How Being A Cynic Can Actually Lead To A Fulfilling Life

How Being A Cynic Can Actually Lead To A Fulfilling Life

By: Oliver G. Alvar -

Cynicism remains one of the most misunderstood schools of ancient philosophy, but it has surprisingly wise insights. Here’s how being a cynic can actually lead to a fulfilling life.

Once upon a time, centuries ago, there was a rather peculiar character walking nearly naked through the streets of Athens. His name was Diogenes. And he slept in a large ceramic jar in the city’s marketplace. Diogenes believed that virtue was better shown in action than in theory, and vowed to practice virtue in his daily life, rather than just talk about it. He led a simple life, without a permanent home, without possessions. He ate and slept wherever he chose to and declared himself a citizen of the world, not of any particular nation or city constructed by humankind. He believed in nature above society. He was a Cynic.

In keeping with Diogenes’ teachings, here’s how being a Cynic can actually lead to a fulfilling life.

being a cynic to fulfilling life

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being a cynic to fulfilling life

First, some background

Diogenes is one of the founders of this ancient school of philosophy, known as Cynicism, and arguably remains its most famous representative. He was quite a charismatic character, with many endearing anecdotes under his belt.

It is said that one time, Alexander the Great, thrilled to meet the famous philosopher, came over to Diogenes, who was basking in the sun. Alexander asked if there was any favor whatsoever he, in his capacity as the most powerful man on Earth, might do for him. “Yes,” said Diogenes, “stand out of my sunlight.” Amused, and with a hint of surprise, the great King said, “If I were not Alexander, then I should wish to be Diogenes.” Diogenes looked at him and replied, “If I were not Diogenes, I too should wish to be Diogenes.”

being a cynic to fulfilling lifeAlexander the Great meets Diogenes

In another account of the encounter, Diogenes was supposed to be looking at a pile of bones. When Alexander asked what he was doing, Diogenes replied “I am searching for the bones of your father, but cannot distinguish them from those of a slave.”

You see, that was truly the spirit of Cynicism. To deny the worth of worldly titles and focus on the most fundamental aspects of life. Not these socially constructed notions of kings and rulers, but on the basic facts of nature and simplicity.

Cynicism actually had an interesting worldview filled with wise advice about how to live a good life, focusing on reaching "eudaimonia" (or well-being) and atuphia, or a state of mental clarity. The Cynics thought the purpose of life was to live a life of virtue in accordance with nature. The right tempering of the spirit could lead people to gain happiness, through rigorous training, in order to live natural lives. That is, lives that reject desires of wealth, fame, power, or even sex. The idea was to live a simple life free from all possessions.

being a cynic to fulfilling life

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Here’s the gist of Cynicism

These are the main thesis of a true Cynic: 

1) The only true purpose in life is to reach eudaimonia, meaning well-being or happiness, as well as atuphia, literally meaning free from smoke, and actually referring to a kind of mental lucidity. In other words, a clear state of mind is key to a state of happiness.

2) Eudaimonia can be achieved by living in accordance with nature, or physis, as opposed to nomos, which refers to social norms, laws, customs, vices, and conventions that people take for granted. In order to understand nature, we must use human reason.

3) Typhos, or arrogance, comes from the false judgments, generally promoted by society, about value. We tend to value all kinds of things which nature provides no basis to value, such as gold, wealth, power, etc. This causes negative emotions such as jealousy, unnatural desires, and a vicious disposition towards others.

being a cynic to fulfilling life

4) Human flourishing depends on being self-sufficient, as well as on equanimity, justice, love of humanity (even if not of society), freedom of speech, and an indifference towards life’s randomness.

5) In order to advance towards happiness and flourishing, we must practice asceticism, a lifestyle characterized by giving up sensual or bodily pleasures so that we can focus on the mind. Thus, we must reject the value of ordinary delights. This helps us become free from external influences like wealth, fame, power, and everyday comforts, since they have no value in nature. This forces us to be self-sufficient.

6) Finally, Cynics should also be imprudent when it comes to social standards and expectations, breaking the social nomos apart. We should be disposed to mock social institutions, conventions, laws, and customs, according to the Cynics.

being a cynic to fulfilling life

Cynics thus reject all possessions and focus on the barest necessities of life alone. All needs that are the result of social convention are an unnecessary burden from which the Cynics break free. Also, Cynics were not supposed to become eccentric hermits who live away from society. On the contrary, they were to live right in the middle of society in order to let others see how their conventions were unnecessary to lead a good life.  

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In living memory

Such was the spirit of Cynicism once upon a time. After centuries of criticism and misunderstanding, opponents of this school focused only on the most outrageous claims by the Cynics and omitted the philosophy behind it all. Thus, they gave the impression of being people who were unjustifiably against society and cared for nothing at all, an unfair and rather incomplete picture of what Cynicism was truly about. This is how the term 'cynic' got the bad name we know today.

being a cynic to fulfilling life

But Cynicism was far more than that. And Diogenes was the living proof for this fact. He was captured by pirates, sold into slavery, mocked and rejected, and still he managed to live life to the fullest. He passed his philosphy on to Crates, who then passed it on to Zeno of Citium. Zeno then founded, on this basis, the school of Stoicism, one of the most enduring and famous schools of Greek philosophy whose principles are still revered even to this day.

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