Saturday, July 07, 2007
Ambition & True "Cynicism"
I was listening recently to and interview historian Jennifer Michael Hecht on NPR's program "Speaking of Faith" regarding her book "Doubt: A History". In the interview she brings up the ancient Greek philosophers known as the Cynics, who, contrary to our modern use of the word cynic, weren't so much pessimistic or dismissive of everything as they were champions of a simpler lifestyle uncomplicated by the conventions and ambitions of normal society. The word "cynic" literally means "dog", and their philosophy was that the key to happiness was basically to live the carefree, "go with the flow" existence of a dog, to savor the moment and the simple pleasures in life

Hecht tells a story about the most famous cynic, Diogenes, and a conversation he reputedly had with Alexander the Great that went like this:

Alexander the Great: "Diogenes, you are a man of great repute yet you are a man without purpose and mission! All you do is sit about all day, untroubled, unperturbed, indulging in conversation and the pleasures of moment to moment life!"

Diogenes: "So, what is so much better about the life of Alexander the Great?"

Alexander: I am a conquerer of nations!

Diogenes: So, conquerer of nations, unlike my purposeless life what are you going to do next?

Alexander: I am going to conquer Greece!

Diogenes: Yes . . then what?

Alexander: Then I am going to conquer Asia Minor!

Diogenes: Alright . . then what?

Alexander: THEN I am going to conquer the WORLD!

Diogenes: Alright, then what after that?

Alexander: THEN I will relax and enjoy life!

Diogenes: Why not save yourself the trouble and relax and enjoy life right now?

It seems to me that this philosophy has something to recommend about it. Certainly the world would be better off if the would-be conquerors decided to just stay home and become cynical slackers. And there is definitely something to be said for savoring the simple pleasures in life and not becoming so consumed with success or achievement or ambition.

On the other hand, such a classical cynical view, in my observation, seems rather selfish and individualistic. What about opposing injustice? What about relieving the suffering of others? What about making the world a better place? If a cynic is too unconcerned to do anything but lay around in the sun, then this doesn't seem to me to be a life well lived. It may lead to personal satisfaction, but falls short of any kind of real love for others.

Nonetheless, it's a good anecdote, and thought provoking. Our society upholds success and ambition as such virtues, and yet, for what? Are our achievements really making us happy, or are they keeping us from enjoying a simpler happiness that has been within our grasp the whole time. And can we find echoes of Diogenes cynical philosophy in Jesus' admonition "Do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself", and his words to the busybody Martha "Martha, Martha, you are worried and upset about many things, but few things are needed - indeed only one"?


posted by Mike Clawson at 11:41 PM | Permalink |


At 7/09/2007 06:55:00 AM, Anonymous Miko

If you accept the most common form of the Q Document hypothesis, most of what Jesus said was taken from Cynic philosophy.


At 7/09/2007 10:33:00 AM, Blogger Mike Clawson

I've heard that theory that Jesus was influenced by Cynic philosophy. I think it's certainly possible - though of course a Cynic-like approach to life also appears much earlier in Hebrew writings as well (e.g. Ecclesiastes).

However, I wouldn't say that "most" of what Jesus said was directly taken from Cynicism. His message is far too Jewish for that. But there certainly are similarities, and I wouldn't be surprised if Jesus encountered and talked with some Cynics while growing up in Galilee.


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