Stoic Serenity 3.2: The Cynics

Yesterday in Seneca’s Letter 5, Seneca desperately tried to get the point across to Lucilius that it’s not our outward appearances and actions that are important; we should focus on our motives. (Quick little comparison to Christianity; consider these two Bible verses in which Jesus is teaching):

“You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, “You shall not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgement.” But I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgement…”

“…You have heard that it was said, “You shall not commit adultery.” But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.”

(Matthew 5:21-22, 27-28)

Jesus also taught about the importance of motives. Before Jesus, people concerned themselves with “following the rules” simply for the sake of “following the rules.” They didn’t understand what was behind it. Seneca is trying to make sure Lucilius doesn’t fall prey to the same type of lesser understanding.

Principle > Rule


What exactly are you trying to gain?

Seneca told Lucilius that it’s against the very nature of philosophy if all you’re really interested in is gaining attention for yourself or trying to impress people by your shabby clothes, scruffy beard, public announcements of your scorn for fancy dishes, “and all other misguided means to self-advertisement.”

As Lucilius read this letter from Seneca, he surely recognized that Seneca was referring to the actions of the Cynics, whose school of philosophy was founded 400 years earlier by Diogenes of Sinope.

Did you read about Zeno of Citium? Do you remember who his first teacher was? It was the Cynic teacher Crates, who himself was a student of Diogenes. This is beginning to all tie together…

Although Zeno moved on from the Cynics and eventually went to establish his own school called “Stoicism,” he was greatly influenced by his studies with the Cynics. There’s a lot of overlap between the two philosophies.

Both Cynics and Stoics agree that:

  • Virtue is the only good and is sufficient for happiness/eudaimonia.
  • Passions should be controlled.
  • Conventional goods (the things society has been telling us are good) are actually correctly categorized as “indifferents.”

But the Cynics took this third point to the extreme: they rejected anything created by society, considering

Don’t just do something for show.—If you partake in something, do it because you truly believe it has validity. And focus your attention inward.

it “artificial and unnatural.” They embraced a life severely devoid of material possessions. Only a coat, a staff, and a bag for food were acceptable. The Cynics saw material possessions and social conventions as obstacles to Virtue and happiness. To make the point clear, Seddon explains that the term “Cynic” comes from the Greek kunikos, meaning “dog-like.” The people viewed the Cynics’ way of life similar to that of dogs: unashamed of performing natural functions in public, living the life of a vagabond, eating scraps of food that others would throw for them; but also “barking” at people, or attempting to “wake up” everyone they met and lead them to philosophical enlightenment.

But the danger in this is that such outward displays of belonging to a school could blur the lines between believing the teachings and following the people. Have you ever met a really “fluttery” person? Someone who searches for meaning in life, one day they might decide to “follow Jesus” and suddenly they’re wearing a suit and tie, thumping their Bible at the mall. Then the next day they might decide Mohammed was actually correct, so now they’re wearing kurta and a skull cap, rattling off the Quran. Then before the end of the week, they’ve decided that Hinduism was actually right all along, and now they only shop at the local organic co-op, eat only vegetables and legumes, and grow their own yogurt.

My point is not that I think these religions or actions are necessarily wrong. My point is that these outward actions aren’t “required” in these religions —each of these religions can be pursued quietly inside the mind, without making a show of it. And that’s exactly what Seneca was urging Lucilius to do.

“When you pray, don’t be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by others…But when you pray, go into your room, close the door, and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.”

(Matthew 6:5-6)

The Stoics rejected these extreme displays by the Cynics. They believed that it’s possible to live in society in a “normal” way and make philosophical progress without having to conform to the beliefs of society. This is why there’s a stark contrast between the Cynics who abandoned their normal lives and lived off of scraps, and the Stoics  who continued to manage their household affairs, relationships, and daily activities.

