Early Cynics and Stoics

If I have found much to admire in the late Stoic writings of Epictetus or Seneca, I have been less impressed with their intellectual forefathers. It may seem strange that a philosophical sect considered synonymous with sobriety and virtue began with the eccentric tenets of Diogenes, Zeno and Chrysippus. My examples are all taken from the highly readable accounts left to us by Diogenes Laertius (Lives of the Eminent Philosophers) in the third century A.D.

The most famous, or infamous, of these men is Diogenes of Sinope (404-323 B.C.) founder of the Cynic school. His name became a byword of austerity and self-denial. There is a famous story about him: Diogenes owned nothing but a threadbare cloak, a cup and a bowl and when he saw a child drinking water from his cupped hands, he cast away his mug with the words, “A child has beaten me in plainness of living.” Yet if his asceticism was admirable compared to the luxuriousness and superficiality of his contemporaries, one feels that he missed the point. He seemed motivated more by pride than simple virtue. Diogenes famously remarked “I am a citizen of the world,” as if to refute the parochialism of Greek society. But his disregard for social conventions—which might have been justified in some instances—often lapsed into mere obscenity and exhibitionism. It was a case of reacting to one extreme with another, and hence points up the dangers of intellectual short-cuts. The Cynics and many of the Stoics wanted to toss out all philosophical studies except for ethics. Ironically they didn’t always succeed at that one either.

The founder of Stoicism, Zeno of Citium (333-261 B.C.), was an early disciple of Crates, who had been taught by Diogenes. To his credit Zeno had “too much native modesty to assimilate Cynic shamelessness.” He undoubtedly purified the thought of his predecessors and aimed at many natural virtues, albeit with an unrealistic harshness that denied the necessity of human emotions. Diogenes Laertius describes him as “sour and of a frowning countenance. He was very niggardly too, clinging to meanness unworthy of a Greek.” Like Diogenes the Cynic, Zeno retained a belief in a communistic republic. This father of a school celebrated for its fortitude killed himself as an old man in a fit of despair after breaking his toe on a rock. Finally, Chryssipus (282-206 B.C.), one of the most prolific early Stoic writers, advocated even more outrageous doctrines than his predecessors. Diogenes Laertius says of him that he was arrogant, and that the language of some his books was “gross and indecent” and “more appropriate to street-walkers.”

It’s clear that the best thinkers came from the Socratic school—Socrates himself, followed by Plato and Aristotle. Yet it was the gradual deterioration of their teachings, and an increasingly pompous and ambiguous hair-splitting, that gave rise to the daring if unrealistic tenets of Cynicism and Stoicism.

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