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Cynics is the name given to a group of classical Greek philosophers that emphasised asceticism and a virtuous life.
Cynics rejected all social conventions and chose to lead what they considered to be a 'natural life'. They also opposed the pursuit of pleasure in every form: fame, wealth, power and health meant nothing to them. The stoics would later adopt a large part of their views. The name 'cynic' was probably derived from Kynosarges, the place in Athens where Anthistenes' school was located.
Anthistenes c. 445-365 BC), who is considered the founder of the 'school' (although it was not a real school), was a pupil of the sophist Gorgias and of Socrates. He explored many philosophical issues and was specialized in logic and eloquence. He modelled himself after his mentor Socrates and made ethics central to his philosophy. In his view, happiness is achieved by virtue, a concept that could be understood by logical analysis. Because of this philosophical belief he was a fierce opponent of hedonism.
Diogenes of Sinope (c. 412-323 BC) is the best known representative of cynicism. Plato called Diogenes, who came to Athens after being exiled from Sinope "Socrates gone mad." He lived in a wine barrel, ate whatever he could find and was seen wandering around in the streets of Athens carrying a lamp "looking for an honest man." His aim seems to have been to expose the abasing of ethical standards he witnessed in Athens. His living like a shameless dog could explain the origin of the word 'cynic', because the Greek word for dog is kuon.
Crates of Thebes
Crates of Thebes (c. 365-c. 285 BC) is the third major figure that dominated cynic thought. He was born into a rich family of Boethian origin, but renounced his wealthy life to become a cynic. Like Diogenes, Crates emphasised a life of self-sufficiency as a means of achieving happiness. He argues that the pursuit of pleasure is always counterbalanced in life by periods of even greater suffering and pain, and that this is not the way to try to be happy.
Cynicism continued to be influential on philosophical thought through the third century BC. After a period of decline it regained popularity in the second century A.D. among Roman philosophers.
Sources and references
- Frederick Copleston, S.J. 'A History of Philosophy', Vol. I: Greece and Rome - from the pre-Socratics to Plotinus
- 'The Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy', ed. by Robert Audi
- Bertrand Russell: 'A History of Western Philosophy And Its Connection with Political and Social Circumstances from the Earliest Times to the Present Day'; Book I: Ancient Philosophy
- Encyclopædia Britannica 15th Edition, Volume 25: 'Western Philosophical Schools and Doctrines'