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 things—the 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 said—namely, 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. 445–365 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 animals—namely, 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 virtues—that 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 cynics—both 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.
L. E. Navia