January 03, 2012

Book review: Cynics

Cynics (Ancient Philosophies)Cynics by William Desmond

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is a very good introduction to Capital-C Cynicism the philosophy, which is much different in many ways from cynicism the social behavior, though Cynics did at times act in a way that we might today call specifically cynical.

In the first semester of my college Philosophy 101 course, Cynics (and Skeptics) got short shrift among ancient Greek philosophies, not only compared to Socrates/Plato/Aristotle, but also compared to the Stoics, the Presocratics and to a degree, even the Epicureans.

Which is too bad, and was partially founded on wrong ideas.

First, the Cynics aren't sprung from the font of Socrates; the movement arguably has Presocratic roots, as Desmond shows. And, since Zeno the founder of Stoicism studied from a Cynic before going off on his own, Desmond notes the parallels between the two, and the likely direction of influence, an influence that continued as late as Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius both shows tints of Cynic stances.

Second, Desmond shows that Cynics were acting the way they were in what might be called an activist Westernized version of Zen. At their best, Cynics were encouraging a kind of activist detachment from conventional thoughts and mores, and even from all but the barest of physical needs.

That said, while some of their antics, like Diogenes telling Alexander to get out of his light, sound courages and enlightened, others, like Diogenes' masturbating in public, were as repulsive to his fellow Greeks as they are to readers today. But that was the intent.

Finally, Desmond addresses the "new search for the historical Jesus" types like John Dominic Crossan, who claim Jesus was the Jewish equivalent of a Cynic sage, and finds them largely wanting. It is true that Gadara of Legionary demoniac fame was an old center of Cynic thought, but the parallels between Jesus and a Iamblichus or similar are few and tendentious.

You'll learn all that and much more in this easy-to-read introduction to a sadly neglected and misunderstood school of philosophical thought.

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