Cyrenaic School of Philosophy

Cynic School of Philosophy

The Cynic School, founded at Athens about 400 B.C., continued in existence until about 200 B.C. It sprang from the ethical doctrine of Socrates regarding the necessity of moderation and self-denial. With this ethical element it combined the dialectical and rhetorical methods of the Eleatics and the Sophists. Both these influences, however, it perverted from their primitive uses; the Socratic ethics was interpreted by the Cynics into a coarse and even vulgar depreciation of knowledge, refinement, and the common decencies, while the methods of the Eleatics and the Sophists became in the hands of the Cynics an instrument of contention (Eristic Method) rather than a means of attaining truth. The Cynic contempt for the refinements and conventions of polite society is generally given as the reason for the name dogs (kúnes) by which the first representatives of the school were known. According to some authorities, however, the name Cynic arose from the fact that the first representatives of the school were accustomed to meet in the gymnasium of Cynosarges.

The founder of the school was Antisthenes, an Athenian who was born about 436 B.C., and was a pupil of Socrates. The best known among his followers are Diogenes of Sinope, Crates, Menedemus, and Menippus. Antisthenes himself seems to have been a serious thinker and a writer of ability. In his theory of knowledge he advocated individualistic sensism as opposed to Plato's intellectualistic theory of ideas; that is to say, he taught that the sense-perceived individual alone exists and that there are no universal objects of knowledge. In ethics he maintained that virtue is the only good and that pleasure is always and under all conditions an evil. Self-control, he said, is the essence of virtue, and a wise man will learn above all things to despise material needs and the artificial comforts in which worldly men find happiness.

Diogenes, generally referred to as "Diogenes the Cynic", is one of the most striking figures in Greek history; at least, his personality with its eccentricities, its coarse humour, its originality, and its defiance of the commonplace, has appealed with extraordinary force to the popular imagination. His interview with Alexander, of which the simplest version is to be found in Plutarch, was greatly exaggerated by subsequent tradition. The followers of Diogenes, namely, Crates, Menedemus, and Menippus, imitated all his eccentricities and so exaggerated the anti-social elements in the Cynic system that the school finally fell into disrepute. Nevertheless, there were in the Cynic philosophy elements, especially the ethical element, which later became a source of genuine inspiration in the Stoic School. This element, combined with the broader Stoic idea of the usefulness of intellectual culture and the more enlightened Stoic concept of the scope of logical discussion, reappeared in the philosophy of Zeno and Cleanthes, and was the central ethical doctrine of the last great system of philosophy in Greece.

WILLIAM TURNER
Transcribed by Rick McCarty

The Catholic Encyclopedia, Volume IV
Copyright © 1908 by Robert Appleton Company
Online Edition Copyright © 2003 by K. Knight
Nihil Obstat. Remy Lafort, Censor
Imprimatur. +John M. Farley, Archbishop of New York

The Catholic Encyclopedia: NewAdvent.com

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  Cyrenaic School of Philosophy

The Cyrenaic School of Philosophy, so called from the city of Cyrene, in which it was founded, flourished from about 400 to about 300 B.C., and had for its most distinctive tenet Hedonism, or the doctrine that pleasure is the chief good. The school is generally said to derive its doctrines from Socrates on the one hand and from the sophist, Protagoras, on the other. From Socrates, by a perversion of the doctrine that happiness is the chief good, it derived the doctrine of the supremacy of pleasure, while from Protagoras it derived its relativistic theory of knowledge. Aristippus (flourished c. 400 B.C.) was the founder of the school, and counted among his followers his daughter Arete and his grandson Aristippus the Younger. The Cyrenaics started their philosophical inquiry by agreeing with Protagoras that all knowledge is relative. That is true, they said, which seems to be true; of things in themselves we can know nothing. From this they were led to maintain that we can know only our feelings, or the impression which things produce upon us. Transferring this theory of knowledge to the discussion of the problem of conduct, and assuming, as has been said, the Socratic doctrine that the chief aim of conduct is happiness, they concluded that happiness is to be attained by the production of pleasurable feelings and the avoidance of painful ones. Pleasure, therefore, is the chief aim in life. The good man is he who obtains or strives to obtain the maximum of pleasure and the minimum of pain. Virtue is not good in itself; it is good only as a means to obtain pleasure. This last point raises the question: What did the Cyrenaics really mean by pleasure? They were certainly sensists, yet it is not entirely certain that by pleasure they meant mere sensuous pleasure. They speak of a hierarchy of pleasures, in which the pleasures of the body are subordinated to virtue, culture, knowledge, artistic enjoyment, which belong to the higher nature of man. Again, some of the later Cyrenaics reduced pleasure to a mere negative state, painlessness; and others, later still, substituted for pleasure "cheerfulness and indifference". The truth seems to be that in this, as in many other instances, sensism was satisfied with a superficial and loosely-jointed system. There was no consistency in the Cyrenaic theory of conduct; probably none was looked for. Indeed, in spite of the example of the founders of the school, the later Cyrenaics fell far below the level of what was expected from philosophers, even in Greece, and their doctrine came to be merely a set of maxims to justify the careless manner of living of men whose chief aim in life was a pleasant time. But, taken at its best, the Cyrenaic philosophy can hardly justify its claim to be considered an ethical System at all. For good and evil it substituted the pleasant and the painful, without reference, direct or indirect, to obligation or duty. In some points of doctrine the school descends to the commonplace, as when it justifies obedience to law by remarking that the observance of the law of the land leads to the avoidance of punishment, and that one should act honestly because one thereby increases the sum of pleasure. The later Cyrenaics made common cause with the Epicureans. Indeed, the difference between the two schools was one of details, not of fundamental principles.

WILLIAM TURNER
Transcribed by Rick McCarty

The Catholic Encyclopedia, Volume IV
Copyright © 1908 by Robert Appleton Company
Online Edition Copyright © 2003 by K. Knight
Nihil Obstat. Remy Lafort, Censor
Imprimatur. +John M. Farley, Archbishop of New York

The Catholic Encyclopedia: NewAdvent.com