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Stoicism and Cynicism: Lessons, Similarities and Differences


The relationship between Stoicism and Cynicism, two of the older schools of philosophy, is a complicated one that has evolved over hundreds of years. In fact, Stoicism descends directly from Cynicism and both of which descend from Socrates. As Juvenal would say in his Satires, the Stoics “differ from the Cynics only by a tunic.” And it should go without saying that the definition of both terms have been brutally mangled by the passage of time—Stoicism doesn’t mean “emotionless” just as the Cynics weren’t “snarky and negative.”

The philosophy of Cynicism, as a way of life and thinking was founded by Diogenes of Sinope circa 380 BC, and like Stoicism later on, emphasized the value in living virtuously and in agreeance with nature. Both schools believed human reason is considered capable of determining what the will of nature is, however they came to different conclusions about what is natural.

The Cynics had a much more basic view of what is natural and therefore lived ascetically. Unlike Cynicism, Stoicism sees many human constructs like laws and customs as natural and encourages obeying them as part of living naturally. A Cynic is the opposite, he does not obey anything that he does not consider good or natural.

The spirit of Cynicism is best illustrated by its founder, Diogenes, who is one of the most fascinating characters in all of philosophy. Diogenes lived in a tub and owned nearly nothing. He had no respect for social norms and thought humans should live in the simplest way possible and disdained much of what “civilization” supposedly offers us. He’d say that “humans have complicated every simple gift of the gods.”

If you have ever heard the famous story of a philosopher who had the audacity to tell Alexander the Great to move out of his way because he was blocking his sun? Yes, that was Diogenes. And the philosopher who purposefully broke one of his only possessions—a cup—after seeing a child drink water with his hands (“Fool that I am, to have been carrying superfluous baggage all this time!”)? Diogenes again.

He took his beliefs seriously to the point of public indecency. He would eat in the marketplace (nobody was supposed to), spit or urinate on people who were rude to him, masturbate in public, and defecate in inappropriate places. When asked about his public masturbation, he would quip that “If only it were as easy to banish hunger by rubbing my belly.”

It may be surprising that such a person is called a philosopher, but his intention was to raise a point about the need for social norms. Humans are animals and lived for a very long time without most of the social norms we take for granted. Diogenes believed that civilization and all its rules had made life worse and all the artificial pleasures it offered take away from our enjoyment and full experiencing of life.

Diogenes was also the teacher of Crates of Thebes, who in turn was the teacher of Zeno of Citium, the founder of Stoicism. Zeno taught that morality mattered above all else, like the Cynics, but also accepted that some “indifferents” were preferable and okay to pursue. If they were important to self-preservation, and this includes health and reproduction to some extent, Stoicism did not advise against seeking them.

Another Stoic philosopher, Epictetus, believed that Diogenes was a divine messenger. He was influenced by Cynicism to understand just how little people needed and that happiness could exist independently of possessions and social status. Epictetus thought that because the people who have power and money were often unhappy and Cynics were happy with very little, the sources of happiness must not be what people tend to think they are.

Epictetus said this of Diogenes:

“And how is it possible that a man who has nothing, who is naked, houseless, without a hearth, squalid, without a slave, without a city, can pass a life that flows easily? See, God has sent you a man to show you that it is possible.”

As the Stoic scholar Massimo Pigliucci would explain, Epictetus’s description of the Cynic lifestyle is “remarkably close to the sort of things the author tells his students throughout the Discourses, but talking as a Stoic.”

Diogenes also appears in the writings of another prominent Stoic philosopher, Seneca, who would say this about Diogenes as an example of someone with true self-sufficiency and real wealth:

“Diogenes acted in such a way that he could not be robbed of anything, for he freed himself from everything that is fortuitous. It appears to me as if he had said: ‘Concern yourself with your own business, Oh Fate, for there is nothing in Diogenes that belongs to you anymore.’”

Similarly, he’d point out the reaction of Diogenes upon learning that his slave had run away:

“But the only slave Diogenes had ran away from him once, and, when he was pointed out to him, he did not think it worthwhile to fetch him back. “It would be a shame,” he said, “if Diogenes is not able to live without Manes, when Manes is able to live without Diogenes.” But he seems to me to have cried: “Fortune, mind your own business; Diogenes has now nothing of yours. My slave has run away – nay, it is I that have got away free!”

