The Cynic movement looms behind all the Hellenistic thinking sects to some extent, but most obviously with Epicureans. Much later, Jean-Jacques Rousseau recapitulated the worldview of ancient Cynics by recognized that culture carries profound corruption, and that makes it a matter of urgency for individuals to find some grounding or framework untouched by culture. Rousseau embraced nature as that grounding, nature in the wild countryside, sea and sky, and in the noble savage. Rousseau’s noble savage was a representation of natural innocence, but perhaps not a perfect role model. Ancient Cynics had pioneered the quest to base orientation in elemental nature, but mostly in human nature as manifested in gratification of the body and the fun of mental play. Epicureans shared with Cynics a quest for a value-orientation based in natural, even bestial, experiences, as an alternative to culturally transmitted fears and anxieties about unknowable aspects of life such as the powers and motives of gods, and the prospect of a promised afterlife.

The arc of philosophy is not entirely a literary, or even linguistic, entity. Cynics and other ancients taught and expressed philosophy in their way of life. Although Cynics produced literature such as satires and diatribes, for them philosophy was far more than literary performances. With spectacular originality, Diogenes of Sinope (c. 404-323 B.C.) embraced nature, both the pleasant and the unpleasant indifferently, which highlights the fact that the philosophical tradition has not been entirely fearful and unfriendly toward nature and animal aspects of the human body. It is said that Cynics lived like dogs, without property or possessions except for a few clothes: plain robe, sandals, walking stick, shoulder bag for food. They lived from handouts and what they could gather from the wild countryside.

Sophists and Cynics: Between Culture and Nature

Cynics and Sophists had opposing views of transcendence. Sophists were professional teachers of virtue, of personal improvement. The kind of transcendence represented by the ancient Greek polis, human society, was exactly what was promoted by Sophists. Society really does constitute a transcendence of brute nature by a collective construct of intelligences, an interconnectedness of intelligences. Sophists emphasized the collective construct as a wealth of opportunities for ambitious individuals.

Protagoras of Abdera (c. 490-420 B.C.) and Ancient Greek Humanism

Protagoras of Abdera, a pre-Socratic Sophist, is credited with authoring a myth of the founding of cities from a previous state of nature in which humans lived as isolated individuals, a myth not unlike the one proposed by Hobbes, outlined in the posting of February 10, 2012, Mathematical Rationalism in the Baroque Era. His myth illustrated that it was the founding of cities which transformed humans from individually isolated brutes into a cultured interconnectedness with power, knowledge, and comfort. A lawgiver is the hero in that kind of story.

The western tradition of subjective individualism can be seen to have a beginning in the work of Protagoras, who wrote the ancient Greek equivalent of “Man is the measure of all things …” Protagoras’ claim expressed consciousness that not everything is merely natural, not everything is Nature. There is a crucial contribution to any experience from the human intelligence having the experience. Whether the primary cosmic substance is earth, air, fire, or water, it has no intelligibility until measured by the senses, body, and mind of a person. Protagoras was recommending a transfer of admiration, that once went to gods, to the accomplishments and potential of human persons. It was more than a shift in focus from the supernatural world to the social and political life of cities. It was a new exploration of humans as individuals.

Ancient Greeks generally were conscious of culture as something like “civilization”. Their sense of it was based on familiar differences between themselves and outsiders they called “barbarians”. Barbarians seemed to Greeks to be deficient in something Greeks had achieved beyond mere nature, the special craft of living together in the polis. Greeks were polis animals and proud of it. In that context culture was seen in a positive glow. The idea that civilization might have special costs and negative consequences seemed ridiculous to ordinary Greeks of ancient times, who considered Diogenes the Cynic simply crazy.

Both Sophists and Cynics carried on cultural criticism, but their criticisms were very different. Both began from an awareness of cultural relativism, awareness that different communities have different gods and religious practices, different foods, manners, traditions, and values. Sophists used that observation to justify their claim that, since nothing is either right or wrong except from arbitrary social convention, the wise operator will say and do whatever is most effective in getting what he wants, normally reputation, wealth, and power. Sophists would teach their clients to argue convincingly on both sides of any issue, since ‘truth’ is often mutable, malleable, and selectable. Sophists assumed that there is no viable alternative to operating within culture.

The ancient Athenian Sophist enterprise was teaching aristocratic young men virtue for public discourse, similar to Renaissance humanistic self-development for politics, business, art, or literature. The virtue of a knife is cutting, and the virtue of a man is speaking intelligently, participating in the important conversations of his community. Voice has always been a marker of individual intelligence, and already a close association between thinking and language was identified. For Sophists, there was a kind of transcendence in knowledge of virtue in oratory, and in the polis as the fulfillment of man as a speech-making being. The learning and teaching of virtue contributes to the perfection of a person. Plato and Aristotle expressed a dismissive attitude toward Sophists, but the systematic deliberations that Sophists devoted to issues in logic, ethics, and nature provided a lot of important groundwork for subsequent philosophical work.

