Four Great Life Lessons from the Ancient Cynic Philosophy
The teaching of Diogenes and his oft-forgotten school offer a path to contentment.
Diogenes walked along a Greek cobblestone road in the 4th century B.C. His facial hair, staff, and knapsack were among his few worldly belongings.¹ Yet to write him off as a senseless beggar was a huge mistake.
He came across a boy who was standing along a wall, chucking rocks at a crowd of people for no reason. As he approached, he recognized the boy, who was the son of a prostitute. The boy saw Diogenes and called him a foul name, before picking up another rock.
Diogenes gestured to the crowd and said, “Careful, boy. Don’t hit your father.”
Diogenes the Cynic was not your conventional philosopher. He had an edge and an eccentric lifestyle. But he was beyond brilliant and a threat to status quo intellectuals. He is the mascot for the greek school of Cynicism, which is mostly forgotten, and quite different than its modern version.
Studying philosophy is about deciding what is important in life. It’s a mental exercise that improves your reasoning skills and decision making. The benefits can trickle into every aspect of your life. Here are four lessons from Cynicism, translated to modern life.
1. Be careful what you wish for
This past week, the MMA world was rocked by the first KO loss for Conor McGregor. He’d lost before — but not like this. He was fully unconscious on the ground, with his ‘lights out’.
In hindsight, this reckoning was a long time coming. In the years prior, he’d had a string of arrests and alcohol-fueled outbursts. McGregor is healthy and fine, now. He seems to have become a great family man. However, as an athlete? McGregor is not the same fighter.
Conor admits to falling into one of life’s traps. It’s an old and common trope, ‘the star who got too much too soon’. He became very rich in his early 20s. This spilled into a pursuit of superficial things, and all the accompanying vices, which blunted the edge that carved him into a champion.
Ancient Cynicism's central critique is that society shapes a person against their own best interest. Social norms promote the pursuit of fame, fortune, and ego fueling hobbies.
It is against our natural and happiest state.
The application to your own life is to constantly question your inner motivations. Deconstruct the nature of your goals:
- Why do you want them?
- What happens after you achieve them?
- Will your life be better?
Some trophies ruin everything that came before them. Or in more common terms, “Don’t become a victim of your own success.” Become a product of it.
2. Embrace the power of cynic minimalism
The word ‘cynic’ comes from the Greek word for ‘dog-like’.
Cynic philosophers lived in absolute humility, out in the elements, sometimes barefoot. Meanwhile, other philosophers mingled in the highest echelons of society, rubbing shoulders with scions to thrones and heirs to great fortunes.
A Cynic is perfectly happy with this dichotomy. They mold life like a sculptor: creating beauty by removing all that doesn’t belong.
But you don’t have to take the Cynic extreme.
A simple, personal example
As a child, my family moved every year for my dad’s military career.
Every summer, one of my parents came into the room and said, “As always, if you haven’t used it in six months, throw it away.”
Getting rid of stuff made moving easier and forced us to prioritize what belonged in our home.
Many of us look at hoarders on TV and feel disgusted at the conditions they live in, and perhaps we should. We scoff, “How could they live like that?” Yet an ancient Cynic would point the finger back at us, arguing, “Meanwhile you don’t use 75% of the things you own.”
Cynics have a point. Research suggests that clutter creates more negativity in your life. By embracing minimalism, there is less noise, stress, and disorganization. You feel lighter. Fewer things are lost. Important things are visible. Your energy is streamlined.
Minimalism also applies to the people you keep as friends, how you spend your money, the ideas you endorse and live by.
Again, like a sculptor, remove all that doesn’t belong. The happiest people tend to be those who have a clean life and a simple purpose.
3. Humor is the solution to many problems
Alexander the Great never fully understood Diogenes.
It wasn’t that the philosopher's ideas were dumb or incoherent, quite the opposite. It was what Diogenes represented that confused him.
Alexander was of the highest social rank. He had immense wealth and power. He was handsome and women lusted after him. His entire life revolved around maximizing his talents to get things.
Meanwhile, Diogenes was little more than the skin on his body. He was prodigiously talented, capable of achieving much, yet chose nothing. He was the ultimate ‘homeless wiseman’ archetype.
And despite this, Diogenes was as well known as Alexander himself.
Their famous interaction
After Alexander returned to Corinth from a victorious campaign, he held a party at his palace.²
Most people yearned for an invitation. Attending was the highest social honor. It was a chance to congratulate Alexander publicly and be associated with him.
Not only did Diogenes skip, but he also ignored the invitation from Alexander, who was eager to meet him.
Alexander decided to visit Diogenes, who was lounging on his back in a public square. It was bright and around noon the following day.
The sound of a crowd approaching awoke Diogenes.
In front of him, was Alexander and his cohort of friends and guards. He sat up. Alexander saw his confused face and said, “Nice to meet you. May I do anything for you?”
Diogenes replied, “Yes. Move. You are blocking my sun.”
Alexander was amused at Diogenes’ audacity. The leader spent his days surrounded by sycophants. No person in any nearby land would dare speak to him with such candor.
The people around Alexander gasped at the perceived slight but Alexander was not insulted.
He’d caught on to the philosopher's true emotion. It wasn’t contempt. It wasn’t jealousy. It was simply an enviable degree of disinterest in social stature.
He stood over Diogenes, wearing shiny, expensive armor, with his cohort of elites around him.
He laughed and said, “But truly if I were not Alexander, I would be Diogenes.”
Diogenes replied, “And if I were not Diogenes, I should also wish to be Diogenes.”
Humor was a key tool of ancient Cynics. It was warranted in any situation, at any moment of life. It was therapy.
In the arms of humor, we reconcile the most difficult truths. It is the death of the ego. It is the weaponization of laughter against pain. Even today, increased laughter is scientifically correlated to better health and happiness.
4. Lastly, you are living the greatest gift possible
Cynics held the highest disdain for society’s conventions.
Not only did they believe the true path to happiness is simplicity, they believed it was morally right to live a simple life.
The Cynics proposed an all-important idea: the greatest gift of life is life itself. Suffering is self-inflicted in the absence of this fact.
Consider this: more than 107 billion people have ever lived on this planet. Only seven billion are still breathing.
Being alive in the universe is a stunningly rare phenomenon. Of all the matter that could be manifested, you are organic and sentient.
You can feel, think, experience, love, and hate. These are all blessings. Only when we fall upon ill health do we realize that without it, we have nothing.
Appreciate the awe-inspiring gift of being amongst the living.
Then, and only then, will you become a master Cynic.
 Dobbin, Robin  The Cynic Philosophers: From Diogenes to Julian
 Redmond, Frank  Diogenes of Sinope — Life and Legend