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DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-A035-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved May 21, 2024, from

Article Summary

Cynicism (originating in the mid-fourth century bc) was arguably the most original and influential branch of the Socratic tradition in antiquity, whether we consider its impact on the formation of Stoicism or its role in the Roman Empire as a popular philosophy and literary tradition. The self-imposed nickname ‘Cynic’, literally ‘doglike’, was originally applied to Antisthenes and to Diogenes of Sinope, considered the founders of Cynicism, and later to their followers, including Crates of Thebes and Menippus. It emphasizes one of the most fundamental and controversial features of Cynic thought and practice – its radical re-examination of the animal nature of the human being. Their decision to ‘play the dog’ revolutionized moral discourse, since humans had traditionally been defined by their place in both a natural (animal → human → god) and a civic hierarchy. By calling such hierarchies into question, Cynicism re-evaluated the place of humankind in nature and the role of civilization in human life.

Cynicism includes an innovative and influential literary tradition of satire, parody and aphorism devoted to ‘defacing the currency’ (that is, the dominant ideologies of the time). It proposes a new morality based on minimizing creaturely needs in pursuit of self-sufficiency (autarkeia), achieved in part by physical training (askēsis), and on maximizing both freedom of speech (parrhēsia) and freedom of action (eleutheria) in open defiance of the most entrenched social taboos; and an anti-politics which sees existing governments as a betrayal of human nature, and traditional culture as an obstacle to happiness. In their place, Cynics advocated an immediate relationship to nature and coined the oxymoron kosmopolitēs or ‘citizen of the cosmos’. However the literary, ethical and political elements of Cynicism are interrelated, all are most easily defined by what they oppose – the inherited beliefs and practices of classical Greek civilization.

The virtual loss of all early Cynic writings means that the history of Cynicism must be reconstructed from much later sources dating from the Roman Empire, the most important of which is Diogenes Laertius (third century ad).

Citing this article:
Branham, R. Bracht. Cynics, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-A035-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2024 Routledge.

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