The life and teachings of Socrates proved to be a major turning point in the history of ancient Greek philosophy and Western civilization as a whole. In today's post, we're going to compare Stoicism vs. Cynicism, two schools of thought that emerged in the wake of Socrates' influence.
At first glance, there are many similarities between Stoicism and Cynicism. They both propose that the individual should strive to live in agreement with nature and argue that one can achieve happiness through virtue.
As we dig deeper, though, we see that the conclusions each philosophical school reached about how best to live one's life were quite different indeed.
Let's take a closer look at these two ancient Greek philosophies and compare where they overlap and where they diverge.
Stoicism is a school of Hellenistic philosophy that was founded by Zeno of Citium around 300 BC. Beginning in Athens, Stoicism flourished throughout the Greek and Roman world for hundreds of years. Once Christianity became the state religion, though, it experienced a decline.
There have been a number of revivals of Stoicism over the years. This includes Neostoicism during the Renaissance and modern Stoicism in the present day.
“How long are you going to wait before you demand the best for yourself?”
I've written a lot about Stoicism on this site, so if you want to learn more about the philosophy, you can check out some of these beginner guides:
The short story, though, is that the Stoics believed that virtue is the highest good. Through the application of the four Stoic virtues (wisdom, temperance, justice, and courage) and attempting to live in accordance with nature, we can live the good life.
Many in the modern world have found that the practical application of Stoicism to their lives helps to reduce anxiety, identify and pursue their goals in life, and create a richer life experience. Though it's often discussed as another collection of life hacks, diving into the texts of ancient Stoicism provides a heady, complex, and endlessly thought-provoking perspective on the question of how to best live one's life.
Though most people associate the notion of being 'cynical' as a description of a person that is fundamentally distrustful of human sincerity, our modern definition of the word doesn't describe the worldview of the ancient Cynics.
Originating in the classical period of ancient Greece, Cynicism posits that the purpose of life is to achieve happiness and virtue. Humans are reasoning animals in this philosophy, and one must live in agreement with nature by living free of the constraints of society, living ascetically, and following one's natural sense of reason.
"The noblest people are those despising wealth, learning, pleasure and life; esteeming above them poverty, ignorance, hardship and death."
- Diogenes of Sinope
The Greek word from which the term 'Cynic' originates is kunikos. Meaning "dog-like," there are several different fascinating origin stories of why this school of thought was named as such.
In order to truly understand the ethics of Cynicism, we first must discuss the notion of living life in accordance with nature in order to be virtuous.
This is characterized by the following:
The good life can be hindered by social conventions when they are opposed to nature and reason. This can get in the way of the ability to truly be free.
Though Cynics didn't believe that conventions are inherently bad, they found they were often worthy of ridicule and fundamentally absurd.
"As iron is eaten away by rust, so the envious are consumed by their own passion."
One must free themselves from the conventions that get in the way of an ethical life. Only then can they truly be free. Rather than promoting philosophical theory, they believed one must live in accord with nature, embrace hardship, live self-sufficiently, and free oneself from societal constraints.
As we will discuss later in the article, the notion of living in accordance with Nature is often talked about in reference to Stoicism. The truth is, though, that the Stoics were following in the footsteps of the Cynics.
Diogenes of Sinope rejected convention fervently by displaying that Athenian religious, political, and social norms were often arbitrary and amusing. He would break etiquette by doing things in public that were not associated with good decorum at the time, including drinking, eating, and even masturbating in the marketplace. The idea here is to move beyond the shame resulting from the body's clumsiness and unruliness.
It's worth noting that the Cynics didn't believe people should never feel shame. Instead, nature is used as the standard for such judgment over convention. It was their belief that we could live well through nature rather than through etiquette, religion, and other conventional means.
The Cynics believed that people mistakenly think things like wealth and fame are good. It was their view that people would strive after objects that are actually unimportant and become burdened with shame in relation to petty things.
"It is a royal privilege to do good and be ill spoken of."
Nature, according to the Cynics, is always giving us hints about how we can live best. Distracted by our desires and our shame, though, we go astray.
It really isn't fair to equate Cynicism with other philosophical schools of the time because Cynicism ultimately denotes a way of living.
"The advantages of philosophy? That I am able to hold converse with myself."
There was no physical, set place where Cynics would meet and talk about philosophy. For Crates and Diogenes, the setting for their teaching and training was simply the streets of Athens.
