Cynics is the name given to followers of a school of Greek philosophy founded after 400 B.C. in Athens. The Cynics believed that happiness could be achieved only by acting virtuously and by being selfsufficient. The most extreme Cynics rejected all customs and conventions of society—including wealth, pleasure, religion, and morals—as unnatural. They believed that the artificial values of society concealed or corrupted real virtue, which was found only in nature. Instead, they sought to live according to nature. They practiced asceticism* to avoid the corrupting influences of worldly goods and desires.
The most famous of the Cynics was Diogenes of Sinope (ca.400-ca.325 B.C.). Diogenes lived in a barrel, ate cast-off scraps for his food, and was outspoken and shameless. He is said to have defaced coins to show his contempt for the standards of society. Because of his wild behavior, the Athenians called Diogenes “Cynic,” which comes from the Greek word for dog. The name stuck to him and his followers.
The underlying principles of Cynicism were influenced by the teachings of the philosopher Socrates. According to some traditions, the school was founded by a student of Socrates, Antisthenes. In turn, the principles of Cynicism influenced the development of Stoicism. Cynicism declined in popularity after about 200 B.C. but experienced a revival during the early Roman Empire. (See also Philosophy, Greek and Hellenistic; Philosophy, Roman.)
* asceticism way of life in which a person rejects worldly pleasure and follows a life of poverty