Tuesday, May 6, 2014


Some years back, I came a upon a car in a parking lot.  It was a sleek, sexy black Porsche.  It must have cost at least $100,000.

The Porsche had vanity license plates.  The plates said "CYNIC."

It struck me as rather strange.  The guy who owned the car must have had a perfectly comfortable life.

So why proclaim yourself a cynic?

People incline naturally to cynicism as a retreat.  In adulthood, most people get kicked around around a lot, professionally or personally.  Life isn't easy.

Cynicism is a way protect yourself, even if you have a fancy sports car worth more than most people's homes or 401K accounts.

I suspect the fellow who pasted those plates on his car didn't know much about cynicism in its classic form.

Above is an image of Diogenes of Synope, a member of one of the philosophical schools that grew out of the Platonic movement.  When Diogenes lived, 412-323 BCE, philosophy was a big deal; people felt a great need to understand the meaning of life.

Plato called Diogenes a "dog," which translates into "cynic" in Greek.  Diogenes was by no means the leader of his school, but he was the most prominent and the name stuck to him and his fellows.

In fact, Diogenes intentionally lived a severe and ascetic life.  He was very quotable, sort of an ancient Mark Twain with less humor, and so gets a fair amount of attention still.

Most famously, Diogenes was said to walk through Athens in broad daylight with a brightly lit lantern.  
Asked why he did this, Diogenes said, "I am looking for an honest man."

The web is full of Diogenes dialogues.  Here is a famous one.

A young man contemplating marriage asks for advice from Diogenes.

          "Marriage is too soon for a young man,"  says the philosopher.
          "Would you have me wait then until I am old?" asks the young man.
          "Oh, no, marriage is far too late for an old man."
          "What am I to do then?  I love the girl."
          "Love is a luxury no one can afford.  It is for those who have nothing better to do."
          "What should we be doing then?"
          "To seek freedom.  But it is not possible to be free if you have a wife and children."
          "But having a wife and family is so agreeable."
          "Then you see the problem, young man.  Freedom would not be so difficult to attain were 
             prison so sweet."
          "You mean freedom is to be alone?"
          "We come into the world alone and we die alone.  Why, in life, should we be any 
             less alone?
           "To live, then, is terrible."
           "No, not to live, but to live in chains."

The Greek philosophers were struggling against many things:  a religion with a bunch of only-too-human gods who offered mystical stories and oracles but no guidance toward or reward for an honorably lived life; strains of democracy that did not include women or slaves, and rapid achievements in the the sciences that challenged the underpinnings of the whole system.

Even today, we know that life is difficult.  Everyone suffers, some greatly.  Life is not fair, and an afterlife is not certain.

It was easy to be a cynic in 400 BCE.  It always has been easy.

But cynicism, as we understand it now, is a cheap retreat from the challenge of living a life with commitment and meaning.

1 comment:

  1. I agree - cynics such as the one you mentioned - are trying to distance themselves from what they have obviously worked hard to achieve.- such as "see, I really am a regular person" If they have worked hard for something, they should be proud of it, not disdainful - and if they have achieved the prosperity because of birth - and are cynical about it - they don't need to advertise it - no one makes them choose their possessions- I see them as either posers or idiots. Take your pick.