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Cynics, Skeptics, Stoics and Epicureans

The Cynics Antisthenes and Diogenes | Greek Skeptics from Pyrrho to Arcesilaus | Stoics, the Precursors to Christianity | Epicurus (Jefferson's Favorite)

The Cynics Antisthenes and Diogenes

The founder of Cynicism is said to be Antisthenes, who was about forty when he watched Athens defeated in the Peloponnesian War. He was a former student of Socrates, and he witnessed the execution of Socrates. Like Plato, Antisthenes was disgusted with the world around him. He stopped hanging out with fellow aristocrats who were his disciples, and he was tired of what he saw as worthless quibbling among philosophers – a view that separated himself from Plato. But like Plato he continued to see himself as one of those who had something worthwhile to say. It was always others who were the babblers.

Antisthenes had been genuinely philosophical. He rejected Plato's way of thinking also regarding abstractions versus specifics. He is reported to have said that "A horse [a specific] I can see, but horsehood [an abstraction] I cannot see."

Giving up philosophical quibbles as he matured, Antisthenes left the company of aristocrats and took on the appearance of a commoner. He left the company of other philosophers to lecture people in market places in a manner he thought they could understand. He told people that virtue demanded withdrawal from involvement with a world that was immoral and corrupt. He sought to promote simple goodness. He has been described as believing luxury and comfort to be despicable and that one must be hardworking and virtuous to be happy.

A few alleged quotes of his are:

The most useful learning is unlearning what is not true.
An investigation into the meaning of words is the beginning of an education.
As iron is eaten by rust, so too are those who envy eaten up by their passion.

Antisthenes became famous, and one of his disciples is thought to have been Diogenes of Sinope (a town on the Black Sea). Diogenes disliked his father's profession: money changing. It is also said that his father minted coins for a living and that when Diogenes took to "defacement of the currency," he was banished from Sinope. He moved to Athens. There are tales about him "dogging Antisthenes' footsteps and becoming his faithful hound," but scholars are not certain the two men ever met. Diogenes, at any rate, rejected chasing after wealth and found virtue in having few or no possessions. He rejected fame and honor, but his demonstrations of asceticism were so novel to his fellow Greeks that it attracted attention, and some Greeks came to think of his behavior as the product of wisdom. His lifestyle was thought of as like that of a homeless dog, and the word "cynic" has its origin in a Greek word associated with dogs.

In his old age, his fame was enough that when a young Alexander the Great visited him, the story goes, Alexander asked Diogenes if there was any favor he wished. Diogenes replied that he wanted only that Alexander stand out of his sunlight.

Diogenes and Alexander the Great died in the same year: 323. And following the death of Alexander, a few philosophers adopted the thinking and style of Antisthenes and Diogenes. They wandered from place to place, and at town squares they discussed social conventions and simple virtues. It was with these Cynics that the word "cosmopolitan" was coined, a word used to signify that they belonged to no state. They advocated salvation from worry and conflict by what some in modern times would call dropping out. They might have been entertaining to listen to, but Cynicism would forever remain a small and barely influential movement. For most people the call to drop out made no sense: they were already barely able to feed and clothe themselves and their families. Only a few could go about without working, living off what was provided by those who labored in the fields or at other occupations.

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