibliography. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1995.

Sloterdijk, Peter. Critique of Cynical Reason. Translated by Michael Eldred. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1987.

L. E. Navia

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"Cynics," the "dog philosophers" of the Greek and Roman world, so called almost certainly from the nickname of Diogenes of Sinope, were not a continuous school of theoretical philosophy but an erratic succession of individuals who from the fourth century BCE to the sixth century CE preached, through ascetic practice and mordant denunciation of established convention, a more or less similar way of life designed to lead to the happiness of the individual. Consequently there is no established doctrinal canon by which to define an "orthodox" Cynic, and the ancient but still lively debate as to whether Antisthenes or Diogenes was the founder of Cynicism is an unreal one. Nevertheless, despite marked variations of stress and tone in individual exponents, Diogenes was always regarded as the arch-Cynic, and a sufficient number of characteristic attitudes recur to identify the movement.

The nature of the existing evidence of Cynicism is highly unsatisfactory. The written works with which Diogenes was credited have not survived, and doxographies are few and of uncertain origin (for example, Diogenes Laërtius, Bk. 6, 7073). Since Diogenes's life was his main testament, the largest class of evidence is anecdotal, with all the uncertainties and elaborations of an oral tradition. Information of his pupils and of Cynics of the third century BCE is tantalizingly fragmentary. Even the comparatively abundant material on contemporary Cynicism from the first century CE comes from outside the movement, from sympathizers of such diverse interests as Epictetus, Dio Chrysostom, and Julian, or from satirists such as Lucian.


The Cynics believed that happiness was found in "virtuous" action, which was the practical expression of self-realization (arete and "know thyself"). This state was in turn produced by a rational awareness of the distinction between natural and artificial values. External and physical goods such as wealth, reputation, pleasure, conventional duties arising from family, property, or state, and all traditional inhibitions, whether social or religious, were condemned as unnatural tyrannies that fettered a man through desire, indulgence, and the ignorance of a confused and corrupt societythe three causes of human misery. Freedom was secured by "following nature" by means of self-discipline whose end was self-sufficiency (autarkeia ); since man was vulnerable and perverted through his emotions and desires, happiness could be guaranteed only by the understanding and strength of mind to want nothing, lack nothing. And since the artificial currency of human standards was thought to be, not an indifferent factor, but an active corruption to be eradicated, Cynics wished not merely to devalue the coin (like Socrates and the Stoics), but to deface it (paracharattein ); hence, the most characteristic feature of Cynicism was an asceticism that sought to reduce physical wants to a minimum, as in the case of the animals after which Cynics were named, and to achieve spiritual independence like gods.

Independence was not to be achieved, however, by the withdrawal of a hermit; the Cynic engaged in an active crusade that required a continual training (askesis ) to harden the body and temper the spirit in the very face of temptation, and thus to free the natural "perceptions" and capacities for virtuous actions. The toiling, painful effort of this moral struggle (ponos ) was categorized as a good, the steep short cut to virtue, which evoked the only natural pleasure; and the legend of Herakles's life of service spent in successfully overcoming labors was sanctified as an ideal of freedom and self-fulfillment. He and the Cynic, whether slave or oppressed, ruled himself as his own master and, therefore, was the ideal king among men. Essentially individualistic and largely antisocial in advocating independence from any community, Cynicism was the most radical philosophy of spiritual security offered to fill the social and moral vacuum created in the fourth century BCE by the dissolution of the city-state political organism. Yet there was a strong philanthropic impulse in the movement in the sense that the gospel of Herakles, the ideal king, was a spiritual evangel for all men, to be preached by personal example. The Cynic saw himself as "scout and herald of God," dedicating his own labors as a reconnaissance for others to follow; he was the "watchdog of mankind" to bark at illusion, the "surgeon" whose knife sliced the cancer of cant from the minds of others. Cynics deliberately adopted shamelessly shocking extremes of speech and action to jolt the attention and illustrate their attack on convention.

Fearlessness in criticism was a virtue, useful to further Cynic ideals, but it was also open to abuse, as was the license of affected shamelessness. There was always a real danger that the negative, denunciatory side of Cynicism would predominate, the more so since happiness was most often described as freedom from misery, and virtue, practical wisdom, and right reason remained somewhat nebulous terms. The Cynics did not offer arguments to intellectuals, whose theories they despised as useless. Rather, they offered the ideal practical example of autonomy of will through their own actions, bringing by the very vilification of luxury and sensual indulgence and by the justification of poverty, spiritual hope to the poor, disenchanted and oppressed. Thus the more formal types of philosophical instruction were abandoned and three new literary genres fostered: the chreia, or short anecdotal quip with a pungent moral tang; the diatribe, or popular sermon in conversational style; and Menippean satire.

History of the Movement

The most influential of Diogenes's converts was Crates of Thebes. Joined by his wife in a life devoted to Cynic ideals, he earned by his humanity and good works the affectionate name of "Door-Opener." He wrote philosophical tragedies and poetry about a Cynic paradise named the island of Pera. In the third century BCE. Bion of Borysthenes, a wandering preacher, was "the first to tart up philosophy" by popularizing the diatribe; Menippus of Gadara initiated a new type of satire mingling seriocomic themes in prose and verse (his works are lost); Cercidas of Megalopolis applied Cynic ideas to practical politics by proposing reforms attacking social inequalities in the refounding of his city; the fragments of Teles, a dull Megarian schoolmaster, throw some light on Bion and earlier Cynics. After a quieter, although not dormant, period Cynicism revived in the first century CE with some encouragement from Stoicism: Demetrius was prominent in the Stoic-flavored opposition to the emperor in the seventh decade; Dio Chrysostom found solace for his exile in an amalgam of Cynic and Stoic practice; Epictetus, the Stoic, admired Diogenes.

