AskDefine | Define cynic

Dictionary Definition



1 someone who is critical of the motives of others [syn: faultfinder]
2 a member of a group of ancient Greek philosophers who advocated the doctrine that virtue is the only good and that the essence of virtue is self-control

User Contributed Dictionary

see Cynic



Derived either from the building in Athens called Kynosarges, the earliest home of the Cynic school, or from the Greek word for a dog (kyon), in contemptuous allusion to the uncouth and aggressive manners adopted by the members of the school.


  • /ˈsɪnɪk/
  • /"sInIk/
  • Rhymes: -ɪnɪk



  1. A person who believes that all people are motivated by selfishness.
  2. A person whose outlook is scornfully negative.


A person who believes that all people are motivated by selfishness
A person whose outlook is scornfully negative
  • Finnish: kyynikko
  • French: cynique
  • German: Zyniker
  • Italian: cinico
Translations to be checked

Related terms

Extensive Definition

The Cynics (, lang-la Cynici) were an influential group of philosophers from the ancient school of Cynicism. Their philosophy was that the purpose of life was to live a life of Virtue in agreement with Nature. This meant rejecting all conventional desires for wealth, power, health, and fame, and by living a life free from all possessions. As reasoning creatures, people could gain happiness by rigorous training and by living in way which was natural for humans. They believed that the world belonged equally to everyone, and that suffering was caused by false judgments of what was valuable and by the worthless customs and conventions which surrounded society. Many of these thoughts were later absorbed into Stoicism.
The first philosopher to outline these themes was Antisthenes, who had been a pupil of Socrates in the late 5th century BCE. He was followed by Diogenes of Sinope, who lived in a tub on the streets of Athens, took Cynicism to its logical extremes, and came to be seen as the archetypal Cynic philosopher. He was followed by Crates of Thebes who gave away a large fortune so he could live a life of Cynic poverty in Athens. Cynicism spread with the rise of Imperial Rome in the 1st century, and Cynics could be found begging and preaching throughout the cities of the Empire. It finally disappeared in the late 5th century, although many of its ascetic ideas were adopted by early Christians.

Origin of the Cynic name

The name Cynic derives from the Greek word κυνικός, kunikos, "dog-like" and that from κύων, kuôn, "dog" (genitive: kunos). One possible explanation for why the Cynics were called dogs is because the first Cynic, Antisthenes, taught in the Cynosarges gymnasium at Athens. The word Cynosarges means the place of the white dog. It seems certain, however, that the word dog was also thrown at the first Cynics as an insult for their shameless rejection of conventional manners, and their decision to live on the streets. Diogenes, in particular, was referred to as the Dog, a distinction he seems to have revelled in, stating that "other dogs bite their enemies, I bite my friends to save them." Later Cynics also sought to turn the word to their advantage, as a later commentator explained: There are four reasons why the Cynics are so named. First because of the indifference of their way of life, for they make a cult of indifference and, like dogs, eat and make love in public, go barefoot, and sleep in tubs and at crossroads. The second reason is that the dog is a shameless animal, and they make a cult of shamelessness, not as being beneath modesty, but as superior to it. The third reason is that the dog is a good guard, and they guard the tenets of their philosophy. The fourth reason is that the dog is a discriminating animal which can distinguish between its friends and enemies. So do they recognize as friends those who are suited to philosophy, and receive them kindly, while those unfitted they drive away, like dogs, by barking at them.


Cynicism is one of the most striking of all the Hellenistic philosophies. It offered people the possibility of happiness and freedom from suffering in an age of uncertainty. Although there was never an official Cynic doctrine, the fundamental principles of Cynicism can be summarised as follows:
  1. The goal of life is happiness which is to live in agreement with Nature.
  2. Happiness depends on being self-sufficient, and a master of mental attitude.
  3. Self-sufficiency is achieved by living a life of Virtue.
  4. The road to Virtue is to free oneself from any influence such as wealth, fame, or power, which have no value in Nature.
  5. Suffering is caused by false judgments of value, which cause negative emotions and a vicious character.
A Cynic, then, has no property and rejects all conventional values of money, fame, power or reputation. A life lived according to nature requires only the bare necessities required for existence, and one can become free by unshackling oneself from any needs which are the result of convention. The Cynics adopted Hercules as their hero, as epitomizing the ideal Cynic.
The Cynical way of life required continuous training, not just in exercising one's judgments and mental impressions, but a physical training as well: [Diogenes] used to say, that there were two kinds of exercise: that, namely, of the mind and that of the body; and that the latter of these created in the mind such quick and agile impressions at the time of its performance, as very much facilitated the practice of virtue; but that one was imperfect without the other, since the health and vigour necessary for the practice of what is good, depend equally on both mind and body.

