Autumn break is almost over, and I’m on my way back home to Copenhagen. I’ve spent a few days relaxing and fixing computers for my little sister, my mother and my friend Jeppe. Some of these problems have different causes, Jeppes were caused by the new version of Ubuntu, codenamed Breezy Badger which is kind of buggy when it comes to ATI graphics drivers which makes the computer crash. Wittily annoyed people on the Ubuntu Forums have thus renamed the version to Freezy Badger.
My mother, on the other hand, has bought a brand new Dell laptop with the spoils from her book, of which the first printing has already sold out. With it, she has also bought an iPod, as she has heard much of the wonderful world of podcasts, and I guided her through setting up iTunes, downloading her first podcasts off the Danish National Radio website.
Just to test it, I also downloaded a podcast from the BBC Radio Four show, In our Time, which happened to be on cynicism [17 mb mp3 file].
Intrigued, I listened to three British academics discussing the Greek cynics such as Antisthenes, Diogenes and others. The Greek cynics preached self-suffiency and freedom as much through action as through words. Diogenes, the most famed of the cynics, is said to have lived in barrel order to avoid the unnatural and irrational ways of human society which limits the individual freedom. As one of the academics puts it: ‚??He turns philosophy into a sort of performance art.‚?Ě
Diogenes likened himself to a dog, a term traditionally connected to shamelessness in the Greek tradition. As if to say: I’m not limited by social conventions such as wealth, status or even common decency (cynics advocated that anything you can do, you should do in public ‚?? including urinating, defecating and copulating ‚?? as these academics drily note).
The story goes that one day, Alexander the Great came to visit Diogenes in his barrel, and the king asked the philosopher: ‚??What do you want from me?‚?Ě
And the philosopher answered: ‚??Stand aside so that I can see the sun.‚?Ě
Following up on that, another story goes that Alexander once said that if he wasn’t Alexander, he wanted to be Diogenes. Exactly because Diogenes had power in exactly the opposite way of Alexander. Diogenes was so strongly independent that no man could do anything to him. You cannot coerce him in any way, because he refuses to be bound by any norm or law. I imagine this meeting as a physical manifestation of the dichotomy of the Foucaultian terms of Power and Counter Power: The mighty king and the lowly dog.
Cynicism itself takes its name from the Greek word for dog, kynos.
From there the discussion opens up, and they even discuss whether Jesus was influenced by the cynics (John Mills?) in the way that he preached and broke away from Judaism, and I did find that a quite compelling argument, though there is quite a lot of guesswork and conjectures involved.
The final question of the discussion is also the one I had throughout the discussion: How did cynicism turn from this rebellious, idealistic philosophy of action into the term used today, focusing on the negative side ‚?? a sort of rationalistic anti-utopianism (Thomas More is also mentioned as one of the inheritors to the legacy of classic cynicism) arguing that all moral stances is pretense and everybody are children of nature ‚?? in a dark and pessimistic sense.
The old cynics, for all their anarchistic eccentricities and their uncomplementary conception of the way people behaved, they did care, and they did want to improve on this. Whereas these new cynics (maybe most famously the German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer) basically despise people and think that they have the lowest motives possible. Thus sneering at all their so-called values.
Personally, ever being (voluntarily?) na√Įve and hopeful, I find the classic cynics’ idealism and philosophy of action quite bold and interesting, and the new cynics’ hopelessness and dystopianism very unhelpful. The podcast intrigued me further on the term cynicism, because I hear it used so often. So many young people of my generation, maybe students, especially, term themselves cynics. Whenever yet another disaster hits, yet another war starts, yet another political corruption scandal emerges ‚?? they simply shrug and say that that is what is to be expected.
I find myself doing that as well, from time to time, because by now, it seems to be such a pervasive and accepted attitude that few people are bothered by this. And I hate this.