Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2006.08.05

William D. Desmond, The Greek Praise of Poverty. Origins of Ancient Cynicism.   Notre Dame, IN:  University of Notre Dame Press, 2006.  Pp. xiv, 240.  ISBN 0-268-02581-9.  $48.00 (hb).  ISBN 0-268-02582-7.  $25.00 (pb).  

Reviewed by Kostas Vlassopoulos, University of Nottingham (
Word count: 2058 words

Regrettably, the study of ancient philosophy and the study of ancient cultural and intellectual history have long parted ways. Those studying ancient philosophy pay little attention to the work of cultural and intellectual historians, while they, in turn, pursue their agendas often ignoring what scholars who work on ancient philosophy have to say. It is a rare case that a study tries to bring the two subjects together, and this is the greatest merit of the work under review here. The ancient Cynics have long been seen as exceptional and outside the margins of Greek culture. William Desmond makes a powerful argument against this perception, by searching for the origins of Cynic ideas and attitudes within mainstream Greek culture and society. He examines a wide number of different texts, ranging from Homer and Hesiod to the tragic poets, Thucydides, Herodotus, Xenophon and of course Plato and Aristotle. He also attempts to contextualise Cynicism by viewing it as a reaction to contemporary developments in Greek society during the classical period.

Chapter 1 looks at the various modern interpretations of Cynicism. Some scholars see Cynicism as a symptom of the decline of the polis; others see it as a critique of the emerging commercial spirit and the worsening of social relationships; Cynicism can be seen as the psychological defence-mechanism of social outcasts; or the intrusion of Oriental traditions into Greek culture; or, finally, as a universal phenomenon of marginal individuals in pursuit of freedom and autonomy, just as with hippies, anarchists or anchorites. Desmond argues that although there is a grain of truth in most of these different interpretations of Cynicism, they miss what he sees as its essential defining characteristic: in contrast to modern perceptions of the cynic as a nihilist, an ancient Cynic is an idealist who bases his Weltanschauung on the wilful acceptance of poverty and toil. Previous accounts of Greek intellectual and cultural history argued that Greeks accepted wealth and despised poverty without second thoughts; and that they valued leisure and had only contempt for labour and toil; they thus end up portraying Cynicism as an abnormal and marginal phenomenon.

In contrast, in chapter 2 Desmond argues that various forms of praising poverty and toil were widespread in Greek culture and society throughout its history; Cynicism is rather a re-adaptation, re-interpretation and extension of these views on poverty and toil. Scepticism and even hostility towards many forms of acquiring wealth (usury, trade, political bribing, tyranny) were common, while elite authors could represent wealth as a burden and a source of danger in a democratic society like Athens. A number of authors came to argue that it is not wealth, but the virtue of the person who uses wealth that should be desirable. Cynicism adapted this idea to the extent that it is virtue itself which is the only form of real wealth. Human needs are limited and nature itself can provide everybody with what they need. On the other hand, while leisure was much sought-after, different forms of praising toil as a source of wealth, virtue and power were widespread in Greek culture. Desmond is particularly effective here in describing the emergence of the 'imperial work ethic' in the fifth century, as famously presented in the Corinthian portrait of the Athenians in Thucydides. Cynicism adopted this praise of toil by reinterpreting toil, not as a form of productive labour, for which there is no need or use, but as the mental and physical effort needed in order to break away from luxury and social convention and to embrace nature. Cynic asceticism and frugality is their form of toil.

Chapter 3 looks at the issue of poverty and military valour. Desmond shows that the necessity of poverty for military valour was a widespread notion among Greeks; on the contrary, luxury brought effeminacy and finally degeneration and destruction. He distinguishes between three forms of this idea: the individual / ethical, the geographical / national and the historical. On the individual and ethical level, poverty makes the individual able to withstand hunger, toil and fatigue and thus makes good soldiers. On the geographical and national level poor and mountainous countries make people frugal and valiant, as opposed to the rich and fertile countries that breed soft nations. From Herodotus and Hippocrates to Xenophon and Aristotle the idea is common enough in Greek culture. Finally, the idea lends itself as a scheme of historical periodisation, whereby martial nations from mountainous and poor areas subdue the soft nations of poor countries, only to be corrupted by luxury and be subdued themselves. Desmond shows how the Cynics appropriated all these different versions of the idea in order to explain how they can become capable of fighting against luxury, greed and violence. What is most fascinating about this chapter is the way Desmond explains how the idea of poverty as a condition of military success remained a valid way of understanding the world throughout the classical period: the Spartan defeat of Athens, Agesilaus and the Persians, the Ten Thousand, the Theban defeat of Sparta, Timoleon's success in Sicily could all be seen as verifications of this essential truth: in contrast to Thucydides, it is not resources that win wars, but the courage and heroism, which poverty nurtures and luxury destroys. This is a very important suggestion and should be taken seriously in future study.

Chapter 4 shows how Cynicism adopted two main themes from the Eleatic tradition. The one is the negation of movement, change and development and the assertion of the immutability of Being that goes back to Parmenides. Despite the false appearance of diversity and change, the Being is unchangeable, self-sufficient and all-encompassing. According to Desmond, Cynicism is the application of the qualities of the Eleatic Being to the Cynic sage, who is self-sufficient and unaffected by external changes. On the other hand, the Eleatic ontology, in its negation of common wisdom and the appearance of the senses, originates a tradition in which the sage is looking for truths that are hidden and seem ridiculous to the ignorant masses. This theme is again appropriated by the Cynics in their disparagement of commonly-held and mainstream views and values. But Desmond also shows the differences between Cynicism and other traditions that stem out of the Eleatic legacy. In contrast to the search for knowledge and science of a Democritus or Plato, the Cynics negate them based on a radical interpretation of Eleatic epistemology.

