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What is Cynicism in Philosophy

In today’s terms, the word cynic means something completely different than it did in ancient times. Today a Cynic can be attributed as someone selfish and motivated purely by vanity. In Ancient Greece, where the term originated, it had a much more humble definition. Cynicism is a philosophical way of life. The philosophy behind Cynicism teaches us to live a life of virtue in agreement with nature.


For a person to follow Cynicism and be seen as a Cynic, they would need to devote their lives to the practice and discipline. They can achieve that by living a life of happiness in such a way that is natural for themselves while rejecting worldly desires of attaining wealth, fame, and power. A Cynic should want to live a pure and simple life that does not need materialistic possessions to achieve happiness. They will attempt to live life to its fullest while only using the least resources. Cynics accept that they are a part of nature and that nature is a part of them.

The Inception of Cynicism

Cynicism is a school of thought that Antisthenes started in 445–365 BC. The word Cynic derives from the Ancient Greek word Kunikos, which means “dog-like” at first, the word Cynic wasn’t referred to as a compliment but rather as a form of slander. Cynic philosophers would embrace the slanderous name and use the likeness of a dog to symbolize their way of life in a positive light. Dogs are seen as happy creatures, content with their surroundings, and selfless, something Cynics can relate to in their ambitious journey to find happiness.


Cynics were known to be stubborn and set in their ways to shamelessly reject conventional manners and societal norms to choose homelessness over luxurious living. A Cynic strives to live in harmony with nature and should want to leave all material possessions that the world has to offer. To many, that means giving up your home to become homeless and finding happiness within yourself. Cynicism was one of the most influential philosophies of the ancient world. It’s a radical idea for living life. Still, as extreme as it was, it left a significant mark in philosophy as it had an important impact on Stoicism and Epicureanism. 

The Philosophers of Cynicism

Surprisingly Cynicism was a popular philosophy; many people clung to the idea of seeking happiness through minimal measures. Cynics found that having possessions, luxuries, and the better things in life only attracted thieves, swindlers, and superficial people. Getting rid of their wealth got rid of the thieves, swindlers, and the superficial; people who grew tired of the fabrication of happiness and wanted to experience a true form of happiness found their way to Cynicism.

The most notable philosophers Are:


Founder of Cynicism

Antisthenes, the father of Cynicism, was a Greek philosopher that lived approximately between 446 – 366 BC. Before devoting his life to Cynicism, Antisthenes studied Socratic ethics and advocated Ascetic lifestyles, which would follow his teachings of Socratic virtue. The Ascetic life is essentially a life where people will abstain from physical pleasures but instead pursue spiritual meaning. The ascetic lifestyle would directly influence Cynicism and its central beliefs. Still, Cynicism would take the philosophy to further lengths of discipline and to find spiritual happiness and fulfillment with nothing but nature.


However, Antisthenes becomes a student of one of the most famous philosophers, Socrates. Socrates and Antisthenes would become close in their mentor and pupil relationship, which resulted in Antisthenes devoting his life to studying philosophy. Aside from Antisthenes being the father of Cynicism and a pupil of Socrates. There is very little known about Antisthenes and his life because of his choice to live in poverty; much of it was not recorded. But what is recorded is the idea of the philosophy and how it was applied to the individual’s life. But, his influence on Cynic philosophy created a following that would suggest living a life of virtue through the humblest of measures.

Diogenes the Cynic

Cynicism first follower

Also known as Diogenes of Sinope, he was a student of Antisthenes; there isn’t much to tell about Diogenes’s early life other than being a controversial figure. Diogenes lived between 412 and 404 BC. Before Diogenes became a Cynic, he either went into exile or escaped the city of Sinope. He was accused of destroying the state’s currency his father entrusted him to keep safe. So, he fled to Athens, where controversy followed. He criticized the Athens government, their culture, and the way of life in Athens. He was disgusted with how society carried itself. Diogenes wanted to establish ethics and values in the city of Athens and thought that the people of Athens weren’t worried about the true nature of evil.


