Philosophy 101 – Cynicism Then and Now: Definition and Classical Cynicism vs Modern Cynicism

Nowadays, cynicism is associated with disengagement, apathy, and defeatism. The modern day cynic is seen as the optimist’s opposite. Optimists are generally seen as engaged, happy, and positive people. In many ways, these qualities also describe the Classical Cynic. How is it then that we get from Cynicism to cynicism? As with most explanations, it helps to start from the beginning.

Classical Cynicism: Definition, Examples, and Characteristics

Cynicism is one of the ancient Greek philosophical schools, though calling it a school might conjure an overly structured image. Unlike its contemporaries, the Cynics did not have a set meeting place where their lectures and dialogues took place. Instead, they carried out their lessons along public streets. All of this began in the fourth century Before the Common Era with a philosopher named  Antisthenes. However, more crucial to the school’s image and shaping was a student of his, Diogenes of Sinope. Before getting into his life and beliefs though, we should take a cursory look at the tenets of Cynicism.

The Cynics, as with the other Classical schools, were focused on the nature of virtue and what it took to live virtuously. The answers to these questions are what most distinguish the ancient Greek philosophies from one another. Cynicism saw nature as the best guide to living well. They considered the natural world and its laws to be the eminent teachers in the field of ethics, and from this the Cynics drew their core beliefs. Nature offers freedom, and so to them it was one of if the not the highest virtues a person could aspire to. Critically, the Cynics did not view society as being in opposition to nature, but thought that many of its rules and norms infringed on natural ways of being. Because of this Cynics often felt that those who made and enforced society’s rules were antagonistic forces. Much like the general public in many places today, the Cynics were not fans of politicians. This distrust also extended to those who ran the temples as well as the Olympics.

Another distinguishing characteristic of Cynicism was the low esteem it held for theory. Most of the other Classical schools prioritized theory as a necessary prerequisite for the good life, but the Cynics considered this approach impractical. Cynicism centered around askēsis, or practice. To live freely as nature intended was not something that could be achieved through debate or thinking alone. Only through acting in the world could one attain virtuous happiness.

In practice, Cynical askēsis often took the form of living in poverty. Rather than destitution being the point, Cynics who practiced this ideal argued that they lived free of the binds of working for others. Money and positions of power were not freeing to the Cynic but obligations that actively impeded ethical living. Diogenes took this approach so far that he lived in a clay pot in the Athenian marketplace and mainly subsisted off of begging. Counter to what some might expect, Diogenes did not argue that everyone should live like him, or that his way was the only means of achieving happiness, he was merely a critic who lived his criticism in his day-to-day life.

Due to his shabby appearance, and the fact that he did not make a distinction between private and public spaces in how he comported himself, those who disliked Diogenes and what he taught gave him an epithet, the Dog, or kunikos, which is where the Cynics got their name. Diogenes and his followers adopted what was intended as a smear and turned it into a badge of honor. Due to fundamental disagreements with their detractors over what was worthy of garnering shame, the Cynics put little stock in things like physical appearance. That Diogenes wore ragged clothes was not something to be ashamed of, and to mock him for it only demonstrated to the Cynics that those that critiqued them operated on misplaced priorities. Putting etiquette and social nicety over freedom was to them an ethical failing. 

Here it should be pointed out that freedom to the Cynics was not just the ability to do what one wanted to when they wanted to. Beyond personal liberty, Cynical freedom also encompassed self-sufficiency, and the license to speak one’s mind frankly. Ideally, Cynics were not afraid to say their piece to the powerful, nor did they associate with political elites for favors or court positions as followers of the other schools sometimes did.

