Ancient Cynic, Christian monastic beliefs old but very relevant

by Rev. Demetrios J. Constantelos

Modern society’s obsession with materialism, its absorption with consumerism in its search for happiness and fulfillment, is not unique. The ancient Greek historian Diodoros Sikeliotis (first century BC) writes that his compatriots, the citizens of the city of Acragas, ate every day as if they were to die the following day, but they built houses as if they were to live forever.

It was against a background of materialism that the principles and teachings of the school of philosophy known as Cynicism revived in the same century and became popular among thoughtful people.

Cynicism was a school of ethical philosophy that provoked extremes both of admiration and of hostility. Because of the behavior of some followers of Cynicism, it has brought to light some of its teachings of great contemporary significance — teachings parallel to those of Christianity, Christian monasticism in particular. It is interesting that the revival of interest in Cynicism coincided with the emergence of Christianity.

Cynics’ origins

In this article, we will present some of Cynicism’s teachings that are of modern value, and consider them either as influential on, or as parallel to Christianity. The origins of Cynicism can be traced to the fifth century before Christ but, following a period of decline, it became very popular during the first two centuries of the Christian era, more precisely from the last quarter of the last century before Christ to the end of the reign of Marcus Aurelius (c. 180 AD). Cynicism survived at least until the end of the fifth century.

The Cynic philosophers of this period (27 BC-180 AD) taught the importance of the principles of self-sufficiency, simplicity, independence, asceticism, cosmopolitanism and philanthropy toward all people, independent of race and ethnic origins.

Furthermore, along with Stoic and Neo-Pythagorean teachers, revived Cynicism taught principles of frugality, temperance and in general, humanitarian concerns.

The best exemplars of these principles were Krates of Thebes and Apollonios of Tyana. Nevertheless some of the Cynic principles can be traced back to the teachings of Socrates and his students, including Antisthenes of Athens.

Concept of virtue

Antisthenes ( ca. 455-360 BC ) a devoted follower of Socrates, a sophist and professional teacher, taught that happiness is based on virtue (arête) and that virtue is acquired through knowledge. Thus virtue can be taught.

Virtue is not identified with material pleasures but through constant exertion and heroic effort. For Antisthenes, Herakles was the ideal person and a human prototype to imitate.

As far as religion is concerned, Antisthenes believed that, not withstanding the fact that people believed in many gods, a study of nature and the cosmos speak of the existence of a unity, one Creator God. Antisthenes is one of the early Greek philosophers who conceived of mankind’s unity through homonia (oneness of mind) and philanthropia (love for mankind.)

He taught that it is not the legalistic application of the city’s laws but the law of arête that should guide people in their daily life. Virtue, goodness, is the same for men and women.

Because of his humanitarian teachings and acts of philanthropia, along with other Cynic philosophers, Antisthenes was considered “a liberator of people and healer of their passions.”

Long before Antisthenes Greek philosophers, such as the Ionians, attempted to replace inherited religious beliefs about the world by rational explanations.

It is believed that Antisthenes’ teachings influenced Diogenes of Sinope of Pontos (Asia Minor) (ca. 400 – c.325 BC ), the philosopher who is commonly considered the father of the Cynic school of philosophy.

Diogenes’ main principles of philosophy, too, were about happiness: What is happiness? What contributes to happiness? How does one become happy?

Diogenes taught that happiness is identified with a life of self-sufficiency, oligarkia – contentment with little, training of the body to have as few needs as possible, to kata physein zein – to live according to natural needs. To live according to nature is to live a simple and undemanding life. What is natural is good, whatever has been added by convention is evil and a source of unhappiness.

Diogenes’ teachings about simplicity, self-sufficiency, and independence attracted many followers from among both educated and uneducated classes in Athens and other Greek cities.

His critics called him kyon (dog) because he had rejected many conventions and emphasized that living a free life — a “dog-like” life is natural. In the ancient world, dogs were symbols of a life without shame — anaideia (shamelessness). Thus Diogenes’ teachings became the basis of a school of philosophy known as Cynicism.

Influence of Cynicism

The question that requires our attention is to what degree Cynic principles of philosophy, asceticism, and philanthropy influenced Christian thought, monasticism in particular. Arête, autarkeia, askesis, ponos, important elements of Cynicism, became integral parts of Christian monasticism.

The principles of Cynicism advocated an asceticism that aimed at the achievement of spiritual freedom and independence, a freedom that required a constant askesis (training, labor) to harden the body and strengthen the spirit. Such an exertion implied ponos (pain) a painful struggle that leads to virtue and purification.