Finally, a short epilogue looks at the survival of Cynic themes in later philosophical traditions.

This book raises a number of issues of wider importance. The author has shown very convincingly that Cynic ideas and approaches are re-adaptations and modifications of ideas that had wider currency within Greek society and were by no means as marginal as previous scholarship thought. But his very success in showing this creates a number of problems.

One problem is that most modern scholars working on ancient Greece adopt a monolithic and functionalist approach to culture. Expressions like 'the Greek tradition' or 'the average Greek believed' betray what Pierre Bourdieu has called 'the synoptic illusion'. A culture is not a uni-dimensional or unified whole, but rather a set of sets. M. I. Finley once argued that 'the judgement of antiquity about wealth was fundamentally unequivocal and uncomplicated. Wealth was necessary and it was good; it was an absolute requisite for the good life; and on the whole that was all there was to it' (quoted on p. 18). Desmond shows very convincingly that this assessment is wrong and that various forms of praising poverty were common in Greek culture before Cynicism. But how is one to proceed from here? For surely, both Finley's and Desmond's assessments describe attitudes that coexisted within Greek culture. Should we talk about antithetical cultures? Should we see a single attitude, but variations according to the context? Should we see a difference between the 'aristocratic ideal' and 'Greek popular morality'?1 Desmond is particularly successful in showing that elite authors were capable of accepting certain forms of praising poverty and toil. It is thus not simply a class difference; but here one would expect more detailed discussion of the Greek distinction between penia and ptocheia than the cursory treatment it gets in pp. 31-4. But his philological method of finding traces of the praise of poverty in all sorts of different texts and contexts does not help him in raising these wider methodological issues.

On the other hand, one should look more outside the canon of texts. Although Desmond has read extensively outside philosophical texts, he is still too dependent on the views expressed by elite authors like Xenophon and Plato. Given the origins of many Cynics and the social world that they chose to inhabit, one should look in more detail into the world of the lower classes. But here it seems that the author does not have the necessary methodology to face this task. Statements like 'the difference, perhaps, is that the 'many' do not think through their assorted opinions to construct a consistent ethical outlook. Aristophanes' characters both denigrate the rich and envy them...The philosopher, by contrast, seeks a coherent and comprehensive moral system' (p. 65) are very problematic. The elitist perspective that the poor and downtrodden have no consistent outlook and can create no new ideas, a task that awaits the educated and the philosophers, has been exploded a long time ago by modern historians;2 while using the characters of Aristophanes to show what the many thought, is, if anything, at least highly contestable. One little example of the variety of lower-class sources not explored in the book will suffice: 'This is the beautiful tomb of Manes, the son of Orymaios, the best of Phrygians there ever were in wide Athens. And by Zeus, I never saw any woodcutter better than me. He died in war'.3 The possible connections between the praise of skill and manual labour and death in war would have provided excellent material for this book.

One other issue is relevant here and needed more elaboration. The Cynic is double faced: on the one hand he despises and scorns the rich, the luxurious, the powerful; freedom of speech, a vital instrument for a Cynic, is best guaranteed under a democracy. But on the other hand, a Cynic is still an elitist of sorts: only he has reached the real truth by embracing nature and he despises the masses for their stupidity and crass materialism; he lives by using the fruits of nature and begging and scorns those who do real manual labour in order to make a living. The combination and contradictions of this double side is not brought out with sufficient clarity and elaboration in the book and surely merits more study.

Another aspect that needs more attention is Athenocentrism, the equation of Athenian culture with Greek culture. Desmond argues that Athens and democracy play an essential part in the rise of Cynicism, while on the other hand showing the widespread origins of Cynics, many of which came from the wider 'colonial world'. How is one to bring these two sides together? Here the author has little to offer, mainly suggesting, without offering any evidence, that Athens was not isolated, but influenced other cities and that many cities had similar conditions and faced similar problems with Athens (p. 68).

Finally, although the author makes an admirable and well-aimed attempt to connect the study of ancient philosophy with social, economic and cultural history, in a number of cases it ends up in very problematic statements and accounts. His perception of ancient economies is extremely primitivist and rather outdated (pp. 45-9): arguments like 'agricultural conditions did not change radically during the classical period' (p. 75) are belied by recent findings. His statements that mercenary service disappeared in the fifth century (p. 109) and that Greek poleis fought their wars with mercenaries in the fourth century (p. 139) are both outdated and misleading. His statement that 'Greek wars did not pay, and were regarded primarily as contests for honor, not wealth' (p. 169) is equally problematic: the Athenian empire does not fit very well into this perspective.4

Having said all this, the virtue of a good and inspiring book is to raise new issues and generate further reflection. In this respect, this is a very successful and interesting book that deserves to be read by a wide audience.


1.   See the different approaches in C. Dougherty, L. Kurke, eds, The Cultures within Ancient Greek Culture: Contact, Conflict, Collaboration, Cambridge, 2003.
2.   See e.g. C. Ginzburg, The Cheese and the Worms: The Cosmos of a Sixteenth-century Miller, London, 1980.
3.   IG, I3 1361.
4.   For all these military issues, see H. van Wees, Greek Warfare: Myths and Realities, London, 2005.

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