Stoicism vs Cynicism - What is the difference?

Philosophies are the systems that construct the world around us, they help us to understand the fundamental nature of knowledge, reality and existence. Stoicism and Cynicism hold many similarities in terms of influences, key teachings and history. Their relationship is inherently linked which is why it will be interesting to look into this relationship further. This lecture will analyse the differences and similarities in these teachings and see how each one fits into the other.  


Stoicism itself is derived from Cynicism, and both descend from Socrates. Stoicism was developed by Zeno of Citium around 300 BC, within itself it acted as a refinement from Cynicism, so both are inherently linked. Stoicism teaches and develops the importance of self control and fortitude. Instead of destroying emotions it focuses on overcoming destructive emotions, meaning it doesn’t seek to extinguish emotions completely, it focuses primarily on the idea of control. Clear judgement, inner calm and freedom from suffering is the main intention for Stoics. Stoicism is not just a set of beliefs or ethical claims, it's a way of life, it’s fueled from practise and training. Stoicism is a tool of self improvement, taking control and mastering our lives. 


Cynicism, also an ancient Greek ethical doctrine, holds the belief that the purpose of life is to live a life of virtue in agreement with Nature. They reject all conventional desires for health, wealth, power and fame and living free from all possessions and property. The cynics did not want to completely retreat from society, they should lie in full eyes of the public gaze. The cynics believed the world belongs equally to everyone. It was founded by Diogenes of Sinope around 380 BC. Its philosophy is best illustrated by its founder Diogenes, he lived in a tub and owned nearly nothing, he believed the Cynics should live in the simplest way possible. Diogenes took Cynicism to its logical extremes. The cynics had a much more basic view on what is natural, holding the belief that people can gain happiness by committed training and living in a way which was natural to them. 


Their first philosopher who outlined the themes of the Cynicism was Antithenes, he was a pupil of Socrates in the late 5th century BC. Antitithenes was followed by Diogenes. The Cynic’s goal in life was eudaimonia, which was the same for the Stoics. Mental clarity is achieved by living in accordance to nature, which in itself can be understood through human reason. Eudaimonia and human flourishing depends on self sufficiency, arete, equanimity, love of humanity and indifference to the changes in life. The Cynic way of life is one that requires training, and practicality that would ultimately bring about real change. The fundamental principles of Cynicism include, happiness in agreement with Nature, as it depends on being self sufficient, and mastering mental attitudes. Self sufficiency is another key teaching, self sufficiency, argues the Cynics is achieved by living a life a virtue. The road to virtue is to free oneself from influences which have no value to Nature. Suffering is caused by false judgements of values which cause negative emotions and subsequently vicious character.


The Stoics teachings range from many different influences and ideas. The Stoics are known especially for the teaching that ‘virtue is the only good’, external aspects such as wealth, greed and pleasure taint our journey towards virtue. Destructive emotions, the stoics argued, resulted from errors of judgement. Zeno is the father of Stoicism, setting up his Stoic school in Athens, Zeno, like the Cynics recognised a single, sole and simple good, virtue. Zeno preached that the ‘men conquer the world by conquering himself’. From Zeno prominent Stoic philosophers emerged such as Seneca, Marcus Aurelius and Epictetus, all influencing the world of Stoic philosophy. Key Stoic teaching includes that nature is rational, the universe is governed by the law of reason. A life towards rational nature is virtuous, and that wisdom is the root of this virtue. Virtue should not be sought for pleasure but for duty.


The cynics hold a much more simpler view of what is deemed ‘natural’, they liked to live ascetically. Meaning, that the person renounces material comfort and instead lives a life of self discipline, in the sacrifice for spiritual improvement. Stoicism takes this simple definition further, looking beyond nature and instead at human purpose, seeing that we construct our own laws and customs, and subsequently viewing these as natural. Epictetus, a famous Stoic philosopher, drew inspiration from the Cynic, Diogenes. He believed that Diogenes was a divine messenger. Epictetus saw it fitting that happiness can be sought without material possessions and social status. Speaking of Diogenes fondly he writes, “And how is it possible that a man who has nothing, who is naked, houseless, without a hearth, squalid, without a slave, without a city, can pass a life that flows easily? See, God has sent you a man to show you that it is possible.” As a prominent figure in Cynicism, Diogenes influenced many other Stoics such as Zeno, and Seneca, “he freed himself from everything that is fortuitous. It appears to me as if he had said: ‘Concern yourself with your own business, Oh Fate, for there is nothing in Diogenes that belongs to you anymore.’” explains Seneca. Here, within itself, we can see the profound impact that Cynicism has had on Stoic philosophy, poignant and prominent it lays the foundation for the materials Stoicism was inherently built from. 


Cynicism inspired Stoic father Zeno, subsequently both philosophies are inherently linked. Nature is fundamentally foundational in both philosophies. Virtue is a key aim, and underpin the life of both the Cynics and the Stoics. As Stoicism grew in popularity until 300 AD, it somewhat replaced the position of Cynicism. In today’s modern landscape, Cynicism is rarely practiced, however it remains as an interesting and important piece of ancient history that deserves to be recognised. 

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