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Diogenes of Sinope: The Ancient Cynic


In the modern world, cynicism is not uncommon among people. In fact, according to an article by The Atlantic, since 1964, the percentage of those who trust in the U.S. government has dropped to 24%. Cynicism, in its contemporary meaning, is the idea that people are entirely motivated by self-interest, leading to a pessimistic and satirical view of the world. However, that has not always been the case.

The ancient Greeks, who created the old version of the ideology, had a much more optimistic philosophy. It was most likely founded by a man named Antisthenes, a student of Socrates, around 450-200 BCE who believed one should reject conventional or standard means of finding happiness to lead a virtuous life. These differences put the modern and the old meanings in stark contrast to each other.

Ancient cynicism was then popularized by Diogenes of Sinope around 300 BCE who famously (or infamously) practiced the ideology in an unapologetic manner. Rejecting materialism, he lived happily despite having to beg for food and his consistent poverty. He was also very controversial at the time as he shamelessly committed improper acts in public.

Perhaps the most well-known story of Diogenes relates the tale of when he interacted with Alexander the Great. Dismissing Alexander’s reputation as the most successful and powerful military leader of his time, Diogenes said to Alexander, “Move a little to the right; you are blocking my sun.” To which Alexander, most likely awestruck by Diogenes’ attitude towards him, replied, “If I were not Alexander, then I should wish to be Diogenes.”

Thus, Diogenes of Sinope became the most famous ancient cynic of all time and maybe even one of the most popular philosophers of all of history. While many of his actions would still be scorned today, his shamelessness and dedication to his ideology is nonetheless admirable. Diogenes believed in his philosophy to the fullest and let nothing deter him.


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