Cynic Innocence

Diogenes and other Cynics were also profoundly conscious of culture, and one Cynic effort was to escape the grip of culture and live according to nature. For Cynics, cultural relativism means culture is arbitrary, random, accidental, but typically claiming total loyalty, reverence, and obligatory participation as the unquestioned standard of truth and goodness, as illustrated in Plato’s allegory of the cave. As such, immersion in a culture is confinement within a deception, a mighty disabler of freedom and individual authenticity. Cynics seem to have acted out an interpretation of Plato’s cave allegory, with the cave interpreted as immersion in culture. Cynics were focused on exploring subjective innocence rather than on explicating culture or nature at large. Their identification of culture was in what they rejected in their way of life. Cynics explored freedom from culture by an embrace of individual body-nature such as appetites and sensual gratifications, experiences also valued by Epicureans. Nature was not evil or a mirage for Cynics. It was where humans belong, where we can be authentic.

Cynics identified a need to “deface the currency” as a way of connecting with the nature manifested by human individuality outside the influence of cultural norms, laws, and traditions. Cynics also emphasized the complete indifference of external valuables. Cultivation of subjective freedom was for them so vastly rewarding that all the commonly enjoyed goods such as wealth, health, and reputation, simply paled by comparison. To cultivate externals was to distract yourself from the cornucopia of subjectivity itself. In a specific expression of subjective innocence, Cynics were playful and liked to write satires and jokes. Their focus on the pleasure of play reveals their conception of living according to nature. Cynics exerted a strong mental discipline to maintain their innocent playfulness toward all situations indifferently, although they did not have the elaborate ideology of Stoics about exerting the inward spark of Logos in rationality. Humour and playfulness are rare in philosophy, and playful Socratic innocence was an inspiration for Cynics.

When Cynics said “live according to nature” they were talking about innate animal nature rather than about the beauties and balances of the wild countryside and sky, since all externals were to be accepted indifferently. (This is where Stoics learned the idea of the indifference of externals.) However, the indifference of externals reveals that it was not brute animal nature that Cynics were embracing. Indifference to all externals takes mental deliberation and determination. So Cynic innocence is not quite animal innocence. It is a rationally chosen and rationally maintained discipline of innocence.

Cynics did not accept that people have an enemy lurking within the make-up of subjectivity itself. The enemy was culture. It is often argued that virtue is sophistication of some kind, specialized knowledge, a rule-governed activity that can be taught and learned. It was Plato’s view, for example, that virtue is knowledge of the Good. Cynics declared that virtue is nothing other than innocent expression of appetites, self-declaration, play, and wonder. They also demonstrated that innocence does not result in an egoistic hostility toward, or exploitation of, other people. Such aggression is motivated by culture, by the quest for a reputation, showy trophies, gravitas.

Cynics, like Sophists, contrasted social convention to natural or innocent subjectivity, but Cynic intuitions of subjectivity were much more radically individual than those of Sophists. For Cynics, ‘nature’ denoted individual nature as realized in or driven by the body. Anything related to social reputation was culturally determined and so perfectly non-natural. Wealth and power measured or defined in objective terms were likewise perfectly non-natural. Cynics had discovered elemental bedrock in subjective innocence. Cynic freedom is freedom from attachment to externals generally, and culturally sanctioned attachments specifically, and you can have authentic happiness only on the basis of inward freedom.

Truth to Power

In Cynicism, the higher state is freedom in playful spontaneity, and the lower state is immersion in cultural myths. Cynic freedom meant unrestricted expression of the spontaneous quests of the body such as sex and sunshine, and also unrestricted vocal expression of thoughts and judgments, freedom of speech. Speaking truth to power is normally dangerous because power is a cultural construct which corrupts the relationship of individuals to truth. There is a story that Alexander the Great made a journey to speak to Diogenes of Sinope who was living in very meagre circumstances. He asked Diogenes if he needed anything that Alexander could provide. Diogenes said yes, Alexander could stand aside so Diogenes would not be in his shadow. In another story Alexander is quoted as saying that if he were not Alexander then he would want to be Diogenes.

Epicureans: Intelligent Embodiment

The founder of the Epicurean movement, Epicurus, lived between 341 and 270 B.C.. For Epicurus and his students, having the mental power and freedom to transcend reflexive impulses and first impressions puts happiness within individual control. The project of freedom is to live in happiness by means of strategic thinking, navigating sources of pleasure and pain in a determined application of rationality to evaluating the consequences of different possible actions. What emerges from that practice is wisdom, awareness that mental pleasure in exercising rational freedom is itself the greatest pleasure. Epicureans placed more emphasis on individual powers of rational thinking than Cynics did and placed less emphasis on a general struggle against culture.