Diogenes said that society is an artificial contrivance set up by humans and does not accord with truth or virtue. Diogenes claimed people live in their make-believe world, which they insist on being authentic. Therefore, we can’t be good citizens because our dreams keep us from caring for others and ourselves. Diogenes was so sickened by society and the faults of their ways he lived in a wine barrel and survived solely from gifts and begging. Still, throughout the day, he was vocal and proclaimed his truth to Athens. Unfortunately, there aren’t many recorded writings of Diogenes that have survived through the years; most of what we know of him are anecdotes passed down.


Onesicritus was a writer and Cynic philosopher who lived from around 360 BC – 290 BC. He was an advanced navigator and sea traveler. Alexander the Great noticed his expertise and set him off on a mission to meet wise men from India. These men were known as gymnosophists, also known as naked philosophers. The naked philosophers were men who rejected clothes, lived an ascetic life, and practiced yoga; however, these men would leave an impression on Onesicritus and saw the peace that resided with these men.


Much later in Onesicritus’s life, he gained much philosophical relevance. He was an established writer for writing the biography of Alexander the Great. And he had discipleship with Diogenes the Cynic, which would propel him to be a follower of the Cynic philosophy. Still, it’s unknown how much he contributed to Cynic Philosophy. He had obtained great status as a writer and gained wealth traveling alongside Alexander the Great. Once he became a Cynic under the guidance of Diogenes, he had to abandon everything to follow the philosophy and find happiness through natural means.

The Beliefs of Cynicism 

The beliefs behind Cynicism are derived from morality, ethics, and virtue. But, it was more than just beliefs that Cynics were focused on; it was living a life devoted to finding true happiness. But, the only way one could do that, according to Cynicism, was by giving up everything to pursue their true purpose in life.

The beliefs of a Cynic: 

  •  Give up all desire to obtain wealth, power, and fame, and get rid of all possessions. 
  • Live a life of virtue in harmony with nature and only utilize bare essentials.
  • Reject all societal norms and opinions, and live a carefree life. 

In theory, the beliefs of a Cynic should equate to being humble, something that people should look upon with admiration even if the philosophy doesn’t appeal to individuals. What Cynicism believed in was only practiced appallingly and fearlessly. Often a Cynic would chastise people for being a regular part of a functioning society, which caused friction between citizens and Cynics.   

The Philosophy of Cynicism

Everything we have going on in life can get hectic and overwhelming. Even if things are good in life, each passing day can weigh us down. Depending on where you are at in life, things like school, our careers, responsibilities, finances, relationships, family, friends, and taking care of our health and well-being. However, those are just the everyday aspects of life.

Life can get worse, and some people right now are experiencing the worst that life has to offer. People experience disease, financial hardships, and, worst of all, death. We have a lot on our plate, but what Cynicism teaches us is not to care anymore, to leave everything behind, and to find peace, prosperity, and freedom in nature. Nature itself can provide everything we need, air, shelter, food, and water. There’s nothing nature can’t support.

Cynics believe the society we are a part of keeps us down and unhappy. The technology and chaos surrounding us hinder us from seeking true happiness. However, throwing everything away and going homeless in the wilderness is an extreme move. Most people who identify with Cynicism today recognize that most people aren’t going to go homeless because of philosophical thought. But, the majority will keep the same energy by utilizing what they need while being critical of society and using the least resources.


Cynicism is an interesting philosophy. They are concerned with the way society is. They are critical of laws, people in power, and the social structure. Cynics are morally and ethically driven to live at a higher standard than others. But, they go about obtaining higher virtue by taking extreme measuring that transcends Cynicism of a higher way of thinking and classes it as a way of life. Cynics are so appalled by society that they don’t want anything to do with it, so they throw everything away to be one with nature.


When Cynicism first started in the 4th century BC, it grew in popularity very quickly. Still, the philosophy would be short-lived, only lasting around the 5th century AD. The reason is that although its school of thought was very progressive, throwing away possessions and becoming homeless was a real issue. However, the philosophy would be remembered and recorded in history as a unique group of philosophers.

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