Cynicism’s Roots, Trunk, and Branches

The founding Cynic Antisthenes was a friend of Socrates who would occasionally engage him in philosophical debate. Because of this Cynicism’s roots are sometimes traced back to Socrates, not as a founder but as a source of great influence. Just as Antisthenes mentored Diogenes, the philosopher from Sinope also had students of his own. Among them was Crates, who went on to teach Hipparchia of Maronea, history’s first female Cynic, and Zeno of Citium, who went on to found a philosophical school of Stoicism, which was much influenced by Cynicism. The students that came after Diogenes might be thought of as Classical Cynicism’s trunk. They maintained the school’s core traditions as they passed the knowledge of them on to others. Additionally, their lineal authority allowed them to act as arbiters of what Cynicism was even after it had grown beyond the streets of Athens. The metaphorical transition from trunk to branches did not occur on a specific date but overtime as Cynicism moved from a school of thought with arbiters to a general idea in the public sphere.

Modern Cynicism

It is hard to say if there are truly contemporary Cynics. There are, however, modern day cynics. What exactly replaced this once coherent group maintained through a lineage of teachers and students? To put it simply, a hazy assemblage of  certain Classical tenets that have either remained the same or evolved over time and related concepts that have affixed themselves to the philosophy like barnacles. What accounts for these changes?

Generally speaking, words, ideas, and worldviews are not static but dynamic. They are liable to react to variances in the way people use and perceive them. The transmission of subjective ideas across time and space is not a perfect process, and this is especially true when no special interest is involved in overseeing how concepts are passed down from one generation to the next.

Changes to ideas can happen intentionally or unintentionally. When passing along information people sometimes misremember details or overly-summarize them, reducing both their nuance and utility. A copy of a copy of a copy does not always resemble the original. Even if unintentional, changes accrue over time. On the other hand, those who pass along ideas are not always neutral parties. If the person repeating an idea is critical of it they might highlight the negative points and leave out the positive ones. Of course, this biasing effect also can trend in the opposite direction with proponents of certain ideas, who might use spin to make them appear more attractive than they actually are. A combination of these factors and the weakening of the mentor-mentee lineage is how we get from Cynicism to cynicism. But then what is cynicism?

To answer this we could look to how people characterize the philosophy in its contemporary form. Those who opine on modern cynicism range from critics of the philosophy as antisocial disengagement to others who see it as a reasonable reaction to current political realities. Both of these arguments can be true when directed at certain ways of thinking, or certain groups and individuals who might be called cynics, though neither description contains the whole of contemporary cynicism. This is because modern cynicism is not a philosophical school or movement but an umbrella term made up of inherited and evolved tendencies. Modern cynicism cannot be holistically condemned or praised via any analysis, brief or thorough, as it is not one true whole.

Beyond overgeneralization, value judgments about modern cynicism are also refracted through the political lens of the beholder. For example, a cynical person is less likely to trust authorities or those in power (an echo of the Classical school). Whether this tendency is good or bad depends on several things: who is doubting, how doubtful are they, what is this doubt spurring them to do, who or what are they doubting, and of course the beliefs, knowledge, and past experiences of the one judging the situation color the answers to these questions as well. Contemporary cynics include people whose doubt is justified and who use that skepticism to benefit others, and also people whose doubt runs rampant, which can manifest itself as antisocial thinking and behavior or even paranoia. Other types of cynics exist too, though most people this term could be applied to probably do not use it to describe themselves. Rather than a clearly defined movement, cynicism has largely faded into the background of the cultural consciousness, like a current in the ocean or a branch in a tree.  


“Diogenes”. Encyclopedia Britannica, Britannica,, Accessed Dec 3 2020

Piering, Julie. “Cynics”. Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy,,, Accessed Dec 3 2020

Platanakis, Charliaos. “Cynic”. Encyclopedia Britannica, Britannica, Feb 7 2017,, Accessed Dec 3 2020

Stanley, Sharon. “Retreat from Politics: The Cynic in Modern Times”, University of Chicago Press, Polity, vol. 39, no. 3, Jul 2007, pp. 384-407, JSTOR,, Accessed Dec 4 2020

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