The Cynics were a small but influential school of ancient philosophers. Their name is thought to be derived either from the building in Athens called Cynosarges, the earliest home of the school, or from the Greek word for a dog (kuon), in contemptuous allusion to the uncouth and aggressive manners adopted by the members of the school. Whichever of these explanations is correct, it is noticeable that the Cynics agreed in taking a dog as their common badge or symbol, as early as the tombstone of Diogenes of Sinope. From a popular conception of the intellectual characteristics of the school comes the modern sense of "cynic," implying a sneering disposition to disbelieve in the goodness of human motives and a contemptuous feeling of superiority.
The importance of the school's principles lies not only in their intrinsic value as an ethical system, but also in the fact that they form the link between Socrates and the Stoics, between the essentially Greek philosophy of the 4th century BC and a system of thought which has exercised a profound and far-reaching influence on medieval and modern ethics. From the time of Socrates in unbroken succession up to the reign of Hadrian, the school was represented by men of strong individuality. The leading earlier Cynics were Antisthenes, Diogenes of Sinope, Crates of Thebes, and Zeno; in the later Roman period, the chief names are Demetrius (the friend of Seneca), Oenomaus and Demonax. All these men adhered steadfastly to the principles laid down by Antisthenes.
Antisthenes was a pupil of Socrates, from whom he imbibed the fundamental ethical precept that virtue, not pleasure, is the end of existence. He was, therefore, in the forefront of that intellectual revolution in the course of which speculation ceased to move in the realms of the physical and focused itself upon human reason in its application to the practical conduct of life. "Virtue," says Socrates, "is knowledge": in the ultimate harmony of morality with reason is to be found the only true existence of man. Antisthenes adopted this principle in its most literal sense, and proceeded to explain "knowledge" in the narrowest terms of practical action and decision, excluding from the conception everything except the problem of individual will realizing itself in the sphere of ordinary existence. Just as in logic the inevitable result was the purest nominalism, so in ethics he was driven to individualism, to the denial of social and national relations, and to the exclusion of scientific study and of almost all that the Greeks understood by education. This individualism he and his followers carried to its logical conclusion. The ordinary pleasures of life were for them not merely negligible but positively harmful inasmuch as they interrupted the operation of the will. Wealth, popularity and power tend to dethrone the authority of reason and to pervert the soul from the natural to the artificial. Man exists for and in himself alone; his highest end is self-knowledge and self-realization in conformity with the dictates of his reason, apart altogether from the state and society. For this end, disrepute and poverty are advantageous, in so far as they drive back the man upon himself, increasing his self-control and purifying his intellect from the dross of the external. The good man (i.e. the wise man) wants nothing: like the gods, he is self-sufficing; "let men gain wisdom--or buy a rope"; he is a citizen of the world, not of a particular country.
It is not surprising that the pioneers of such a system were criticized and ridiculed by their fellows, and this by no means unjustly. We learn that Diogenes and Crates sought to force their principles upon their fellows in an obtrusive, tactless manner. The very essence of their philosophy was the negation of the graces of social courtesy; it was impossible to "return to nature" in the midst of a society clothed in the accumulated artificiality of evolved convention without shocking the ingrained sensibilities of its members. Nor is it unjust to infer that the sense of opposition provoked some of the Cynics to an overweening display of superiority. At the same time, it is absurd to regard the eccentricities of a few as the characteristics of the school, let alone as a condemnation of the views which they held.
In logic Antisthenes was troubled by the problem of the One and the Many. A nominalist to the core, he held that definition and predication are either false or tautological. Ideas do not exist save for the consciousness which thinks them. "A horse," said Antisthenes, "I can see, but horsehood I cannot see." Definition is merely a circuitous method of stating an identity:
Disregarding all the accidental excrescences of the doctrine, Cynicism must be regarded as a most valuable development and as a real asset in the sum of ethical speculation. With all its defective psychology, its barren logic, its immature technique, it emphasized two great and necessary truths, firstly, the absolute responsibility of the individual as the moral unit, and, secondly, the autocracy of the will. These two principles are sufficient ground for our gratitude to these "athletes of righteousness" (as Epictetus calls them). Furthermore they are profoundly important as the precursors of Stoicism. The closeness of the connection is illustrated by Juvenal's epigram that a Cynic differed from a Stoic only by his cloak. Zeno was a pupil of Crates, from whom he learned the moral worth of self-control and indifference to sensual indulgence.
Finally it is necessary to point out two flaws in the Cynic philosophy. In the first place, the content of the word "knowledge" is never properly developed. "Virtue is knowledge"; knowledge of what? and how is that knowledge related to the will? These questions were never properly answered by them. Secondly they fell into the natural error of emphasizing the purely animal side of the "nature" that was their ethical criterion. Avoiding the artificial restraints of civilization, they were prone to fall back into animalism pure and simple. Many of them upheld the principle of community of wives (see Diogenes Laërtius vi. II); some of them are said to have outraged the dictates of public decency. It was left to the Stoics to separate the wheat from the chaff, and to assign to the words "knowledge" and "nature" a saner and more comprehensive meaning.
This entry has been very lightly edited from the 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica.