Cynicism is an attitude to life originating from a philosophical school of ancient Greece, founded or at least inspired by Antisthenes and known primarily for the spectacular words and actions of his most famous disciple, Diogenes of Sinope. This school attempted a reversal of the dominant values ​​of the moment, teaching casualness and humility to the great and powerful of ancient Greece. Radically materialistic and non-conformist, the cynics, led by Diogenes, proposed another practice of philosophy and of life in general, subversive and jubilant. The cynical school advocates virtue and wisdom, qualities that can only be achieved through freedom. This freedom, a necessary step for a virtuous state and not an end in itself, is radical in the face of commonly accepted conventions, with a constant concern to get closer to nature. Cynicism profoundly influenced the development of Stoicism by Zeno of Kition and his successors from 301 BC.


The term “cynicism” comes from the ancient Greek κύων / kuôn, which means “dog”, in reference to the attitude of Antisthenes, the inspiration of cynicism, then to that of Diogenes of Sinope, generally considered the first true cynic; Diogenes of Sinope wanted to be buried “like a dog”. According to other sources, the latter “made his speeches in a gymnasium called Cynosarge, very close to the gates of the city”. The cynical movement, inscribed in ancient society, presents itself above all as a model of protest. The cynics did not hesitate to eat, as the beggars did, the offerings deposited out of piety at the crossroads, like those of Hecate. The hero and model of the cynical philosophers is Heracles, because he is a hero not allowing himself to be influenced by anyone, free and without any particular attachment. Cynicism thus uses many images and models, with the aim of reaching all classes of the population, without focusing on the intellectual elites.

Jean-Léon Gérôme, Diogene (Diogenes Sitting in His Tub (1860) by Jean-Léon Gérôme)

Plato defined Diogenes of Sinope as a Socrates gone mad, whose goal is to subvert all conformism, all moral models. His philosophy translates into deliberately provocative acts, transgressing the foundations of culture to the point of urinating and barking like a dog; he did not hesitate to beg, respecting no accepted opinion and provoking even the powerful. This philosophical school, little appreciated by the scholastic, academic and modern tradition, is best known, through Diogenes Laertius, for the instructive anecdotes describing, in particular, the way of philosophizing of Diogenes of Sinope. Plato having defined man as a bipedal animal without feathers, and the audience having approved, Diogenes declared to the audience while holding a plucked rooster on the end of a leash: “This is the man according to Plato. Following this incident, Plato is said to have added to his definition that the man had “flat fingernails”.

Far from encumbering themselves with abstract and pedantic theoretical discourse, Diogenes and his disciples practiced a “concrete” philosophy, particularly irreconcilable with Platonic idealism, useless and far too far from the “material” truth of the world to be taken seriously. The cynical school was alive throughout antiquity, from Greece to Rome. She considerably influenced Stoic morality, which developed after her the notions of life according to nature, the independence of the sage and cosmopolitanism. Zeno of Kition, founder of Stoicism was a disciple of the cynical Crates of Thebes.

Main themes


Central to Cynic philosophy is the idea of ​​self-sufficiency. The wise is the one who is able to be satisfied with the minimum, so as not to suffer from any lack and to be able to easily face the most difficult situations.

The wise cynical therefore chooses to live in abstinence, frugality. He does not seek any wealth, honor, fame or privilege. He has no home, he is content with the simplest foods and refuses everything that does not seem necessary to him.

It is thus adorned with a simple shoulder bag and a single coat for winter and summer. He sleeps in temples. He begs his pittance.

The shortest way to virtue

Faced with philosophical schools providing a long and technical apprenticeship, cynicism presents itself as “the shortest way to virtue”. For the cynics, the mere fact of surviving in destitution is enough to become wise. There is no additional technical knowledge required.

“A man once brought his child to her, and presented him as very intelligent and of excellent morals. “So he doesn’t need me,” Antisthenes replied.

The philosophers of the cynical school will always refuse grand speeches, preferring sibylline and ironic maxims, everyday efficiency, proof by fact and not by words. In other words, the ethical truth, demonstrated by experience and not the theoretical truths resulting from complex systems.

The cynical philosophy aims at a “wisdom”, an ethic of life. According to Antisthenes, no speech has value, no study or knowledge. However, he maintains, following Socrates, that virtue can be taught. Only wisdom and virtue count, the dual purpose of cynical philosophy. Once this virtue is achieved, the philosopher can consider himself “free”, living in atuphia, “absence of vanity” and ataraxia.

Nature, universality and cosmopolitanism

The way of life for the cynic is that of the dog. The dog bites, and urinates on anyone. Society is seen as corrupting and changing, while nature is virtuous and universal. Diogenes thus claims to be a cosmopolitan, that is to say a citizen of the world. His concern is to live according to universal rules of virtue.

The weapons of the cynic are transgression, irony and the everyday more generally. By transgressing all prohibitions, the cynic claims to demonstrate that none of the social rules is essential and that only natural, universal ethics count: virtue.

Contemporary meaning

In the contemporary sense, cynicism is an attitude or state of mind characterized by low confidence in the motives or apparent justifications of others, or a lack of faith or hope in humanity. It is sometimes seen as a form of tired lassitude, but also as a mode of criticism or pessimistic-realistic skepticism. As such, cynicism is sometimes confused with a sarcastic attitude or thought.

Includes texts translated and adapted from Wikipedia

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