Navigating with Cynicism

June 18th 2019

He once begged alms of a statue, and, when asked why he did so, replied, "To get practice in being refused. -Diogenes Laërtius on Diogenes (of Sinope), vi. 49

Did you think you were an optimist? Has that changed? Does the barrage of bad news, even when swearing an oath to not check it, even when putting dozens of news sites into your known hosts file...even after taking digital sabbaticals, even after hiring an executive coach who is checking the news more often than you...all of those best efforts, even after deleting the three worst offenders -- tw/fb/goog -- from your life. Still. You think. Where did the optimism go?

Maybe the answer is: it's gone to the dogs.


But, getting beyond the dogs (if that's even possible), what if it's time to get beyond the duality of pessimism/optimism? What if the duality is causing more harm than good? (Two phrases that are, obviously, up for further debate.)

What if Cynicism in the ancient, Diogenes (circa 404 - 323 BC) quipping sense of the word, has a key in it that we are each after? What if it's right there in front of our faces, like so much snot exiting our nostrils with our morning neti?

Let's explore the possibility that the Cynics taught people of the future something that might have been a gift.

Might have been, but probably isn't.

The planes out of O'Hare are flying so low, for so many hours and so near the roof of this apartment that you'd think a war has begun or is about to begin.

Now, on to the question at hand. What is Cynicism and why on Earth would it be something to talk about in the middle of 2019?

Let's start with basics: the Cynics were concerned with virtue, not pleasure.

Here are some other Diogenes reported behaviors:

  • he defecated in public
  • he masturbated in public

It was Antisthenes before him who was said to have founded Cynicsm. But it was Diogenes who would take it to a whole 'nother level. How? By, well one of the things he's most famous for having allegedly done: walking around in broad daylight holding a lit lantern, looking for an honest man. Some sources say he was looking for, simply, a human.

Cynics believed that the three causes of human misery were desire, ignorance and indulgence. They flouted formalities, pleasantries and things people at the time considered to be social 'norms'. On one occasion Diogenes is reported to have been invited to a very fancy event. Gorgeous people in beautiful outfits, fantastic food, no expenses spared. How he got this invite is unclear. Charity? Diogenes is reported to have entered the party, taken a look around the place, cleared his throat and hawked a huge loogey at the event host.

When asked why he'd done so, he looked around and said that the dirtiest place he could find to spit was the host's face.

Stoicism v Cynicism

You two appear to be sophisticated and glorious bums , so sadly so [sic]. -My father, via email on June 18, 2019

If you've studied Stoicism, you know that cultivating tranquility and being at ease is what it's about. Small practices such as going outside with less clothing on than needed so as to feel uncomfortable -- that's a simple Stoic practice.

Stoicism and Cynicism have this in common -- both encourage communion with nature. As in capital N Nature.

A major difference? Cynicism, according to Diogenes, placed value, above all else, on Parrhēsia -- freedom of speech or frankness.

Cynics, as this piece aims to show, were not going for pretty when engaging with reality. Stoics were a little more detached in their behaviors. They weren't going into places spitting on people's faces because they were more concerned with keeping the peace than causing a scene.

Thing is, the times in which we live seem to place less of an emphasis on keeping the peace and more of an emphasis on readiness for the worst possible outcome to just about anything. If each citizen in the world could afford a decent living situation and had a enough money coming in with which to feed themselves, Stoicism makes sense.

Given the fact that many do not have sufficient money to eat nor to house themselves, one wonders what place the role Cynicism, whether liked or not, will have in the coming years. Could do worse than to read some of the reported retorts Diogenes gave. They're the kind of replies that could unhinge even the mouthiest of presidents. As dogs sometimes do.

Reference: Diogenes of Sinope, Wikiquote

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