Who were the Cynics?

The Cynics were the first anarcho-primitivists in western culture. Like the other philosophies in the Socratic tradition, they accepted Socrates’ insistence that society had lost its way and become deluded by false values like the desire for status and luxury. Like the other philosophies in the Socratic tradition, they believed philosophy could free us from the prison of false beliefs and help us achieve happier and more virtuous lives.

But Cynic therapy and the Cynic way of life was particularly radical. According to the Cynics, civilisation is incurably toxic, so it is no good to quietly declare our inner independence from conventional values, as the Stoic does. We need to abandon civilisation and go and live in the streets, with no possessions, no home, feeding on leftovers and following the existence of a philosophical tramp.

They lived like tramps?

They did. The most famous Cynic was Diogenes of Sinope (pictured on the right in Raphael’s School of Athens), who arrived in Athens in the early fourth century BC, under a cloud of scandal. His father had worked in the central bank of Sinope, and either Diogenes or his father were accused of ‘defacing the currency’ of Sinope, and booted out of the city. Rather than hiding in shame, Diogenes embraced his notoriety. When he arrived in Athens, he set himself up as a radical philosopher, went to live in a barrel in the middle of the Athenian marketplace, and declared it his mission in life to ‘deface the currency’ of civilised conventions.

What does ‘defacing the currency’ mean?

In philosophical terms, it means puncturing the false values of civilisation, and showing them to be morally worthless and psychologically harmful. Diogenes claimed that civilised values make us sick. They make us excessively anxious about what other people think of us. As a result, we put all our energy into tending our public masks or personae, while hiding away any parts of us that might be deemed shameful or ugly, even if they’re perfectly natural. Civilisation demands we scrub and prune out any wilder bits of our nature. But we end up becoming false, inauthentic beings, china dolls rather than whole persons.

Diogenes attacked and defaced this false morality of appearances. He broke down the wall between the public and private selves, and insisted that anything we are happy to do in private we should be happy to do in public as well. Diogenes lived in public, in his barrel. He slept in public, ate in public, defecated in public, even masturbated in public. This was an aggressive assertion of his freedom from civilised conventions and his preference for a life ‘in accordance with nature’ rather than with false civilised values. These animal antics earned him the name Diogenes Kynikos, or Diogenes the Dog-like.

Sounds quite an extreme lifestyle.

Indeed. But Diogenes insisted the Cynic life is both happier – less anxious, less enslaved to externals, more free – and also more virtuous, in that it’s dedicated to the inner values of the Socratic tradition rather than the external goods of status and luxury. And Cynicism was also a form of street theatre: the Cynic acts out their revolution against civilised conventions in the full view of the public. Of course, this drew criticisms that Cynics may have freed themselves from the need for public approval, but not from the need for public attention.

So how popular was the Cynic lifestyle?

Surprisingly popular. Cynicism was never short of followers who decided to opt out of the stress of civilised life by joining the Cynics on the streets. Cynicism also survived as a literary tradition, with Cynic satirists like Menippus and Lucian ‘defacing the currency’ of their civilisation by ridiculing the hypocrisy of its manners in their literature. This Cynic literary tradition continued after the Roman Empire with writers like Rabelais and Jonathan Swift, who wrote a satire called A Tale of the Tub, in homage to Diogenes’ barrel.

Did Cynicism also survive beyond the Roman Empire as a practical way of life?

Yes. Some academics think it was an influence on early Christianity, on St Paul, and even perhaps on Jesus himself. You can see a Cynic influence on later Christian saints like St Francis of Assisi, who abandoned both his possessions and his clothes in the middle of the market-place. In the eighteenth century, Jean-Jacques Rousseau lambasted his civilisation in very Cynic terms, and was labelled ‘a mad dog of Diogenes’ (he also liked to flash at passers-by in Paris, which is quite Cynical). And in the nineteenth century, Henry David Thoreau showed a Cynic streak when he declared his independence from his society and went to live in a shed in Walden forest, proving thereby how little a man needed to work and to own in order to be happy.

