Cynicism as per definition is an inclination to believe that people are motivated by self-interest, scepticism. It is an approach that people usually use in a derogatory sense, like politicians often use to defame opposition and celebrities to the media. Yet the ancient meaning of cynic was much different, a cynic had no property and rejects all conventional values of money, fame, power, and reputation. It refers to a life lived close to nature without any means to modern-day advancement. To put it simply in the 21st century, a cynic would be a great asset in solving climate crises.
But do you know how the word cynic first originated?
Diogenes of Sinope is considered a philosopher of Cynicism.
Diogenes was a citizen of Athens who was exiled due to his bank fraud. It was in the 4th century BCE that the city of Sinope was in a mid of scandal caused by a banker’s son, Diogenes. He counterfeited the city coins and used them for personal profit. When the dust was cleared, Diogenes was stripped of his power, wealth, and citizenship. According to the story, he was exiled. Though details about his life are unclear, his ideals lived and are still practiced by many.
His ideals were awakened while in exile, he rejected all the modern advances and connected with nature only to realize that this is the way for him to be truly free. He started living self sufficiently close to nature without worrying about the measures of societal success. He would roam around cities and weathers with just his blanket and a knapsack. His way of living meant eating raw fresh food and appreciating all natural things. Though he didn’t practice his new existence quietly and would mock and tease those who were powerful.
And yet he was an irascible character, he never cared much about people’s opinion. He ate, urinated, and even masturbated in public without any shame. However, for the citizens, his shameful way of life was not acceptable and he was thus called by several names including a Kyon- a barking dog. But this name didn’t bother Diogenes, instead, he was quite happy to be compared with dogs as according to his philosophy they were a good symbol- free from the world of material happiness.
This philosophy of Diogenes soon attracted several followers and they all were known as “dog philosophers” or Kynikoi. This ‘Kynikoi’ designation eventually became the word cynic. These people were drawn to the freedom of a wandering lifestyle deprived of cooked food, lavish homes, and human desires of greed. They live with extreme simplicity, inured to wants, and deprived of shame. Perhaps one of the most famous encounters of Diogenes was with Alexander the Great, he came to Diogenes offering to grant any desire of his. But instead of asking about material wealth, Diogenes simply replied- ‘Stand out of my sunlight.’ And even after the death of Diogenes, his followers continued his philosophy.
For about the next 900 years, his followers called themselves ‘cynics’, until 500 CE. But with the growing advancement of society, these self-proclaimed cynics toned down Diogenes ideals. For example, because it was not socially acceptable to pee or eat anywhere, the cynics started using washrooms, taking baths, and maintaining themselves according to the conventional society. But for non-followers, cynics were considered less charitable. They thought of them as self-promoting hypocrites who only chanted about Diogenes principles which he actually practiced.
And just like that, the word cynic eventually became a derogatory term used to insult others. It started referring to people who criticize others without having anything worthwhile to say. Yet for the people who questioned the society, Diogenes’ principles were of some value. The 18th-century philosopher Jean Rousseau was called the “new Diogenes”. He claimed that modern technology corrupts people and just like him, several others praised the true meaning of being a cynic. By the 19th century, the negative aspect of Cynic philosophy led to its modern-day understanding. And today, the once harbouring philosophy of Diogenes is lost forever yet fragments of his legacy survived.