History of Cynicism


Various philosophers, such as the Pythagoreans, had advocated simple living in the centuries preceding the Cynics. In the early 6th century BCE, Anacharsis, a Scythian sage had combined plain living together with criticisms of Greek customs in a manner which would become standard among the Cynics. Perhaps of importance were tales of Indian philosophers, known to later Greeks as the Gymnosophists, who had adopted a strict asceticism together with a disrespect for established laws and customs. By the 5th century BCE, the Sophists had begun a process of questioning many aspects of Greek society such as religion, law and ethics. However, the most immediate influence for the Cynic school was Socrates. Although he was not an ascetic, he did profess a love of Virtue and an indifference to wealth, together with a disdain for general opinion. These aspects of Socrates' thought, which formed only a minor part of Plato's philosophy, became the central inspiration for another of Socrates' pupils, Antisthenes.


The story of Cynicism traditionally begins with Antisthenes (c. 445-365 BCE), who was an older contemporary of Plato and a pupil of Socrates. At about 25 years his junior, Antisthenes was one of the most important of Socrates' disciples. Although later classical authors had little doubt about labelling him as the founder of Cynicism, his philosophical views seem to be more complex than the later simplicities of pure Cynicism. In the list of works ascribed to Antisthenes by Diogenes Laërtius, writings on Language, Dialogue and Literature far outnumber those on Ethics or Politics, although it is quite possible he wrote many of these works in his youth. It is certainly true that Antisthenes preached a life of poverty: I have enough to eat till my hunger is stayed, to drink till my thirst is sated; to clothe myself as well; and out of doors not [even] Callias there, with all his riches, is more safe than I from shivering; and when I find myself indoors, what warmer shirting do I need than my bare walls?

Diogenes of Sinope

Diogenes of Sinope (c. 412-323 BCE) dominates the story of Cynicism like no other figure. He originally came to Athens, fleeing his home city, after he and his father, who was in charge of the mint at Sinope, got into trouble for falsifying the coinage. There are countless anecdotes about his extravagant asceticism (sleeping in a tub), shameless behaviour (eating raw meat), and his biting satire (on travelling from Sparta to Athens: "I am going from the men's apartments to the women's"), where Crates was treated with respect. Crates' later fame (apart from his unconventional lifestyle) lies in the fact that he became the teacher of Zeno of Citium, the founder of Stoicism. The Cynic strain to be found in early Stoicism (such as Zeno's own radical views on sexual equality spelled out in his Republic) can be ascribed to Crates' influence.

Other Cynics

There were many other Cynics around in the 4th and 3rd centuries BCE, including Onesicritus (who sailed with Alexander the Great to India), and the moral satirists Bion of Borysthenes and Menippus of Gadara. However, with the rise of Stoicism in the 3rd century BCE, Cynicism as a serious philosophical activity underwent a decline, and it is not until we reach the Roman era that there seems to be a Cynic revival.

Cynicism in the Roman World

We hear very little about Cynicism in the second or first centuries BCE; Cicero (c. 50 BCE), who was much interested in Greek philosophy, had little to say about Cynicism, except that "it is to be shunned; for it is opposed to modesty, without which there can be neither right nor honor." However, by the 1st century, Cynicism reappeared with full force. The rise of Imperial Rome, like the Greek loss of independence under Philip and Alexander three centuries earlier, may have led to a sense of powerlessness and frustration among many people which allowed a philosophy which emphasized self-sufficiency and inner-happiness to flourish once again. Cynics could be found throughout the empire, standing on street corners, preaching about Virtue. Lucian complained that "every city is filled with such upstarts, particularly with those who enter the names of Diogenes, Antisthenes, and Crates as their patrons and enlist in the Army of the Dog." The most notable representative of Cynicism in the 1st century was Demetrius, whom Seneca praised as "a man of consummate wisdom, though he himself denied it, constant to the principles which he professed, of an eloquence worthy to deal with the mightiest subjects." Cynicism in Rome was both the butt of the satirist and the ideal of the thinker. In the 2nd century, Lucian, whilst pouring scorn on the Cynic philosopher Peregrinus Proteus, nevertheless praised his own Cynic teacher, Demonax, in a dialogue.
Cynicism came to be seen as an idealised form of Stoicism, a view which led Epictetus to eulogise the ideal Cynic in a lengthy discourse. According to Epictetus, the ideal Cynic "must know that he is sent as a messenger from Zeus to people concerning good and bad things, to show them that they have wandered." Unfortunately for Epictetus, many Cynics of the era did not live up to the ideal: "consider the present Cynics who are dogs that wait at tables, and in no respect imitate the Cynics of old except perchance in breaking wind."
Cynicism seems to have thrived into the 4th century, (unlike Stoicism, which declined as an independent philosophy after the 2nd century). The Emperor Julian (ruled 361-363), like Epictetus, praised the ideal Cynic and complained about the actual practitioners of Cynicism.
The final Cynic we hear about is Sallustius of Emesa in the late 5th century. A student of the Neoplatonic philosopher Isidore of Alexandria, he devoted himself to living a life of Cynic asceticism.

