Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2009.08.36

William Desmond, Cynics. Ancient Philosophies.   Stocksfield:  Acumen, 2008.  Pp. vi, 290.  ISBN 9781844651290.  £15.99 (pb).  

Reviewed by Scott Rubarth, Rollins College (
Word count: 1245 words

William Desmond's new book offers an introduction to the ideas, practices, and influences that have been associated with the rather diverse and disparate group of thinkers called Cynics. This book is an addition to the Ancient Philosophies series, a collection of introductory studies on major thinkers and movements from Greco-Roman antiquity which seeks to offer "a clear yet rigorous presentation of core ideas" in a compact manner and at a reasonable price. Desmond's Cynics succeeds in making the key ideas accessible and intelligible to the introductory reader; however, a more direct and focused discussion in connection with a more critical use of sources would have made the work even more valuable.

The ancient Cynics present special challenges for an introductory text. Not only has nearly all the primary evidence been lost, but there are also serious questions as to what constitutes Cynicism. Is Cynicism a philosophy in the same way that Epicureanism or Stoicism constitutes a philosophy, or is it primarily a cultural stance, a social identity, or a collection of reflective strategies for living? Are there basic principles necessary or sufficient to establish Cynic identity, or is Cynic identity based on a fluid family resemblance model? In order to avoid such sticky questions, the author wisely treats Cynicism "as a body of loosely related ideas that, as a whole, remain fairly constant from Diogenes to Sallustius" (6).

Desmond divides the project into four parts: an introduction, a historical survey, topical/thematic discussions, and a concluding chapter on legacy and reception. The introduction briefly distinguishes the modern sense of the term cynic from Cynicism as an historical, ethical, and social movement arising in Greco-Roman antiquity. Desmond points out that in contrast to the modern cynic, who is essentially negative and pessimistic regarding human nature, the ancient Cynic is optimistic regarding human potentiality to thrive. Although the Cynic may appear hostile toward the masses, beneath the negativity and criticism lies a fundamental philanthropia.

In chapter one Desmond sets out a coherent historical-biographical survey of the principal actors and sources in Greco-Roman Cynicism. This chapter is one of the most useful parts of the book. The diachronic survey, however, moves back and forth from practicing Cynics, literary sources, admirers, and critics. For example, when discussing the Roman period, the main figures are introduced in the following order: Favonius, Demetrius, Dio Chrysostom, Epictetus, Lucian, Demonax, Peregrinus, and Julian. Despite the author's attempt to distinguish practitioners, friends, literary sources, and opponents, the distinctions are not adequately emphasized and may result in some confusion. The problem is amplified when the author occasionally calls figures such as Epictetus, Dio, or Lucian "Cynics" or argues Cynic doctrine from Stoic texts.

The following two chapters examine the two foundational principles of Cynicism: renunciation of culture and following nature. Chapter two, which deals with Cynic renunciation, provides the main discussion of Cynic practices. Here Desmond shows his fluency and the depth of his knowledge of the tradition. The result is a very informed and productive discussion of Cynic askêsis in action covering a range of domains--clothing, adornment, diet, pleasure, domestic life, family, property, slavery, work, play, politics, war, and exile.

The third chapter examines how Cynic naturalism provides the philosophical underpinning for Cynic practices discussed in the previous chapter. Desmond attempts to explain how Cynic naturalism differs from the various other forms of naturalism. Unfortunately the philosophical analysis of Cynic naturalism is disappointing: although Desmond discusses the role of nature in Callicles, Plato, Aristotle, Epicurus, and the Stoics, he does not sufficiently unpack the philosophical commitments underlying the various views. Furthermore, the distinction between Epicurean, Stoic, and Cynic versions of the nature argument could have been analyzed more productively.

The fourth chapter offers a long, general discussion of fate and chance which is used to set up a discussion of Cynic self-sufficiency. The Cynics are shown to be unconcerned with the philosophical debates on determinism, since their ethics prepares them to thrive irrespective of what fortune brings. Desmond sees Petronius' account of the dinner party of Trimalchio as a contrast to the Cynic position. He argues that the Satyricon is "in many ways a Cynic novel" that possesses "many quasi-Cynic elements" (169). Desmond supports this surprising claim by the many references to dogs in the passage and the appearance of the term "pera". Trimalchio and Fortunata are presented as anti-Cynics in contrast to Encolpius and Aschyltus who are called "two Cynic-like wanderers" (171). This later claim seems to be a stretch.

Chapter five examines the Cynics and politics. This is another very productive chapter, which shows how Cynicism relates to anarchism, democracy, and monarchy. Cynic cosmopolitanism is also examined; Desmond argues against the view that the word cosmopolitês has merely negative connotations. Dio Chrysostom's and Lucian's expropriation of Cynic figures are heavily utilized, as elsewhere in the book.

The problem of identifying some minimal conditions for Cynic identity becomes most pronounced in the final chapter. For if we identify Cynicism with a "family resemblance" approach almost everyone is a Cynic. Wisely, Desmond chooses to focus on "those whose contact with the Cynics themselves was more direct and deliberate" (210). He then proceeds to examine Stoicism, Christianity, Renaissance and Enlightenment thinkers, and a few contemporary voices. In most cases, he follows his pattern of choosing those features that find parallels in Cynicism, ignoring obvious differences, and moving on. Only with the claim that identifies Jesus Christ as a Jewish Cynic does he balance the points of similarity with a set of disqualifying features. Had the author been equally critical in the case of Onescritus or Bion, one wonders if they too might fail the test. In any case, it is a shame that the author limits his use of negative evidence to this one, perhaps politically sensitive, claim. For contemporary Cynics, Desmond chooses Peter Sloterdijk and Luis Navia. The recognition of Navia's immense contribution to the field is very appropriate and a nice way to conclude the book.

Taken as a whole, Desmond's Cynics has many valuable elements. Desmond's knowledge of and fluency in the literature of ancient Cynicism is unquestionable and there are few anecdotes or chreiai which cannot be found in the text. However, there are two features of the work that limit its value as an introductory text. First, the book fails to cultivate an adequate critical attitude and humility toward the limited source material. Students will most likely walk away having the sense that we have a firm foundation and knowledge of this movement. Of course, we have very little reliable information regarding the actual beliefs of the early Cynics or even whether it was a coherent movement. What we have is lots of scattered evidence of how Cynics appeared to their contemporaries and a hodgepodge of sayings, jokes, and stunts attributed to various individuals whose origin is uncertain.

The other main criticism is stylistic. The book is packed with extraneous material that makes the book much longer than it needs to be. Better editorial oversight could have done much to keep the book focused. A good dose of Cynic minimalism applied to the presentation would have made the book more effective as an introductory text. John Sellars's edition on Stoicism (also in the same series) is an exemplar of discipline and clarity suitable for a "compact" introductory text. Yet despite these limitations the book is a treasure trove of information on the various ways the Cynics and the idea of Cynicism have appeared in history and literature from antiquity to contemporary times.

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