"Those who have virtue always in their mouths, and neglect it in practice, are like a harp, which emits a sound pleasing to others, while itself is insensible of the music."
- Diogenes of Sinope
The Cynics also frequently neglect and even ridicule the realm of speculative philosophy. They saw dogmatic thought as something useless that was worth criticizing harshly.
Freedom is an important concept in Cynicism.
You have no idea what power a knapsack holds, and a quart of lupins, and freedom from care.
- Crates of Thebes (Quotes by Teles of Megara)
However, this isn't just mean in the personal sense. There are three related forms of freedom advocated through Cynicism, which are:
There are some similarities in the Cynical concept of freedom with other ancient schools. For example, multiple Classical and Hellenistic thinkers spoke of the freedom that comes from using reason to rule over one's passions. At the same time, the notion of parrhēsia is specific to the Cynics.
"One original thought is worth a thousand mindless quotings."
- Diogenes of Sinope
There are a number of legendary examples of what it really means to speak frankly and freely. Some of these involve Diogenes of Sinope's exchanges with Alexander the Great, that display a unique combination of fearless adherence to the truth, humor, and political subversion.
For a person to truly live as a Cynic, they were required to undergo various physical hardships. Their life had to consist of askēsis, or constant training. This means both training the self and training the body "for the sake of the soul."
There are a number of examples of Cynic training, including:
The idea here is that it is actually beneficial and liberating to live without the things that are typically construed as necessities.
While the Stoics had a more nuanced perspective on wealth, viewing it as a preferred indifferent, the Cynics denied wealth and, according to a paper from the Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews, "sang the praise of poverty."
"Poverty is a virtue which one can teach oneself."
- Diogenes of Sinope
The founder of Cynicism, Diogenes, is said to have owned practically nothing and lived in a tub.
"Virtue cannot dwell with wealth either in a city or in a house."
- Diogenes of Sinope
Rejecting social norms and believing that humans should lead the simplest possible lives, the Cynical rejection of wealth was related to their disdain for civilization.
"Wealth and poverty do not lie in a man's estate, but in men's souls."
Of course, all philosophies are more complex than their basic bullet point overviews. In the above quote from Antisthenes, we find a perspective on the reality that wealth is ultimately immaterial and is, instead, something that we cultivate within ourselves.
"To all my friends without distinction I am ready to display my opulence: come one, come all; and whosoever likes to take a share is welcome to the wealth that lies within my soul."
Much like the Stoics are often given credit for the idea of living in accordance with Nature as the path to a good life, they also tend to receive the most credit for the notion of cosmopolitanism.
"Not one tower does my country have, not one roof,
But for home and city, the entire earth lies
At my disposition for a dwelling."
- Crate of Thebes (as quoted by Diogenes Laertius)
While the way that Cynical cosmopolitanism is understood is quite complex, it is worth noting that it was Digonese of Sinope himself that said "I am a citizen of the world" when asked where he came from.
Citizenship was of the utmost value in the Classical and Hellenistic periods, and the Cynics ultimately challenged this notion through their cosmopolitanism.
When tracing the lineage of Cynicism, we first begin with the companion of Socrates, Antisthenes. A major participant in the Socratic dialogues of Xenophon, Antisthenes went on to teach Diogenes of Sinope.
A student of Socrates, Antisthenes is thought to have lived between 446 and 366 BC. Adopting and developing the ethical teachings of Socrates, he proposed that individuals should live ascetically in accordance with virtue.
Some writers have given Antisthenes the title of the founder of Cynicism, while others have crowned Diogenes with this accolade.
Even though some call him the founder of the school, it is by no means certain that Antisthenes would even recognize the name "Cynic" had it been spoken to him. As evidence of this, Aristotle referred to the followers of Antisthenes as "the Antistheneans" and made no reference to a Cynical school.
It is known that Antisthenes lived an ascetic lifestyle and a rigorous one at that. Furthermore, he certainly did develop a number of the principles that inspired Diogenes and Cynics down the road.
Born in Sinope either in 412 or 404 BC, Diogenes of Sinope is considered one of the founders of Cynicism. The son of a mintmaster, he either fled from or was banished from Sinope due to currency debasement.
He is then said to have moved to Athens, where he was outwardly critical of contemporary Athenian conventions. The story goes that Diogenes was the "faithful hound" of Antisthenes.
