The Greek philosopher Diogenes was a famous pupil of the founder of Cynicism, Antisthenes. Source: Public Domain

Antisthenes and the Cynics: How to Live a Pure and Honest Life


One of the unique philosophical teachings of ancient Greece was Cynicism – a moral and virtuous teaching that really emphasized the pursuit of a pure, honest life. Today we are going to take an in-depth look at this philosophy and the most important Cynics – starting with Antisthenes and going all the way to the famed Diogenes and Crates of Thebes. Put on your thinking cap and look inside yourself – it is time to philosophize!

Antisthenes and the Emergence of the Cynics

There is no doubt that ancient Greek philosophers made a colossal impact on the world and its development, as they laid down the immortal foundations for the abundant world of philosophy that was to come. From Xenophanes to Socrates, to Plato and Aristotle, the world of ancient Greek philosophy was without a doubt a pinnacle of human achievements and it truly shows how the Classical Greeks and their civilization were ahead of their time.

To start off our story of the Cynics, we need to begin with their name. In ancient Greek, their name was “ κυνισμός”, and it strangely derived from “ κυνικός” (kynikos), which meant “dog-like” ( kynos – dog). It is quite likely that this odd name began as an insult. The Cynics, as part of their philosophy, lived a simpler, ascetic life. And as this was so unconventional at the time they were seemingly denigrated by being compared to dogs.

Another possibility of the name relates to the famous temple of Heracles and a public gymnasium of ancient Athens – called Cynosarges (Place of the White Dog). It was at this venue that Antisthenes – the first Cynic – taught his philosophical views. The name of Cynics and them being called “dogs”, was even more popular during the time of Diogenes – arguably the epitome of Cynic philosophy – who was called thus because of his extremely ascetic lifestyle .

Sculpture of the Cynic Philosopher, Diogenes, and a dog. (Sondem /Adobe Stock)

Sculpture of the Cynic Philosopher, Diogenes , and a dog. ( Sondem /Adobe Stock)

In true Cynic fashion, these philosophers gladly adopted this nickname and used it work to their advantage. It fit perfectly with their teachings and lifestyles and worked to emphasize their ideals and the messages they wanted to convey. Where the common folk saw negative aspects in a common street dog, the Cynics saw all the pure and good aspects – and quickly turned things in their favor, by simply stating their philosophy and its logical conclusions. But before we go into those comparisons, let’s take a brief look at Cynicism as a philosophical teaching: What messages does it try to convey?

What is Philosophical Cynicism?

Virtue was the basis of Cynic teaching. For these thinkers, the purpose of life was to live in virtue and moral excellence, in perfect symbiosis with the nature. In a similar way to Stocisim, which was developed under the influence of Cynicism, the Cynics maintain that happiness can be achieved with the highest virtue and that people can live unburdened by worldly desires through rigorous training and moral strength. By rejecting worldly desires such as fame, power, wealth, and lust, a person can reach happiness and live a simple life without any possessions. Such a lifestyle was deemed pure and in agreement with nature, thus a sign of reason.

It needs to be noted that due to the nature of this philosophy, there was never a set of pre-established doctrines, but its core principles were always the same and repeated:

A person can progress towards happiness and clarity through asceticism, as they become free from outside influences – most commonly wealth, power, and fame. According to the Cynics, these matters have no value in nature. Diogenes perfectly showcased this aspect of the philosophy.

Another core aspect of Cynicism was impudence and lacking a sense of shame. This was known as the defacement of contemporary social and political norms (known as nomos in ancient Greece). These include laws, social pressures and conventions, and customs that the common folk take for granted, but have a deeper philosophical meaning.

The Cynics maintained that the purpose of life is the so-called eudaimonia (happiness) and utmost mental clarity. The latter means that one was to live with a pure mind, free of folly, conceit, greed, etc.

This happiness can be reached by living a simple life in unison with nature, as understood by human reason. Cynics stated that a mind is not pure when human values are judged falsely, and thus a mind is plagued by negativity, viciousness, greed, and unorthodox desires.

Coptic icon of Saint Anthony of the Desert, an early Christian ascetic. (Public Domain) Early Christian asceticism may have been influenced by Cynicism.

Coptic icon of Saint Anthony of the Desert, an early Christian ascetic. ( Public Domain ) Early Christian asceticism may have been influenced by Cynicism.