Hellenistic Rationality

Since at least Plato, human desires, emotions, and sensitivities, specified as bestial appetites and a self-interested spirit of competition and ambition, were recognized as forces of subjectivity. However, they carried the taint of unfreedom, the indignity of slavish compulsion. Epicureans were surprisingly radical in their integration of desires and feelings with rational thinking. The Epicurean individual was the bearer of pleasure and pain, rather than, as conceived by Plato or Aristotle, pure intellect, but intellect was still very much present. Integrating rational thinking with experiences of pleasure and pain was a way of transcending the compulsive and bestial nature of human embodiment without alienating embodiment from authentic self-experience. The Epicurean self was philosophically special because in the mainstream there was thought to be a separation between the higher rational locus of knowledge and language, and the lower bestial or compulsive passions. It was still the vision of a higher self fallen into and imprisoned within brutish nature. On that view, rationality bears the heavy load of responsibility to liberate and rescue humans from vile imprisonment within a lower, more primitive, subjectivity. The Epicurean approach accepted value from body-centered experiences in close involvement with deliberative intelligence. Higher and lower moved closer together and entered a mutually beneficial relationship.

For Epicureans, the emphasis on rationality was in aid of the fullest enjoyment of embodied pleasure, quite a different project from contemplating an eternal and universal Logos. There is a difference between the propositional thinking engine conceived within Stoicism, and the Epicurean self, for example. Whereas the Stoic will say, “I am thinking rationally, therefore I exist,” the Epicurean will say, “I am striving intelligently for pleasure and avoiding pain, therefore I exist.” Agony, pain, and misery are markers of individuality. Each individual must create his or her own way through those experiences. The Epicurean individual was indeed a sufferer of pleasure and pain, but also the author of strategic action for achieving pleasure and happiness instead of pain. The idea of the individual as a distinct existential entity of deliberation combined with emotion and sensitivity broadened the dignity of the person.

Hellenistic Transcendence

Nature in itself was neither hateful nor providential for Epicureans, but merely a given to be engaged for the practicalities of a subjectively good life. Epicurean transcendence was, again, achieved through the exercise of rational thinking, specifically in calculating the way to minimize pain and maximize pleasure, with the mental pleasure of wisdom being best of all. Epicurean transcendence is remarkably inclusive of the complexities of experience. Emphasis on subjectivity, happiness, expresses some rejection of external nature in a way that has a similarity to the indifference practiced by Cynics and Stoics and the rejection of vile nature in primal dualism.

Hellenistic philosophical sects all shared the program of exercising personal rationality to achieve a transcendent state of intelligence. All recognized each individual as a peculiar and distinct quest for happiness. Intelligence was the higher force and happiness required intelligence to exert itself against other impulses generally associated with the human body and the life of the body within the world of bodies. The individual was the strategic achiever of happiness or self-possession in the face of troubling vulnerabilities and disadvantages, since rationality accumulates knowledge of causes and effects in the engagement of the human body with its surroundings. Partly inspired by Cynics, Epicureans and Stoics did not consider the world of bodies to be essentially flawed, evil, or a mirage. Cynics and Epicureans acknowledged that appetites occasion as much pleasure and joy as they do pain and anguish. In addition, appetites and the assertive spirit are the most creative parts of Plato’s divisions of the subjective soul. They leave a particular person’s mark on surroundings by creating new shapes and arrangements in the world. To dismiss these as slavishly bestial or as entirely conventional and imitative, is too narrow. The bestiality of the body includes the pleasure of embodied power, being a lion in remaking pieces of the world, as well as including animal appetites, pleasures and animal misery.

This work was ethics, deliberating on acting from and realizing the higher self of intelligence rather than merely acting out immediate impulses. Without freedom there cannot be much point to discussion of how action can sometimes lead to self-fulfillment or happiness. The point of ethical thinking in the Hellenistic period was to achieve the existential state of happiness, not a condition of the world such as the greatest good for the greatest number, or maintaining social order and investor confidence. The question was: what kind of action within the complete control of any individual can lead to his or her own happiness? However, there was no interest in a kind of happiness that might be possible from burying your head in sand. Happiness had to be an all-things-considered accomplishment, real heroism turned inward.

Materialism and the Gods

For Epicureans, the metaphysical situation of humans does not prevent the personal achievement of happiness. Nature at large is materialistic but includes deliberate acts of freedom. Gods exist remotely and do not interfere with the individual freedom to achieve happiness.

Epicureans explored aspects of innocent subjectivity that explicitly rejected aspects of culture. For example, Epicureans, like Stoics, were materialists but went much farther than Stoics in removing the will of divinities from the events and conditions of the world. Epicureans did not deny the existence of gods, but judged that gods exist in their own dimensions, remote from the human world, with no interest in mortals. Earlier Greek philosophers presented materialist descriptions of the world in terms of hypothetical elements, not only water, fire, air, and earth, but moist and dry, hot and cold. Democritus of Abdera (c. 460-371B.C.) came up with a theory of atoms in a void that is still with us. Hellenistic Stoics and Epicureans defended the atomic metaphysics of Democritus, but with their own freedom-enabling modifications. The Epicurean program of materialism was a secularizing project, removing spooks from explanations of events and removing fear of gods and of an afterlife. In spite of their materialism, their focus was subjective and existential since the central question was how to manage fear and dread in a troubling world and exercise freedom in creating a happy life.

Copyright © 2012 Sandy MacDonald. The moral right of the author is asserted.