Leading an eventful life indeed, Diogenes was sold into slavery after being captured by pirates. He ended up in Corinth, where he taught what he knew to Crates of Thebes. Crates, in turn, passed this knowledge onto Zeno of Citium.
Unfortunately, there are no surviving writings of Diogenes. We are lucky to at least have some details of his life from a few sources, including the Lives and Opinions of Eminent Philosophers by Diogenes Laertius.
Poverty was a key virtue to Diogenes. He slept in pathos in the marketplace and begged for a living. He saw society as a confused and corrupt place and outwardly criticized the social values and institutions of the day.
The primary student of Diogenes of Sinope, Crates of Thebes, gave away all of his money to live on the Athenian streets in poverty. The teacher of Zeno of Citium, we still have some fragments of his teachings in the present day.
Born in Thebes around 365 BC, Crates giving up his money was no small thing. He was the heir to a large fortune and chose to renounce it to lead the life of a Cynic.
It is said that Crates lived a simple life and maintained a cheerful attitude, with Plutarch stating the following in his biography of Crates:
"But Crates with only his wallet and tattered cloak laughed out his life jocosely, as if he had been always at a festival."
Though he lived on the streets in poverty, he was well-respected and well-liked in Athens. He was even known as "the Door-Opener," because he could walk right into any home and be received with honor by anyone inside:
"He used to enter the houses of his friends, without being invited or otherwise called, in order to reconcile members of a family, even if it was apparent that they were deeply at odds. He would not reprove them harshly, but in a soothing way, in a manner which was non-accusatory towards those whom he was correcting, because he wished to be of service to them as well as to those who were just listening."
Both Stoicism and Cynicism are ancient Greek philosophical schools that are descendants of the thought of Socrates. Beyond that, Stoicism actually directly descended from the philosophy of Cynicism.
The truth is, though, that some issues arise even in calling Cynicism a 'school.' This group of thinkers was ultimately so anti-theoretical and unconventional that to say they were part of a philosophical school isn't quite fair.
The first philosopher that outlined the primary themes of Cynicism was Antisthenes, a student of Socrates. Similarly, Stoicism was founded by Zeno of Citium who was deeply influenced by Socrates.
In fact, the origin story of Stoicism occurs when Zeno's ship sank as he traveled from Phoenicia to Peiraeus. Ending up in Athens after the harrowing journey, he visited a bookstore and encountered the philosophy of Socrates.
The story goes that Zeno was so impressed by the ideas of Socrates that he asked the bookseller where he could meet a man like him. The bookseller pointed to Crates of Thebes, who happened to be walking by at the time. Crates of Thebes, the principal student of Diogenes of Sinobe and the husband of Hipparchia of Maroneia, was a Cynic that gave away his wealth to live on the streets in poverty.
Zeno became a student of Crates, and the rest is history.
Living in accordance with nature is an important concept in both Cynicism and Stoicism. This makes sense when you realize that Crates of Thebes was the teacher of Zeno of Citium, and Zeno was highly influenced by Cynicism in his founding of Stoicism.
At the same time, the way that Cynics and Stoics strove to align themselves with nature wasn't exactly identical. While the Stoics believed that living in accordance with nature meant using the highest aspect of human nature (aka reason) to guide one's actions, the Cynics focused more on the rejection of artificial needs and desires.
One could say that the Cynics had a much simpler view of what is natural. This led them to reject wealth and materialism in favor of a no-frills, ascetic lifestyle. The Stoics, on the other hand, believed that many of the laws and customs created by humans were, in fact, natural, and therefore participating in these structures is a part of living in accordance with nature.
Though cosmopolitanism is an idea present in both Cynicism and Stoicism, the Stoics typically get credit for it. Thinkers in both schools rejected the notion that one's city of origin should define them. Instead, they proposed that each individual should see themselves as citizens of the world.
In a more overarching way, both Stoicism and Cynicism are highly concerned with what it means to live a virtuous and fulfilling life. In both philosophies, the individual is encouraged to cultivate virtues, including courage, wisdom, integrity, and self-control.
While the Cynics might have taken things a bit farther than the Stoics in their radical sense of frank speech, both schools of thought believed it was important to discover and value the truth even when uncomfortable.
"We must not contradict, but instruct him that contradicts us; for a madman is not cured by another running mad also."