Revived Cynicism, in the early Roman Empire (27BC-180AD) developed a moral philosophy which included a powerful philanthropic impulse and advocated humanitarian treatment of all people, a spiritual message for the betterment of all — poor and rich, Greeks and barbarians, literate and illiterate.

Through theory and practice several Cynic philosophers set an example of self-sufficiency, autonomy of will, and independence of action, and attacked luxury and sensual indulgence.

By their own justification of poverty, they offered hope to the poor and weak, the marginalized of societies and the oppressed. The fame of some of Cynicism’s representatives survived for many centuries. Krates of Thebes, one of Diogenes’ most faithful disciples, along with his wife, devoted themselves to humanitarian and good works.

Kerkedas of Megalopolis, inspired by Cynicism’s principles proposed reforms, attacked inequalities in his efforts to bring a renaissance in his city.

Later, at the beginning of the Christian era, Apollonios of Tyana in Cappadocia became famous for his ascetic life and his wanderings, teaching principles of simplicity to the extent that later writers paralleled him with Jesus Christ.

Demetrios, Dio Chrysostomos, Demonax, Peregrinus Proteus, Oinomaos of Gadara, Sostratos, Theagenes and Salustios lived in the early Christian centuries (first to the fifth).

For Cynic political philosophy, a monarch, emperor or king, was expected to be a person of virtue and wisdom. Thus some of the Cynics, such as Demetrios, were men of courage and did not hesitate to condemn corrupt leaders. Because of his anti-monarchical teachings and criticism of Nero, Demetrios was exiled.

Dio Chrysostomos (AD c.40-120) is better known because of his writings. He became known as Chrysostomos (the golden mouthed) — not to be confused with the Church Father John Chrysostom (AD347-407) — because of the quality of his orations and his rhetorical style.

He exerted a great influence through his speeches on the duty of a prince. He emphasized a virtuous active life. Later in the second century, Demonax of Cyprus came from a wealthy family, but like some Christian ascetics he elected to live in poverty, indicating that happiness is not necessarily identified with possession of material wealth. He avoided some of the extremes of some Cynics and maintained a moderate attitude toward life.

The principles of Cynic philosophy such as arête, oligarkia, autarkeia, askesis, ponos (virtue, satisfaction with little, self-sufficiency, asceticism, pain and labor) could be found in other philosophies, philosophies outside of the Greek world.

Nevertheless, they were popular principles in a period when Christianity spread in the Roman Empire and the emergence of Christian monasticism in particular.

Christianity and Cynicism

During the fourth and fifth centuries we find even Christian theologians who claimed to be followers of Cynic philosophers such as Salustios, described by Julian the Emperor as “an excellent man.” Notwithstanding his praise for Salustios, Julian delivered an oration (no.6) scolding the new Cynics who had deviated from the pure principles of Antisthenes, Diogenes and Krates.

Some of the new Cynics of the fourth century, Julian called hypocrites for wearing the coarse cloak, the staff and wallet, and long hair. They were rebuked for their greed and pretentious piety, their itinerant and mendicant life. These kinds of Christian monks were derided not only by Julian and other non-Christians, but Church Fathers such as Gregory of Nyssa, John Chrysostom, and others. There were followers of Cynicism that went to extremes and condemned for anaideia (shamelessness) and there were Christian monks, too, who went to extremes in their teachings and their practices.

We must note however that there were some basic differences between Cynics and Christian monks. The aim of the Cynic way of life was to achieve an undisturbed, peaceful, independent, happy life on earth. The main purpose of Christian monasticism was personal sanctification on earth that ultimately leads to eternal happiness in God’s heavenly kingdom. Cynics aspired for happiness on earth, while Christian monasticism’s target was heaven.


The ideals of Christian monasticism were set by Sts. Anthony, Pachomios, and Basil the Great in particular, who defined the aims of monasticism and introduced rules that guided it throughout the Byzantine era (324-1453).

Anthony, the founder of Christian monasticism, taught that the chief purpose of the monk is personal sanctification and the gain of God’s Kingdom in heaven through the practice of poverty, chastity, asceticism, discipline of daily life.

He set an example of poverty by giving away his possessions, retiring himself into the desert. A similar example was set by Basil who used his wealth to establish a complex of philanthropic institutions, hospitals (nosokomia), hotels (xenones) for travelers, an orphanage, leprosaria (for the relief of lepers), ptocheia (homes for the poor.) Basil, too, emphasized that a monk’s life should require poverty and chastity.