Rejecting the World: Cynic Philosophers Saw Joy In Simplicity

In summary, this means that Cynic philosophy states that a pure life is lived without material possessions, only requiring the basic needs for existing. Thus one can be released of conventional needs which serve no true value or purpose in one’s life. Furthermore, these philosophers didn’t just emphasize mental and moral purity and training, but also a physical training as well. They went on to say that mental and physical exercise were both required, and that one cannot flourish without the other.

One thing needs to be pointed out about the Cynics, and that is the fact that they didn’t practice their ascetic beliefs outside of society, like for example the ascetic monks that came many centuries after them. Instead, these philosophers lived their unorthodox lives amid the society and in its full view. Thus, they were always “preaching” their views, pointing out the fallacies and errors of society’s ways. The Cynics also adopted the figure of Heracles as their symbol and patron hero, stating that he embodied all the virtues of a perfect cynic.

‘Hercules as Victor over Discord’ (1610) by Peter Paul Rubens. (Public Domain) The Cynics adopted the figure of Heracles as their symbol and patron hero.

‘Hercules as Victor over Discord’ (1610) by Peter Paul Rubens. ( Public Domain ) The Cynics adopted the figure of Heracles as their symbol and patron hero.

By far the most important Cynic philosopher – and most well known today – is Diogenes the Cynic, known in ancient Greece as (Διογένης ὁ Κυνικός, Diogénēs ho Kynikós) . Before he became a Cynic, Diogenes had a unique past: he was born at the Ionian colony of Sinope, on the Black Sea, around 412 BC, a son of Hicesias, a banker who minted coins for living. Although uncertain, it is likely that Diogenes too was involved in the banking business alongside his father.

What is certain is that Diogenes and his father became involved in a scandal of debasing the currency. As a consequence, Diogenes was exiled from Sinope and lost his citizenship and all of his possessions. Afterwards, it seems that Diogenes made it his purpose to criticize the immoral social actions and corrupt institutions that he attributed to a rotten and confused society.

‘Diogenes Looking for an Honest Man’ (1780s) by Johann Heinrich Wilhelm Tischbein. (Public Domain)

‘Diogenes Looking for an Honest Man’ (1780s) by Johann Heinrich Wilhelm Tischbein. ( Public Domain )

The Pupil: Diogenes the Cynic

Diogenes the Cynic became well-known for his extreme ascetic lifestyle and his fierce criticism of human life of the time. He made his utter poverty a virtue, and repeatedly denied any sort of possession. He is known for having lived at the marketplace of Athens in a huge ceramic jar known as pithos.

As a part of the Cynic philosophy, Diogenes reveled in his shamelessness and arrogance. He dared to criticize important figures and often disrupted the public teachings of Plato. One anecdote – perhaps untrue – tells of the meeting between Alexander the Great and Diogenes. The former came to pay homage to the great philosopher and stood before Diogenes while he was seated. Alexander asked whether there is anything he could do for him – while Diogenes replied in a typical Cynic fashion: “Yes, stand out of my sunlight.”

Another, different interpretation of this anecdote, perhaps even less true, describes the meeting in this way: Alexander comes to Diogenes while the latter is carefully observing several human bones in a pile. When asked by Alexander what it was that he was doing he replied: “I am looking for the bones of your father, but cannot distinguish them from those of a mere slave.” This emphasized Diogenes’ belief that in death all men are equal, and are thus in their basic nature.

‘Alexander and Diogenes’ (1625-1630) by Gaspar de Crayer. (Public Domain)

‘Alexander and Diogenes’ (1625-1630) by Gaspar de Crayer. ( Public Domain )

But by far the most famous anecdote linked to Diogenes was his carrying of a lamp during daylight. When asked why he was doing such an odd thing, he simply answered: “I am looking for an honest man.”

Who Was the First Cynic?

But even though he was truly well-known for his philosophy, Diogenes was not the first cynic. The one that is often called the originator of Cynicism was Diogenes’ teacher – Antisthenes. He was the pupil of Socrates – one of the key figures of Classical Greek and Western philosophy – and was one of his ardent followers. He is referred to as “one of the most remarkable among the Socratic philosophers” and this certainly comes to light with his later emergence as a Cynic.

Initially, he became an admirer of Gorgias, the ancient Greek sophist and rhetorician, but then Antisthenes was a disciple of Socrates, whom he followed with an incredible zeal.