Beyond that, though, these two philosophies ultimately approached the notion of truth in different ways.
"It's the truth I'm after, and the truth never harmed anyone. What harms us is to persist in self-deceit and ignorance."- Marcus Aurelius
The Stoics encouraged people to align their judgments with objective reality. The Cynics had more of an emphasis on authenticity and frank speech in the face of societal norms and conventions.
Both Stoicism and Cynicism reject the idea that material wealth and societal accolades are what bring happiness to one's life.
"What good are gilded rooms or precious stones-fitted on the floor, inlaid in the walls, carried from great distances at the greatest expense? These things are pointless and unnecessary-without them isn’t it possible to live healthy? Aren’t they the source of constant trouble? Don’t they cost vast sums of money that, through public and private charity, may have benefited many?"
At the same time, the extent to which these two schools of thought rejected materialism differed quite a bit.
While the Stoics practiced temperance (aka moderation), the Cynics were ascetics. To the Stoics, wealth wasn't inherently good or bad, and one can live well with or without wealth. The Cynics were quite a bit more extreme, believing that one must live a simple life of self-sufficiency in order to truly help oneself and rule over oneself.
In both Cynicism and Stoicism, the idea of obtaining and maintaining inner freedom is important regardless of what is going on around you.
The Stoics, however, focused more on cultivating an attitude of acceptance toward the things that fall outside of their control. The Cynics, on the other hand, sought freedom through self-sufficiency, authenticity, and frankness of speech.
The relationship between Stoicism and Cynicism is ultimately quite complex. Though they both descend from Socrates and Zeno was taught by the Cynic Crates of Thebes, these are by no means identical philosophies.
While both schools believed that we should live in agreement with nature and live virtuously, what this means for actual day-to-day life is quite different for the Cynic and the Stoic.
The Stoics and the Cynics differ quite a bit in their relation to money and wealth. While they both reject the notion that material things will bring us happiness and touch upon a deeper sense of wealth found in the soul, the two schools of thought diverge from there.
“It is not the man who has little, but he who desires more, that is poor.”
- Seneca the Younger
When you dig into the writings of the ancient Stoics, you find that their opinions are ultimately quite varied. Musonius Rufus was more steadfastly against luxury and wealth, while Seneca the Younger said that, so long as no one was harmed in the process, obtaining wealth and money isn't necessarily a bad thing.
In the following Seneca quote, we get a glimpse of his perspective. He argues that wealth isn't inherently bad, but the important thing is that we don't ascribe more worth to it than is warranted.
"It matters little whether the house be built of turf, or of variously coloured imported marble; understand that a man is sheltered just as well by a thatch as by a roof of gold."
The Cynics, on the other hand, rejected material wealth and possessions. Poverty, to the Cynic, is a vehicle for freedom. Through poverty, the individual is freed from the need to pay court to a ruler.
Here are a few more quotes from famous Cynics to help illustrate their perspective on wealth and poverty:
"Do not throw us into strife by preferring fine dishes to lentil soup."
- Crates of Thebes (as quotes by Plutarch)
"Hail, Goddess and Queen, beloved of the wise, frugality, worthy offspring of glorious Temperance, Your virtues are honoured by all who practise righteousness."
- Crate of Thebes
"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?"
One important difference between Stoicism and Cynicism is the way they relate to society.
The Stoics, ultimately, argued that the individual should participate in the larger society. They saw themselves as a part of a larger whole. This is even evident in the way that the philosophy began, with lectures and discussions being held in the public agora rather than in an academy or private estate.
The Cynics, on the other hand, were much more likely to ridicule and reject society. A part of the philosophy has to do with achieving freedom by not being couched within the absurd conventions of one's society. They were much more likely to withdraw completely from the norms of society and were ultimately a very radical school.
Stoicism is obviously much more well-known as a philosophy in the modern day than Cynicism. However, both of these schools of thought emerged from the life and teachings of Socrates, and Zeno was directly influenced by Cynicism in his creation of Stoicism. There is a lot of food for thought to be found in both of these philosophies when it comes to how best to live one's life.
Sometimes, we can learn about a topic best through comparison. If you're interested in learning more about Stoicism in this regard, check out some of my recent posts about how it differs from other philosophical schools and belief systems:
Are you interested in learning more about Stoicism and how it can help you improve your life? Make sure you check out our Stoic Quotes blog.