First let me say that this post [along with a lot of good toilet reading I’ve been doing lately] would not be possible without the excellent Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. I read the entry on Cynics this weekend and decided to write a post interspersing some highlights from that page with my own thoughts about the relevance of Cynical ethics today.
Let’s start at the top:
Cynicism originates in the philosophical schools of ancient Greece that claim a Socratic lineage. To call the Cynics a “school” though, immediately raises a difficulty for so unconventional and anti-theoretical a group. Their primary interests are ethical, but they conceive of ethics more as a way of living than as a doctrine in need of explication. As such askēsis—a Greek word meaning a kind of training of the self or practice—is fundamental.
Philosophy as an applied science! Hallelujah! Due to the workings of the human brain, everybody ends up being a hypocrite. This makes ideologies and dogmas not only useless, but dangerous: they are disconnected from the reality of our lives; they encourage us to repress awareness of thoughts, feelings, and behaviors that conflict with doctrine; they incentivize maintaining a public persona at odds with ones genuine character. Cynicism then, unlike most other Western philosophies, encourages the love of wisdom be performed through practice rather than by adherence to doctrine. I think it’s important the Europeans and European Americans can have a non-dogmatic ethic to subscribe to that is, you know, not appropriated from another culture.
More on the ethical views of Cynics:
Foremost for understanding the Cynic conception of ethics is that virtue is a life lived in accord with nature. Nature offers the clearest indication of how to live the good life, which is characterized by reason, self-sufficiency, and freedom. Social conventions, however, can hinder the good life by compromising freedom and setting up a code of conduct that is opposed to nature and reason. Conventions are not inherently bad; however, for the Cynic, conventions are often absurd and worthy of ridicule.
How many of us are already living this philosophy and just don’t know its name? How many have left their 9-5 job – a convention very much worth of ridicule – to run an Etsy shop, teach yoga, go back to school, write a novel, or just work a lower-stress job with more flexible hours? How many more are dreaming of doing so? Have you ever been to a yoga class, relaxation workshop, meditation group, or any contemplative group space where a facilitator didn’t say something about the dis-ease of modern life?
Admittedly I live in a counter-cultural bubble of friends and colleagues that I have pursued relationships with precisely because of their willingness to mock – and sometimes disregard – the usual occupations and expectations of our society. Keeping my epistemic closure in mind, it still seems to me we are all of us living in a ridiculous world at the moment.
Schools are getting shuttered while big sports arenas are being built; the top 1% can crash the world economy with few or no fraudulent financiers going to jail, meanwhile an athlete gets locked up for two years for dogfighting (even to a dog-lover, this is fubar). We can learn something from the ancient Cynics about reacting to our ridiculous world:
The Cynics deride the attention paid to the Olympics, the “big thieves” who run the temples and are seen carrying away the “little thieves” who steal from them,
Hey this is starting to sound pretty relevant, isn’t it? We need this!
the Cynics advocate askēsis, or practice, over theory as the means to free oneself from convention, promote self-sufficiency, and live in accord with nature. Such askēsis leads the Cynic … to speak freely about the silly, and often vicious, way life is lived by his or her contemporaries. The Cynics consistently undermine the most hallowed principles of Athenian culture, but they do so for the sake of replacing them with those in accord with reason, nature, and virtue.
Thankfully Cynics are popping up everywhere, it seems. Sam Harris wants to help you learn how to meditate, minus the woo woo bullshit. Michael Pollan wants to help you learn how to eat real food and avoid edible food-like substances hocked by corporations. Hell (pun intended), even the Pope is encouraging folks to stop being haters and instead be accepting of all those who do good works. Because these practices are good for you and everyone around you.
This is the path forward. Practice instead of doctrine. Human nature over social convention. Virtue valued higher than wealth or success.
So go for a run or walk today, get a good stretch, walk around your house naked, and cook your own food. Breathe deep from your stomach instead of breathing shallow in your chest. Hug a stranger. Hug a coworker! Belch and fart when you need to. Keep it real, be natural, and recognize the virtue in doing so; Cynicism has your back.