A Banksy work hat-tipping Diogenes

Cynicism as a political response to civilisation was then eclipsed for many decades by Marxism-Leninism, which preached the Dictatorship of the Proletariat rather than Cynicism’s anarchistic abandonment of state structures. But the Cynic alternative has slowly come back into the mainstream as Marxism-Leninism lost credibility. You can see the influence of Cynicism in several 1960s alternative movements, such as the Situationists in France, who sought to deface the spectacle of modern capitalism; or the Youth International Party (or Yippies) of the US, who tried to deface the currency of capitalism with pranks like throwing fake dollar bills onto the floor of the New York Stock Exchange. Cynicism as a cultural-political movement has revived strongly in our own day, in the anti-capitalist prankster movements like Reclaim the Streets or the Rebel Clown Army , and in the work of artists like Banksy, who very much ‘defaces the currency’ of consumer culture.

You start the chapter with an interview with Kalle Lasn, founder of Adbusters and one of the brains behind Occupy Wall Street. Tell us a bit about that.

Yes, the chapter starts with Kalle’s story. He left a career in advertising to set up Adbusters, which is an anti-capitalist anarchist collective that is famous for making fake adverts designed to ‘deface the currency’ of capitalism. Kalle and his Adbusters mates recently came up with the idea of protestors occupying Wall Street in tents, the way protestors had occupied Tahrir Square in Cairo. In the book, I go and visit the Occupy London camp, and also visit a Climate Camp set up by the same protestors two years earlier. It seems to me that the Occupy protestors aren’t just protesting: they’re exhibiting an alternate way of life. And it’s a very Cynic way of life: living in tents, sharing possessions, outside any authoritarian structures. It’s really a philosophical and spiritual movement as much as a political one.

Do you think Cynicism is a practical philosophy as a way of life today?

Occupy London

Well, clearly it’s quite an extreme way of life. Living in a tent in the middle of the city like the Occupy protestors did is tremendously demanding physically. The protestors I meet and talk to, in the book, all seemed to be suffering from advanced sleep deprivation. And their dream of running a ‘community free from authoritarianism’ was under strain – various tramps came along to join the camp, and many of them had substance abuse and behavioural problems. As we see in the book, this leads the Occupy London camp to consider creating a sort of police with powers to throw any unruly members out of the camp. I think you need some sort of state structure to protect weaker members of a community, so in that sense, I don’t think Cynicism (or anarchism) is a practical political philosophy.

But Cynicism does teach us some useful things: not to be too deluded by the dream of capitalism, not to make ourselves sick trying to look good to other people. It teaches us that happiness exists, to some extent, in self-sufficiency and self-reliance. I think the Cynic alternative might become more important as our petro-capitalist civilisation gets into more and more trouble, and as climate change becomes more apparent. We’ll increasingly see people simply walk away from the game, downshift, move to simpler alternative lifestyles that are more sustainable.

Are there therapeutic techniques we could take from Cynicism, without embracing the full-on Cynic lifestyle?

Yes. In the lesson, we look at how the Cynics thought civilisation made us sick by making us worry too much what other people think of us. We end up putting all our effort into our image, while desperately hiding any parts of our psyche that might make us look bad or ridiculous. The Cynics tried to free themselves from this crippling self-consciousness by attacking this over-developed sense of shame. They de-sensitised themselves to public ridicule, by habituating themselves to it, so it no longer frightened them. Indeed, it was a badge of pride among them to be laughed at and mocked by the public.

This has influenced a modern therapeutic technique used in CBT to treat social anxiety today, called shame-attacking. The inventor of it was Albert Ellis, the great pioneer of cognitive therapy. If clients of his were overly-anxious about others judging them or laughing at them, he would advise them to intentionally draw ridicule on themselves in public – by singing loudly, or asking directions to the North Pole, or even taking a banana for a walk down Madison Avenue. Naturally people would laugh at them, but they would gradually get used to it, and lose their fear of it. They turn a situation of external ridicule into a situation of internal victory. So that’s one technique we can take from Cynicism (in fact, you can watch videos people have shot of their shame-attacking exercises on YouTube, like this one. )