The Cynics

The Cynics emphasized that true happiness is not found in external advantages such as material luxury,  power, or good health.

The story goes that one day Socrates stood gazing at a stall that sold all kinds of wares. Finally he said, ‘What a lot of things I don’t need!’ This statement could be the motto for the Cynic school of philosophy, founded by the philosopher Antisthenes (c. 445 – c. 365 BC) in Athens around 400 BC.

Antisthenes had been a pupil of Socrates, and had become particularly interested in his frugality.  True happiness lies in not being dependent on such random and fleeting things. And because happiness does not consist in benefits of this kind, it is within everyone’s reach. Moreover, having once been attained, it can never be lost.

The best known of the Cynics was Diogenes, a pupil of Antisthenes, who reputedly lived in a barrel and owned nothing but a cloak, a stick, and a bread bag. He did this so it wasn’t easy to steal his happiness from him!

One day while he was sitting beside his barrel enjoying the sun, he was visited by Alexander the Great. The emperor stood before him and asked if there was anything he could do for him. Was there anything he desired? ‘Yes,’ Diogenes replied. ‘Stand to one side. You’re blocking the sun.’ Thus Diogenes showed that he was no less happy and rich than the great man before him. He had everything he desired.

The Cynics believed that people did not need to be concerned about their own health. Even suffering your own death should not disturb you. Nor should you let yourselves be tormented by concern for other people’s woes. According to the Cynics, the goal of life is Eudaimonia, meaning mental clarity or lucidity. This is achieved by living in accord with nature as understood by human reason.

Nowadays the terms ‘cynical’ and ‘cynicism’ have come to mean a sneering disbelief in human sincerity, and they imply insensitivity to other people’s suffering.

The Cynics may have begun before the rule of Alexander the Great the ensuing Hellenistic period, but it did fuel one question that became central to the philosophy of Hellenism.

How can you be happy.

 

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