Tom's Reviews > Cynics

Cynics by William Desmond
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's review
Apr 14, 12

bookshelves: history, non-fiction
Read in April, 2012

"Beard-growing alone does not make a philosopher"

A long-winded overview of the book:
This book goes into the history and influence of the Cynic "school" of philosophy. The term has its origins in the Greek word for dog, as the philosophers lived in a fashion, out in the open and shamelessly, that was pejoratively linked with the animal, which Greeks thought was sort of filthy, rather than man's best friend. They generally tried to free themselves from the burdens of human customs and lived instead for the present in nature. Nature they viewed as generally benign, and the world and people were good. Viewing the present as the only thing that men could truly know, it was important to bask in the here and now, rather than dwell on the past or future. Somewhat strangely for a philosophy, they were adamantly against book learning. Yet at the same time they seemed very inventive with literary styles and word play. Witty repartee seemed highly valued by them.

These philosophers were an odd lot, generally living simply, without home or employment, wandering around, stirring up trouble and generally living in the present. They ate simply, and scandalously by eating in public and in temples. Similarly some thought nothing wrong with sex in the public arena, for if animals would do such a thing, it is natural and cannot be bad. Rather than being fixated on patriotism and civic pride, they claimed to be "citizens of the cosmos." They wished to speak freely and rule themselves.

One fascinating way they prepared for this was to toughen themselves by being rid of the conveniences of contemporary society. No shoes, no warm clothes, no fancy hair cuts or shaving (and on occasion, radically shaving half of a head to show the ridiculousness of any style, and no fancy foods (perhaps even shunning cooked food (although how one would eat lentils and peas raw escapes me, and those were highly touted by the Cynics).

They seemed fixated on pointing out the foibles of elitism and conspicuous consumption as foolish wastes of efforts in trying to impress others, when one should be equal and love all of mankind. This philanthropy seemed to be a central tenet, along with self-sufficiency and speaking freely. However, this self-sufficiency often relied on begging, and the free speaking was often viewed as shameless self-promotion. Also, there were charges of hypocrisy.

As for the book, it does a good job of giving the background, although the first chapter is a long and occasionally tedious list of the major players in the school. More interesting were the implications of Cynics interacting with the world, particularly the political world, and how various Cynic views reverberated down to the present day. The contrast between Cynicism and modern cynicism is fairly wide, considering the optimism of the ancient strain and the pessimism of modern cynics. Lastly, this book has annoying references. If you aren't well versed in ancient literature, parathetical references like (Aug, De civ. D.) is not very helpful. All and all, it's an edifying read.
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