Have You Been Influenced by Cynics?

“THE cynic is one who never sees a good quality in a man, and never fails to see a bad one. He is a human owl, vigilant in darkness, and blind to light, mousing for vermin, and never seeing noble game.” This statement has been attributed to the 19th-century American clergyman Henry Ward Beecher. Many may think that it accurately portrays the spirit of a modern-day cynic. But the word “cynic” originated in ancient Greece, where it did not simply denote someone displaying such an attitude. For centuries, it referred to a school of philosophers.

How did the philosophy of the Cynics develop? What did they teach? Would the traits of a Cynic be desirable in a Christian?

Ancient Cynics​—Their Origins and Beliefs

Ancient Greece was a hotbed of discussion and debate. Over the centuries leading up to our Common Era, men such as Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle propounded the philosophies that made them famous. Their teachings had a profound effect on people, and such ideas are still found in Western culture.

Socrates (470-399 B.C.E.) argued that lasting happiness is not to be found in the pursuit of material things or the enjoyment of sensual pleasures. He asserted that true happiness results from a life devoted to the quest for virtue. Socrates considered virtue to be the ultimate good. To attain this goal, he rejected material luxuries and unnecessary endeavors because he felt that these would distract him. He espoused moderation and self-denial, leading a simple, frugal life.

Socrates developed a mode of teaching known as the Socratic method. While most thinkers presented an idea and provided supporting arguments, Socrates did the opposite. He listened to the theories of other philosophers and sought to expose flaws in their ideas. This approach encouraged a critical and contemptuous attitude toward others.

Among the followers of Socrates was a philosopher named Antisthenes (about 445-365 B.C.E.). He and a number of others took the basic teaching of Socrates a step further by saying that virtue was the only good. To them the pursuit of pleasure was not merely a distraction but a form of evil. Becoming extremely antisocial, they displayed great contempt for fellow humans. They became known as Cynics. The name Cynic may have been derived from a Greek word (ky·ni·kosʹ) that described their morose and surly behavior. It means “doglike.” *

 Effect on Their Way of Life

While such elements of Cynic philosophy as opposition to materialism and self-indulgence may in themselves have been viewed as being commendable, the Cynics took their ideas to extremes. This is evident in the life of the best-known Cynic​—the philosopher Diogenes.

Diogenes was born in 412 B.C.E. in Sinope, a city on the Black Sea. With his father he moved to Athens, where he came in contact with the teachings of the Cynics. Diogenes was taught by Antisthenes and became consumed with Cynic philosophy. Socrates led a simple life, and Antisthenes an austere one. Diogenes, though, led an ascetic life. To emphasize his rejection of material comforts, Diogenes reputedly lived for a short time in a tub!

In searching for the ultimate good, Diogenes is said to have walked through Athens in broad daylight with a lighted lamp looking for a virtuous person! Such behavior attracted attention and was a means by which Diogenes and the other Cynics taught. It is said that Alexander the Great once asked Diogenes what he wanted most. Diogenes reportedly said that he simply wanted Alexander to step aside so as not to block the sunshine!

Diogenes and the other Cynics lived as beggars. They had no time for normal human relationships, and they rejected civic duties. Perhaps influenced by the Socratic method of argument, they became very disrespectful of others. Diogenes became known for his biting sarcasm. The Cynics earned the reputation of being “doglike,” but Diogenes himself was nicknamed The Dog. He died about 320 B.C.E. when he was some 90 years of age. A marble monument incorporating the shape of a dog was erected over his tomb.

Some aspects of the Cynic philosophy were absorbed into other schools of thought. In time, however, the eccentricities associated with Diogenes and later followers brought the Cynic school into disrepute. Eventually, it disappeared altogether.

Today’s Cynics​—Should You Display Their Traits?

The Oxford English Dictionary describes a present-day cynic as “a person disposed to rail or find fault. . . . One who shows a disposition to disbelieve in the sincerity or goodness of human motives and actions, and is wont to express this by sneers and sarcasms; a sneering fault-finder.” These traits are manifested in the world around us, but, of course, they are not compatible with the Christian personality. Consider the following teachings and principles of the Bible.