Lucilius would have been very familiar with the Cynic claims that living without possessions is a “shortcut” to Virtue and eudaimonia. Seneca warns him not to fall for this, not even to adopt the appearance of the Cynics, because while he might free himself from luxury, he’d essentially become the slave to poverty. The key is to free yourself from caring which one is your situation! While Cynics seemed to scorn the rest of society, Stoicism had a strong sense of service toward the human race. They strived to develop a “feeling of fellowship, of belonging to mankind, and being members of a community.” Stoics saw the Cynic lifestyle to be directly undermining this principle, and so they warned against adopting even the appearance of a Cynic.


Assignment Time!

    • Look back at Seneca’s Letter 5.
    • Pick out the examples of “simple living” that Seneca gives.
    • Identify the benefits that adopting this way of life would bring.

— Avoid expensive clothes as much as rugged clothing. (“Neither velvet suits nor potato sacks.”)
— If you have fine dishes made of silver or gold, treat them as if they are simply clay. And if you have dishes made of clay, treat them as if they were silver and gold. (“Don’t hesitate to let your guests drink from the Royal Doulton tea set from the 1800s; likewise, if all you have is Walmart cups, then you should be able to bring it out to your guests just as if it were Royal Doulton.”)
— Eat a simple diet and be content with the food we regularly eat.
— We should maintain basic cleanliness.
— Our homes and our furnishings should be simple. (“Guests should admire our characters instead of our furnishings.”)


“Wait, I’m confused. Yesterday we read all those excerpts about how the benefit of Virtue was Virtue itself. So why are we talking about the ‘benefits of simple living’?”

Let us try to maintain a higher standard of life than that of the masses, but not a contrary standard. Otherwise, we’ll scare away and repel the very people we are trying to improve. It would also perhaps result in people unwilling to follow our example in anything because they are afraid that they will need to follow our exact example in everything.

(From Seneca, Letters from a Stoic, Letter 5 “On the Philosopher’s Mean”)


Benefits for Fellow Humans

Stoics believe that the Stoic philosopher has the capacity to influence the lives of others. Maybe others won’t drop everything to go follow after the Stoic lifestyle. Not everyone decides to do that. But it’s entirely possible that others may look a bit closely at the “example” of our lives, and perhaps our influence might help them adopt certain viewpoints that could help them manage the excesses and shortfalls of the non-philosophic life. Basically, Seneca is saying that if we throw ourselves over to these extreme practices, we alienate others (because most others are only really seeking a bit of daily advice). And there’s no point in setting an example that people can never see themselves following.

“Ok, so you explained how avoiding an extreme lifestyle like the Cynics is part of ‘protecting our mission to develop a feeling of fellowship with humanity.’ Basically, we’d be alienating our ‘brothers.’ So when it comes to ‘the simple life,’ there has to be a balance. But what’s my benefit for following the simple life?”


Benefits for Yourself

Remember what Seneca said yesterday at the end of his letter?

I find in the writings of our fellow philosopher Hecato that the limiting of desires also helps to cure fears: “Cease to hope, and you will cease to fear,” he says.

Hecato is saying that honestly, the only thing that causes us to have fear and anxiety is when we’re foolish by desiring things that are beyond our control and have no real value. When we set out with goals to attain the indifferents, we immediately become vulnerable to anxieties that our plans will encounter disaster. Seddon says, “As much as we optimistically hope for success, we pessimistically fear disappointment, for no one can be sure of the final outcome of any matter, and to face life in this way is to live anxiously.”

The theory is this: if we live more simply, then we have less to hope for, which means that we have less to be worried about. But Stoic students don’t focus on hoping for outcomes beyond our power. We focus ourselves on doing what is sensible and right (exercising Virtue), and we engage in our projects by acting with reservation. We strive to exercise Virtue in whatever we partake in. And if we are successful in exercising our Virtue, then we have gained the benefit of exercising our Virtue. We have done what humans are meant to do. We have “lived according to Nature.” As the Stoics believed, we will have lived as close as possible to what we have chosen to be the best kind of life.

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