jesus the cynic?

It’s interesting to view Jesus scholarship over the last 50 years. Most of it seems to reflect more on the political climate of the era it was written rather than on the actual historical Jesus, i.e. by turning Jesus into “Jesus the Revolutionary”, “Jesus the Mystic”, “Jesus the Philosopher”,etc.

It’s an easy mistake to make. Arguably I make it when I refer to Jesus as a “populist” figure of the time (I don’t mean that as a compliment. I mean that in its most literal sense: Jesus was addressing working class problems in a religious/political context.) It’s very difficult to separate our biases from the subject being analyzed, especially one as controversial as the historicity of Jesus.

I think there’s a (growing) minority consensus that Jesus took some influence from the Cynics. Some quack scholars might even say he was an outright Cynic.

I think this is an interesting question. In my view, the majority of mainstream scholars, both Christian and secular, wish to paint Jesus as a figure that almost emerged from a vacuum. It makes sense actually. All of the earliest, independently attested documents (The hypothetical Q…which survives almost in its entirety between the Gospels of Matthew and Luke…the epistles of Paul, Gospel of Mark, and Josephus) make no mention of Jesus’s origins (Q and Mark both start with the Baptism of Jesus by John the Baptist). So an attempt to say anything about Jesus’s influences, other than that of John the Baptist, would be pure conjecture. But there are some interesting parallels between Jesus and the Cynics: Mark 6:8, the location of Nazareth and its proximity to an apparent hotbed of Cynicism, Jesus’s confrontational style and eschewing of fame and fortune, embracing of poverty, etc. etc.

But read the Cynic texts. To the Cynics, Diogenes was their “Christ figure”. They all tried to emulate him. And to be honest, he was a disgusting asshole. While Diogenes definitely had his influence, I doubt he would have accumulated very many personal followers. I mean, many might have tried to ACT like him, but there’s no way anyone could have spent more than 10 minutes around him. Jesus, meanwhile, was probably trying to do something entirely different and would have certainly disapproved of things like…I dunno…MASTURBATING and SHITTING in public.

In my humble view, the Cynic modus operandi was likely something that was in the air at the time which some itinerant and apocalyptic preachers might have adopted. But just because that aesthetic was in vogue at the moment doesn’t mean that they were practicing Cynics.

While it’s fun to speculate, the simplest explanation is probably the correct one: Jesus was an apocalyptic Jewish preacher preaching to a mostly Jewish audience.

faith based (2020)

So I was watching Spalding Gray’s Terrors of Pleasure when I thought “I’d probably enjoy this if I was sober.” So then I searched for something on Amazon Prime.

I came across a comedy called Faith Based, about two buddies that try to make a Christian film. It had all the ingredients to make a good film, or at least a movie that I’d enjoy. But it serves as a good reminder of how difficult it is to make a good motion picture.

It’s a story that I’d otherwise enjoy: about mediocre, yet good natured, talent trying to break into the big leagues by making a movie to help save their father’s church. Naturally, they discover the business is populated by cynical assholes.

Some of the jokes land. When the lead characters explain that “no one wants to see a movie where they don’t recognize anybody” and the camera lingers on the two actors you don’t recognize, I chuckled a bit. The film could have used a bit more of that self-awareness.

But I really am like my lead character in A Shot at the Title: I rarely watch a movie that I don’t want to completely rewrite and redirect. I think the film could have been salvaged by jettisoning all the Office inspired interviews and extending the length. The movie couldn’t have been made for very much money, but the production quality is pretty good. Maybe lingering on some of the shots would have extended its impact.

Of course, it’s not my movie, but if I were making it, as the lead characters go through their trials and tribulations, I would have played with audience by getting the movie as close to a shitty Christian film as one could possibly go before pulling the rug out from under them. That would have accentuated one of the film’s themes: that all of our hopes and dreams are actually just a scheme to make some asshole more money.

But if you’re interested, despite its subject matter, it’s not an anti-Christian or anti-religious movie. At its heart, it’s a film about family, community, and belonging. Nothing we haven’t seen a hundred times before.

Anyways, now I’m sober. Back to Spalding Gray.

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.