Cynics, Cynical, Cynicism 


In modern times, these words are used to describe a person who believes that other people do things with their personal interest in mind, rather than for selflessness. The word itself has a peculiar origin. It dates back all the way to Ancient Greece and it involved a man who lived out his days in only a large wine barrel on the streets.



Diogenes of Sinope was a man living in exile. He was born in the 4th century BCE and was the son of a banker. He was caught counterfeiting money and was stripped of all of his possessions. Upon his banishment, he spent time writing down philosophical ideas that would remain until today. after being exiled, Diogenes made up his mind to live put his life self-sufficiently, he would forgo the idea of materialism, vanity, and conformity. He sought to reject the opinions of others as well as renounce society’s standard of success as he believed that it was the only way to truly be free. He wanted to live on his own without the limitations and boundaries set by others. 


Over the years, he had managed to garner few followers, people who agreed with his ideas and wanted to follow in his footsteps, other citizens would come to call him and his group Kynikoi which meant ‘dog philosophers’. Kynikoi became the root of the word we now use, cynic. Diogenes was known to be very persistent in following his ideals, it was said that once, even Alexander the Great had come to test his morals and offered Diogenes anything he wanted. In response, Diogenes simply told him to move out of the way of the sun. This was an example of how strongly he carried out his ideals.



 Even after his death in 232 BCE, people who continued to carry out his philosophies called themselves cynics. His ideas would continue to be practiced even hundreds of years later. Throughout those years, few greeks philosophers thought about preaching his philosophies to more people. They tried toning down his practices so it could be more acceptable to the general public. However, this was not successful as it went against his very principles. On the other hand, there were also people who did not view his ideals in a great light. In the 2nd century CE, people of Roman Syria saw cynics as people who were materialistic and self-absorbed hypocrites who only went about preaching Diogenes’ philosophies instead of putting them to practice. This led to the satirist, Lucian writing about his disdain for cynics in writing. Centuries later in the Renaissance Era, reformation writers would read that very passage and would come to use the word cynic as an insult towards their rivals. The word became synonymous with people who insult others without having anything good to say in return. In the more modern times, the definition of the word would develop to mean its current definition, a person who believes that people act to fulfill their personal interest even if they claim that they were doing it for the good of others. Throughout the years, many different interpretations of Diogenes’ theories were created, it may heavily differ from the practices of the original but all of them seemed to make a statement to challenge the status quo.


Based on the story, we can see that Diogenes had a very strong personality. He branded himself as this free-living philosopher who managed to practice his ideals persistently despite the temptations that came. In today’s age, we can say that he was able to market his ideas using himself as proof. He has his own way of promoting his ideas which could be said to have a lasting impression on society, then and now. Parts of his ideals can still be seen nowadays, being adopted in many different forms and to think all of that came from a man who lived in a wine barrel on the streets.

1: Mental Floss
2: Thought Itself

Source: TedED

Written by: Bianca Isabelle Edward