The second century records the apogee of Cynic influence and extravagance. The leading figures differed sharply. The philanthropy and popularity of Demonax of Cyprus contrasted with the brutal scorn of Oenomaus of Gadara. Peregrinus Proteus, a convert from Christianity, was an irrepressible radical with a touch of the mystic; he burned himself to death before huge crowds at the Olympic festival. These were men of ideals; but Lucian and Julian also record with disgust a riffraff of confidence tricksters and professional beggar-preachers masquerading under the Cynic uniform of cloak, knapsack, and stick. The peculiar animal-divine polarity of Cynicism attracted both saints and rogues. In the history of Greek thought Cynicism was most influential on the development of Stoicism, first through Zeno and then much later with Epictetus, who gave noble expression (3.22) to the most uncompromisingly radical ethic that anyone attempted to put into practice in the ancient world.

It is tempting to recognize Cynic traits in other civilizations, as Onesicratus, the admiral and historian of Alexander, did on encountering the gymnosophist Indian fakirs. In medieval times, the mendicant friars are more apposite than anchorites, especially when one considers the complementary virtues of Franciscans and Dominicans (Domini canes ).

See also Antisthenes; Asceticism; Diogenes of Sinope; Epictetus; Lucian of Samosata; Megarians; Socrates; Stoicism; Zeno of Citium.


sources, commentaries, and translations

Giannantoni, G. Socratis et Socraticorum Reliquiae. 4 vols. Naples: Bibliopolis, 1990.

For Crates: Diehl, E. Anthologia Lyrica Graeca I. Leipzig, 1958.

For Teles: Hense, O. Teletis Reliquiae. Freiburg, 1889.

Malherbe, A. J. The Cynic Epistles. Missoula: Scholars Press for the Society of Biblical Literature, 1977.

Müseler, E. Die Kynikerbriefe. 2 vols. Paderborn: F. Schöningh, 1994.

Caizzi, F. D. Antisthenis Fragmenta. Milan, 1966.

Von Fritz, K. Quellenuntersuchungen zur Leben und Philosophie des Diogenes von Sinope. Philologus Suppl. 18, Leipzig, 1926.


Billerbeck, M. Die Kyniker in der modernen Forschung. Amsterdam: B. R. Grüner, 1991.

Caizzi, F. D. "Antistene." Studi Urbinati 1 (1964) 2576.

Downing, F. G. Cynics and Christian Origins. Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1992.

Dudley, D. R. A History of Cynicism from Diogenes to the Sixth Century A.D. London: Methuen, 1937.

Goulet-Cazé, M.-O. "Le cynisme à l'époque impériale." Aufstieg und Niedergang der Römischen Welt 2.36.4. Berlin: W. de Gruyter, 1990.

Goulet-Cazé, M.-O. Sophiês Maiêtores. In Chercheurs de Sagesse: Hommage à Jean Pepin. Collection des Études Augustiniennes, Serie Antiquité 131 (1992) 536.

Goulet-Cazé, M.-O., and R. Goulet, eds. Le cynisme ancien et ses prolongements: Actes du Colloque intérnational du C.N.R.S. Paris: Presses universitaires de France, 1993.

Hahm, D. "Diogenes Laertius VII: On the Stoics." Aufstieg und Niedergang der Römischen Welt 2.36.6. Berlin: W. de Gruyter, 1992.

Mansfeld, J. "Diogenes Laertius on Stoic Philosophy." Elenchos 7 (1986) 296382.

I. G. Kidd (1967)

Bibliography updated by Scott Carson (2005)

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151. Cynicism (See also Pessimism.)

  1. Antisthenes (444371 B. C.) Greek philosopher and founder of Cynic school. [Gk. Hist.: NCE, 121]
  2. Apemantus churlish, sarcastic advisor of Timon. [Br. Lit.: Timon of Athens ]
  3. Backbite, Sir Benjamin sarcastic would-be poet and wit. [Br. Lit.: School for Scandal ]
  4. Bierce, Ambrose (18421914) acerbic journalist for San Francisco Examiner ; nicknamed Bitter Bierce. [Am. Lit.: Hart, 77]
  5. Diogenes (412323 B.C.) frustratedly looked everywhere for an honest man. [Gk. Hist.: Avery, 395]
  6. Ferdinand rogue drifter views all his experiences with profound cynicism. [Fr. Lit.: Journey to the End of the Night in Magill I, 453]
  7. Lescaut assured Geronte sister will succumb to his money. [Ital. Opera: Puccini, Manon Lescaut, Westerman, 346]
  8. Pandarus jaded about good graces of women. [Br. Lit.: Troilus and Cressida ]
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cyn·i·cal / ˈsinikəl/ • adj. 1. believing that people are motivated by self-interest; distrustful of human sincerity or integrity. ∎  doubtful as to whether something will happen or whether it is worthwhile. ∎  contemptuous; mocking. 2. concerned only with one's own interests and typically disregarding accepted or appropriate standards in order to achieve them. DERIVATIVES: cyn·i·cal·ly / -ik(ə)lē/ adv.

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Cynics School of philosophy founded (c.440 bc) by Antisthenes, a pupil of Socrates. Cynics considered virtue to be the only good. Its teachings were developed by Diogenes. See also Stoics