Antisthenes was not known in his lifetime as a creator of Cynicism, per se. In fact, the term “cynicism” that denotes a philosophical movement was perhaps not even in use in his time. Even so, Antisthenes laid down the foundations of that philosophy for all those who came after, like his pupil Diogenes for example. Antisthenes was known for his shameless criticism of his contemporaries of high rank, such as the Athenian orator and general Alcibiades, or his former teacher Gorgias, and even Plato.

Antisthenes, the father of philosophical Cynicism. Cast in Pushkin museum. (shako/CC BY SA 3.0)

Antisthenes, the father of philosophical Cynicism. Cast in Pushkin museum. (shako/ CC BY SA 3.0 )

This philosopher was well-known for his wit and his sharp use of words, often utilizing word-games to convey a deeper philosophical meaning. Antisthenes maintained that virtue can be taught and attained through rigorous moral discipline – with utmost virtue denoting utmost nobility. Furthermore, he went to great lengths to emphasize that it wasn’t pleasure that brought happiness , but virtue.

Antisthenes deemed pleasure as a “positive” evil, so he shunned it. With his teachings, he laid down the most important stepping-stones for the later emergence of a Cynic philosophy as we know it.

The Poor and the Pure: Crates of Thebes

Crates of Thebes is another important name related to Cynicism, and certainly worth mentioning. Born roughly around 365 BC in Thebes, around the time Antisthenes died, Crates was an heir to an immense fortune. But under unknown circumstances in his life, Crates renounced this fortune or gave it away, in order to pursue a life of poverty and virtue in Athens.

It is said that once in Athens, he became a pupil of Diogenes the Cynic, which although not confirmed is possible. He lived his life in true Cynic fashion and pursued the same virtues this philosophy was based upon. With nothing more than a cane and a cloak, he spent his days on the streets of Athens.

On these streets he found his love as well, Hipparchia of Maroneia, who rejected her wealthy upbringing to pursue the same life as Crates. She is said to have fallen in love with both his lifestyle and his teachings, and they based their marriage on equality and mutual respect. This was a remarkable achievement for the time. They also conceived their children right there on the streets, as they had sex in public – without any shame - a big part of Cynic philosophy.

1st century wall painting showing the Cynic philosophers Crates and Hipparchia. From the garden of the Villa Farnesina, Museo delle Terme, Rome. (Public Domain)

1st century wall painting showing the Cynic philosophers Crates and Hipparchia. From the garden of the Villa Farnesina, Museo delle Terme, Rome. ( Public Domain )

Crates of Thebes is also remembered as the teacher of the famed Zeno of Citium, the founder of Stoicism, another highly important school of Ancient Greek philosophy. He was a huge influence on Zeno and his future teachings. Besides Zeno, he had other prominent Cynic pupils who achieved success, among them the well-known Monimus of Syracuse, Cleomenes, and Theombrotus.

Several important fragments of his teachings survive, as well as 36 Cynic Epistles which are attributed to him but were composed in 1st century AD. In these works, we can see that Crates taught a simple, “cheerful” way of asceticism and the pursuit of virtue, in a somewhat “milder” way than Antisthenes or Diogenes did.

A Necessary Critical Look

Even though it was considered unorthodox and unconventional during its time, Cynicism is nonetheless a highly important school of thought, one that shaped many subsequent philosophies and paved the way for a highly moral, purer way of life in a time where this was only an emerging notion. From it emerged Stoicism, in equal pursuit of morality and purity, and it remains as one of the cornerstones of Western philosophy .

And most of all, the likes of Diogenes and Crates of Thebes tell us that we too, in the 21st century, ought to take a deeper and more critical look inside ourselves and at our own lives– perhaps we may see something that desperately needs fixing.

Top Image: The Greek philosopher Diogenes was a famous pupil of the founder of Cynicism, Antisthenes. Source: Public Domain

By Aleksa Vučković


Navia, L. 1996. Classical Cynicism: A Critical Study. Greenwood Publishing Group.

Prince, S. 2015. Antisthenes of Athens: Texts, Translations, and Commentary. University of Michigan Press.

Seddon, K. and Yonge, C. D. 2010. An Outline of Cynic Philosophy: Antisthenes of Athens and Diogenes of Sinope in Laertius Book Six.

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