In my forthcoming book Journeys to Heaven and Hell (Yale University Press; due out in April) I will be devoting a chapter to discussing how tours of the afterlife functioned sometimes in order to promote certain ethical views. If you know what life after death is really like, it can be incentive for how you live now.
One of the sections of this chapter deals with ancient “Cynic” philosophy – a radical stand on the importance of giving up everything, all one’s possessions, in order to attain to true happiness. That is not easy to do, as Jesus’ followers discovered later, even though they stood in an entirely different ideological tradition (apocalyptic Judaism).
The Cynic view is embodied in a very humorous fictional “Journey” to Hades by one of my favorite writers from antiquity, Lucian of Samosata. Here is how I will be describing Cynicism in my book – to be followed in the next two posts with a discussion of Lucian’s account.
It is not a simple task to summarize ancient Cynicism: the Cynic movement extended over two discrete periods of antiquity, the bulk of the Cynics’ own writings have not survived, and as a result most of the ancient discussions of Cynic views are filtered through non-Cynic perspectives, either vituperative or assimilating.[i]
Unlike other philosophies, especially in its Roman phase, Cynicism cannot appropriately be considered a “school.” There was no formal instruction, no classes or lectures, and no doctrines or detailed philosophical justifications for them, for example, in a well-thought out physics. On one level, of course, a good deal of philosophy in the period was moving toward the “practical,” with advice about how one should live in order to maximize happiness and satisfaction. For Cynics, however, that was virtually all that mattered. It was all about practice. As such, being a Cynic required no education or, indeed, mental labor. The later Stoic Apollodorus famously called it “a shortcut to virtue” (Diogenes Laertius, Lives of Eminent Philosophers, 7.22). It was a way of life, one that denied the values and worth of virtually everyone else. The Cynic life entailed abandoning all the trappings of life to live without possessions and therefore without needs that could be frustrated. Cynics did not pursue or even abide human comforts or conform to traditional human social standards.[ii] And so they lived like κύνες (CYNES) “dogs.”
In the Cynic view, most people are miserable precisely because they locate their ostensible happiness in matters outside themselves: their possessions, status, reputation, position, influence, health, even families. But these things do not provide true happiness. Look at those who have them in spades: the wealthy and powerful; the major athletes and social elite – are they happy? No, most of them are miserable, always wanting more, endlessly complaining about their investments, enemies, workloads, struggles, losses, and occasional failures. Possessions and social position are not keys to happiness; it does not reside in anything outside of ourselves that we can “acquire.”
Moreover, anything acquired can be lost: you may
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