cynics and stoics

The post-Socratics get a bad rap for being not nearly as good as Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle.

Stoicism in particular has been much maligned over the last few years. It reentered the public consciousness recently, which irked some in the philosophical community. I guess in our post-Enlightenment era, there’s a resistance to schools of thought that seemingly promote individuals to rise above their political realities. This makes sense to a certain extent, especially given our reality after the Great Recession. However, this in turn irks me because the intellectual community is unwilling to divorce the bad from the good in these philosophies, but they’ll gladly do so for Plato and Aristotle (and as I mentioned in an earlier post, for Marx).

Many claim to find stoicism to be too rigid in its determinism, which in turn means we should almost remain passive or unattached to the obstacles we find in our daily lives. But that’s an over simplistic reading, in my view. To be honest, I don’t know if this was the intention of noted stoic thinkers like Epictetus, Seneca, and Marcus Aurelius, but I think we can infer from them that we have to exercise our best judgments and restraint to remain above the madness in everyday life. If we fail to do so, then we are no better than that madness. Through logic and reasoning, we actually find our free will, then subsequently, our happiness. Through this interpretation, Stoicism actually isn’t deterministic at all (though this might run contrary to actual Stoic metaphysics. I don’t know 🤷‍♂️).

I understand why Stoicism would have had detractors in its heyday as it seemed to have caught on with the Roman elite, who had the security to explore such lofty idealism while the proles weren’t afforded that luxury. But that seems like a lazy, bad faith criticism of it today, which comes across like an attempt to deflect personal responsibility and agency (especially given that proletarian-centered philosophies like Marxism is way more complicated, lofty, and at times hypocritical).

But I’ve always been more partial to Cynicism. Not that I condone it, it’s just way more in-your-face. It’s impossible to be a Cynic today (you’d be arrested for a being a public nuisance), but it does ask you to question common sense. Diogenes of Sinope was its most prominent thinker. He apparently jacked off and relieved himself in public, gave no shit about social status, and extolled the virtues of what amounted to homelessness. I agree with the leftist critics of Diogenes’ form of Cynicism in that his fetishism of poverty undermines how dehumanizing it actually is. But the real reason why I think Cynicism is unpalatable to modern thinking is it’s rejection of material wealth and its promotion of “cosmopolitanism”. While I find the Cynicism of Diogenes to be somewhat individualistic, his form of individualism runs completely contrary to its modern form.

While I wouldn’t call Cynicism’s version of cosmopolitanism to be sophisticated, it was rather forward thinking in its rejection of “imagined communities” (see Benedict Anderson). Diogenes allegedly called himself a “citizen of the world”, this coming at a time when the city state dominated political thinking. Cosmopolitanism is widely rejected by ideologies across the spectrum, from Nazi’s, traditional conservatism, and even Marxism (depending on your interpretation), despite its inevitability.

So I don’t know, maybe I’m asking you to reassess these schools of thought because they piss off the right people.

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