“Jehovah is merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abundant in loving-kindness. He will not for all time keep finding fault, neither will he to time indefinite keep resentful.” (Psalm 103:8, 9) Christians are told to “become imitators of God.” (Ephesians 5:1) If Almighty God chooses to exhibit mercy and an abundance of loving-kindness rather than be “disposed to rail or find fault,” surely Christians should try to do the same.

Jesus Christ, the exact representation of Jehovah, ‘left a model for us to follow his steps closely.’ (1 Peter 2:21; Hebrews 1:3) At times, Jesus exposed religious falsehoods and testified concerning the world’s wicked works. (John 7:7) Yet, he said complimentary things about sincere people. For instance, he said regarding Nathanael: “See, an Israelite for a certainty, in whom there is no deceit.” (John 1:47) When Jesus performed a miracle, he might focus on the recipient’s faith. (Matthew 9:22) And when some thought that a woman’s gift of appreciation was extravagant, Jesus was not cynical about her motives but said: “Wherever this good news is preached in all the world, what this woman did shall also be told as a remembrance of her.” (Matthew 26:6-13) Jesus was a trusting friend and an affectionate companion to his followers, ‘loving them to the end.’​—John 13:1.

 Since Jesus was perfect, he could easily have found fault with imperfect people. Instead of manifesting an unbelieving and faultfinding spirit, however, he sought to refresh people.​—Matthew 11:29, 30.

“[Love] believes all things.” (1 Corinthians 13:7) That statement is in direct contrast with the disposition of the cynic, who questions the motives and actions of others. Of course, the world is full of people with ulterior motives; so there is a need for caution. (Proverbs 14:15) Nevertheless, love is ready to believe because it is trusting, not unduly suspicious.

God loves and trusts his servants. He knows their limitations even better than they do. However, Jehovah never treats his people with suspicion, and he does not expect more of them than they can reasonably do. (Psalm 103:13, 14) Moreover, God looks for the good in humans, and in a trusting way, he grants privileges and authority to his loyal, though imperfect, servants.​—1 Kings 14:13; Psalm 82:6.

“I, Jehovah, am searching the heart, examining the kidneys, even to give to each one according to his ways, according to the fruitage of his dealings.” (Jeremiah 17:10) Jehovah can accurately read a person’s heart. We cannot. Therefore, we need to be careful about attributing certain motives to others.

Allowing a cynical spirit to take root in us and eventually dominate our thinking has the potential for creating divisions between us and fellow believers. It can disrupt the peace of the Christian congregation. Let us therefore follow the example of Jesus, who was realistic yet positive in his dealings with his disciples. He became their trusted friend.​—John 15:11-15.

“Just as you want men to do to you, do the same way to them.” (Luke 6:31) There are many ways to apply this counsel of Jesus Christ. For instance, all of us prefer to be spoken to with kindness and respect. Surely, then, we should express ourselves to others in a kind and respectful way. Even when Jesus forcefully exposed the false teachings of the religious leaders, he never did this in a cynical manner.​—Matthew 23:13-36.

Ways to Combat Cynicism

If we have experienced disappointments, it may be easy to allow ourselves to be influenced by cynicism. We can combat this tendency by appreciating that Jehovah deals trustingly with his imperfect people. This can help us to accept other worshipers of God for what they are​—imperfect humans trying to do what is right.

Painful experiences may lead some to distrust people. True, it is unwise to put all our trust in imperfect humans. (Psalm 146:3, 4) In the Christian congregation, however, many sincerely want to be a source of encouragement. Just think of the thousands who are like mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, and children to those who have lost their own families. (Mark 10:30) Think of how many prove to be true friends in times of distress. *​—Proverbs 18:24.

It is not cynicism but brotherly love that identifies Jesus’ followers, for he said: “By this all will know that you are my disciples, if you have love among yourselves.” (John 13:35) So let us show love, and let us focus on the good qualities of fellow Christians. Doing so will help us to avoid the traits of a Cynic.


^ par. 8 Another possibility is that the name Cynic comes from Ky·noʹsar·ges, a gymnasium in Athens where Antisthenes taught.

^ par. 27 See the article entitled “The Christian Congregation​—A Source of Strengthening Aid” in The Watchtower of May 15, 1999.

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The best-known Cynic, Diogenes

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From the book Great Men and Famous Women