The Cynics were a Socratic sect who had a very radical approach to life and philosophy. The word
The Cynics were not philosophers in the sense that they put their system on papyrus. They were more a living testament to a philosophy of nonconformity. They were believed to be wandering wise guys and sarcastic stand-up comics, poking fun at the hypocrisies of society.
Stoicism, a more formal philosophy, embraced many of the tenets of the wacky Cynics.
Antisthenes was the founding Cynic. He studied with the Sophist Gorgias but eventually embraced Socratic principles. Antisthenes would travel far to listen to the wise Socrates hold court. He was a shabby young man with a shaggy beard and rags for clothes. The always wise and shrewd Socrates, keen to expose pretensions, accused him of reverse narcissism and affectation with this ancient variation of the “grunge” look.
Nevertheless, the Cynics who followed him also affected a dirty demeanor. Antisthenes followed the Socratic precept that Virtue is the key to a happy life and was its own reward. He believed in a divine force that governs the universe, but this force was an amalgam of many gods; his was not a monotheistic religious view. Like many other philosophers, he believed this divine world was inherently unknowable and hence not to be given much thought.
He also practiced what he preached, living a simple and primitive lifestyle, wearing a ratty old cloak, and never shaving. Antisthenes was rebelling against what he felt were the extravagances of his age. Cynics were, in many ways, the hippies of the Hellenistic era.
Diogenes was the most famous of the Cynics. He desperately wanted to be a disciple of Antisthenes, but the latter initially chased him out of his house with a stick. Antisthenes was eventually charmed by Diogenes's dogged desire to study under the master, so he was accepted into the Cynical fold.
Diogenes lived the life of a homeless man, wearing tattered robes, begging for food, sleeping on the street, and occasionally in a pithos, which is a large tub or barrel. As an old man, he was on a sea voyage when he was captured by pirates and sold into slavery. On the auction block, he announced that he was a natural leader, so he should be purchased by someone who wanted a master. A wealthy man in the crowd found this to be hilarious and promptly bought him, freed him, and made Diogenes the tutor of his children. During this period, it is said that he met Alexander the Great, and the eccentric Cynic asked the world conqueror to move because he was blocking the sun. This apparently thoroughly charmed Alexander.
If all these anecdotes seem like tall tales, they very well may be. Poets and playwrights such as Juvenal and Plutarch recounted much these long after the fact. Even the story of Diogenes's death may be apocryphal. Legend has it he lived to the ripe old age of ninety, and the monument of a dog was erected at his gravesite.