But, once again, the aim of the monastic life and the practice of the principles of poverty, chastity, asceticism, philanthropy in general was the kingdom of heaven — not necessarily happiness on earth.

Closer to the ideals and practices of Cynicism was Christian anchoritic monasticism. Hermits, like Cynics, who practiced an extreme form of asceticism, including defiance of all forms of convention, became antisocial. But their ideal, too, was not earthly happiness but the gaining of the Kingdom of God. Because of their extreme practices, Christian hermits at times went against some of the teachings of the organized church.

Many Fathers of the desert and others, known as fools for Christ’s sake, were admired, but it was coenobitic (communal life) monasticism that prevailed and established itself as the arm of the Church.

“Fools” for Christ

The “Fools for Christ’s sake” more than any other form of monasticism adopted certain principles of Cynic philosophy and imitated the daily life of their representatives. They became known as fools because they tried to follow St. Paul’s advice that Christians should “become fools so that you may become wise” (1 Co. 3:18) and that Paul himself and other apostles became “fools for the sake of Christ” (1 Co.4:10).

Church historians and chroniclers such as Palladios, Evagrios Scholastikos and others of later centuries write of men and women who became fools, or “played’ the fool, for the sake of Christ. An anonymous nun in a convent at Tabennisi in Egypt, Symeon of Emesa, Andreas of Salos, Vasilios the Younger, Symeon Eulaves, Kyrillos Phileas, Savvas the Younger are some saints named fools. They came from various geographical areas of the Byzantine Empire and lived between the fourth and the fourteenth centuries.

All the “fools for Christ’s sake” had something in common with Cynic philosophers. They had rejected traditional values of urban civilization, social conventions and had pursued a life of austerity, living an itinerant ascetic life in the streets and fields, subjecting themselves to all kinds of ridicule and humiliations like their predecessor Cynics.

One thing is certain: There were many followers of the principles of Cynic philosophy who were greatly influential and admired, as there were many Christian monks who made their mark on history. For example the Cynic philosopher Krates enjoyed a reputation for moral excellence because of his great sense of fairness and justice (dikaiosyne) but also his profound concern for the practice of philanthropia for the well-being of all people.

From as early as the Homeric age (eighth century before Christ), from the fifth century in particular, philanthropia in Greek moral philosophy was used in a broad sense to include acts of kindliness, gentleness and benevolence in general. But in revived Cynic philosophy, as well as in Christian theology, philanthropia was used in the profound sense of love for mankind — love toward all independently of color or creed.

It became synonymous to agape. In addition to a common understanding of philanthropia, both Cynicism and Christianity held progressive views on issues we today consider very important: the equality of the sexes, the breaking down of social barriers, concern for all people over nationalistic extremes.

Universal attributes

The universal human attributes advocated by Cynic philosophers such as Krates, Demetrios and Apollonios were not related to logos (reason) but to arête, eleos, philanthropia. Like many Church Fathers, who were less concerned with dogma and abstracts but more with the application of pistis (faith), elpis (hope) and, above all, agape (love — 1 Cor.13:13).

Furthermore, it needs to be said that notwithstanding the limits imposed upon them by both history, geography, and their environment, Greek thinkers such as Cynics and Stoics perceived of the human being as the center of the cosmos and emphasized the unity of humankind free of violent nationalisms, color and religions prejudice. Neither divisions in city-states nor conflicts between them prevented them from promoting the idea of common fellowship bringing together all humankind.

To be sure similar ideas could be found among other people contemporary to the Greeks, but the Greek concept of humanity’s unity is distinct because it appears as a single connected process through a variety of Greek poets, philosophers and historians from Homer and Hesiod through the pre-Socratic philosophers, the tragedians, Socrates, Plato, Aristotle and especially the Cynics and the Stoics.

There is little doubt for the student of ancient Hellenism and the Hellenistic Age in particular that the views of the philosophers mentioned above became a paidagogos, a prelude to Christian ideas about the unity of human kind.

Whether the principles of Cynic philosophy influenced the ideals of Christian hermits, or whether both developed along parallel lines, is academic. Neither Cynicism’s philosophy nor Christian ideals of asceticism were unique.

They were known and practiced in other parts of the world. Human beings everywhere have common needs, both material and spiritual.

What unites them is a common aspiration for happiness in daily life and eternal life beyond the grave. Self-sufficiency, simplicity, independence, asceticism, philanthropy, temperance, frugality (oligarkia, arête, autarkeia, askesis, ponos), principles that harden the body and strengthen the spirit are just as important today as they were in the time of Diogenes the Cynic and Basil the Christian.