Cynicism and Christianity

Historical Jesus as a Jewish Cynic

Many historians have noted the similarities between the life and teachings of Jesus and those of the Cynics. Some scholars on the quest for the historical Jesus, such as John Dominic Crossan of the Jesus Seminar, who have conducted a study of Jesus using cross-cultural anthropology, Greco-Roman history, and an analysis of the primary sources of the Jesus tradition itself, have come to the controversial conclusion that the historical Jesus was more like a Cynic sage from an Hellenistic Jewish tradition than either a Christ who would die as a substitute for sinners or a Messiah who would lead a revolt against the Roman Empire and establish an independent Jewish state of Israel. Burton Mack has described Jesus as a "rather normal Cynic-type figure." The city of Gadara, only a day's walk from Nazareth, was particularly notable as a center of Cynic philosophy.

Cynic influences on early Christianity

Many of the ascetic practices of Cynicism were undoubtably adopted by early Christians, and Christians often employed the same rhetorical methods as the Cynics. Some Cynics were actually martyred for speaking out against the authorities. One Cynic, Peregrinus Proteus, lived for a time as a Christian before converting to Cynicism, whereas in the 4th century, Maximus of Alexandria, although a Christian, was also called a Cynic because of his ascetic lifestyle. The ascetic orders of Christianity also had direct connection with the Cynics, as can be seen in the wandering mendicant monks of the early church who in outward appearance, and in many of their practices were little different from the Cynics of an earlier age.

Important Cynics

Greek-era Cynics:
Roman era Cynics:



  • Branham, Goulet-Cazé, (editors), The Cynics: The Cynic Movement in Antiquity and Its Legacy. University of California Press. (1996).
  • Dudley, D., A History Of Cynicism from Diogenes to the 6th Century A.D. Cambridge. (1937).
  • Navia, L., Classical Cynicism: A Critical Study. Greenwood Press. (1996).
  • Prince, S., Socrates, Antisthenes, and the Cynics. in A Companion to Socrates, ed. Ahbel-Rappe and Kamtekar. Blackwell Publishing. (2005).
  • Urmson, J., Rée, J., The Concise Encyclopedia of Western Philosophy. Routledge. (2005).

Further reading

  • R. Bracht Branham, Marie-Odile Goulet-Cazé, (editors), (1996), The Cynics: The Cynic Movement in Antiquity and Its Legacy. University of California Press. ISBN 0-520-21645-8
  • Ian Cutler, (2005), Cynicism from Diogenes to Dilbert. McFarland & Co. ISBN 0-786-42093-6
  • William D. Desmond, (2006), The Greek Praise of Poverty: Origins of Ancient Cynicism. University of Notre Dame Press. ISBN 0-268-02582-7
  • F. Gerald Downing, (1992), Cynics and Christian Origins. T. & T. Clark. ISBN 0-567-09613-0
  • Donald R. Dudley, (1937), A History of Cynicism from Diogenes to the 6th Century A.D. Bristol Classical Paperbacks. ISBN 1-853-99548-7 (Available at the Internet Archive)
  • Luis E. Navia, (1996), Classical Cynicism: A Critical Study. Greenwood Press. ISBN 0-313-30015-1

Secondary sources

cynic in Czech: Kynismus
cynic in Danish: Kynisme (filosofi)
cynic in German: Kynismus
cynic in Estonian: Küünikud
cynic in Modern Greek (1453-): Κυνικοί φιλόσοφοι
cynic in Spanish: Escuela cínica
cynic in Esperanto: Cinikismo
cynic in French: Cynisme
cynic in Galician: Cinismo
cynic in Italian: Cinismo
cynic in Hebrew: ציניקנים
cynic in Japanese: キュニコス派
cynic in Korean: 견유파
cynic in Dutch: Cynisme (filosofie)
cynic in Polish: Cynicy
cynic in Portuguese: Cinismo
cynic in Romanian: Cinism
cynic in Russian: киники
cynic in Serbian: Киници
cynic in Serbo-Croatian: Kinička škola
cynic in Finnish: Kyynikot
cynic in Swedish: Kyniska skolan
cynic in Chinese: 犬儒学派

Synonyms, Antonyms and Related Words

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