But what is important to note is that the Stoics value society highly and believe that to be virtuous one must participate in public life.

After all, Stoicism is a practical philosophy, one made for everyday use. The rules for interactions between father and son, man and wife, strangers in public, etc. are important to follow. The Stoics believe humans are meant to live in societies and meant to treat each other with respect. A Stoic wouldn’t break the law or make a scene to prove a point, the way Cynics often did. To do so would be unvirtuous for a Stoic, partly because one can claim very reasonably that nature intended for men to be civilized (because we usually already are).

Stoicism is a philosophy that teaches us to accept what is out of our control, including the behavior of others. While the Cynics may want to break society out of their social norms, Stoicism would counsel us to accept social norms and not take on the impossible task of changing everyone to a different way of life.

Cynics withdrew from politics and the chase for wealth that characterizes many people’s lives. Like the Stoics, Cynics believed that too many desires cause problems, but they took it a step further. Cynics didn’t even see the point of having personal possessions, because we can’t keep them when we die, and they cause us stress when we try to get more of them or prevent ourselves from losing them. This anxiety prevents us from fully enjoying life.

This is how Epictetus explained the Cynic’s role:

“It is his duty then to be able to say with a loud voice… like blind people you are wandering up and down: you are going by another road, and have left the true road: you seek for prosperity and happiness where they are not, and if another shows you where they are, you do not believe him. Why do you seek it without?”

The word ‘without’ in this context means in external things, which is where most people seek happiness, as opposed to how a good Cynic or Stoic gets their happiness from within.

The solution of the Stoics for avoiding anxiety and excessive desire was to train one’s mind to perceive things in a more rational manner. Anxiety can be relieved by accepting that a negative outcome might happen, and that this is out of our control. Marcus Aurelius once said,

“Today I escaped anxiety. Or no, I discarded it, because it was within me, in my own perceptions — not outside.”

Some of the most critical aspects of Stoicism can be summed up by a quote from Epictetus:

“Practice, therefore, to say frankly to every harsh appearance: ‘You are just an appearance, and not at all what you appear to be’. Next, examine it and test it by the measures you have, first and chiefly whether it concerns the things that are within our control or the things that are not within our control. And if it concerns the things that are not within our control, be prepared to say: ‘it is nothing to me’.”

As you can see, the key to Stoic practice is the mind. There is no need to live in poverty to avoid the fear of losing money, because a Stoic can accept losing money, whereas most people would be distraught. Stoicism has the same to say about most good appearances as well, classifying them as “indifferents”. If one can train their mind to not view wealth or status as particularly pleasant, there won’t be the unbalanced striving towards these things. Thus, a skillful Stoic does not need to withdraw from political life or the business world because they will not fall into the traps that most people do, the traps which cause them to be stressed out and unhappy.

There was no overt recommendation to an ascetic lifestyle, but when Zeno claimed that the sole good in life is virtue, following his teachings ruled out the enjoyment of many luxuries, which are often gotten immorally or sought after so enthusiastically that they detract from virtue. However, Zeno was his own philosopher, and did not continue the Cynic tradition of advising that one live in poverty to best agree with nature’s will for us.

Seneca added:

There is this difference between ourselves and the other school: our ideal wise man feels his troubles, but overcomes them; their wise man does not even feel them.

Ultimately, Cynicism was an anti-society philosophy and was not one that everyone—or even a significant fraction of people—could follow if society was to properly function. In Cynic times, there was a problem with people dressing like Cynics and performing indecent acts, using the philosophy to disguise their malicious intentions. This is why Cynicism fell way to Stoicism as it is disruptive to society and not everyone can live the way Cynics do.

Cynicism is a philosophy for outsiders, whereas Stoicism can be used by anyone to live a more rational and virtuous life.

This explains the very different fates of Stoicism and Cynicism. Stoicism went on to be an influential Roman philosophy that was popular until 300 AD and is making a major resurgence in today’s world. Cynicism was replaced by Stoicism for the most part and is now a philosophy that is rarely practiced by people who know of its origins. While occasional rebellion against society can be meaningful and defying social norms can be thought-provoking, liberating, and enjoyable, it falls short of the comprehensive operating system offered by Stoicism.

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