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The Cynics and The Choices We Make

Editor's Note: Dave Greenfield is a poet and activist in Saskatoon, SK. As an activist in a variety of issue areas, he has often stood outside the power structures and offered his criticisms. As a participant in history, he has an interest in various historical anti-establishment movements, of which the Cynics are one.

Dave GreenfieldToday, if you were to call someone cynical, you would probably mean that they are bitterly sceptical about everything, to the point of not believing in anything. Today, cynicism tends to mean the opposite of idealism. The original use of the term, however, in ancient Greece and Rome, was very different and in some ways almost the opposite of its current use.

In ancient Greece, as in most societies, there were pecking orders. There were haves and have-nots, those who were successful in the wealth and power structures and those who were not. Philosophers, whose chosen task it was to think about the universe and ponder on ethical, social and cosmic truth, were generally either part of the elites, or received the patronage of members of the elite. Not surprisingly, what most philosophers said was generally pleasing to the elite.

The Cynics were a school of philosophy, which attempted to say goodbye to all that. They rejected having a patron and being part of the power structure, and instead made it their goal to live simply and self-sufficiently, perceiving that living simply and outside of the power structures gave them the moral ground on which to stand and be critical of the various power games they observed in their society. The Cynics, in ancient Greece, and later in Rome, often lived on the street or in very primitive shelters. Some begged to survive, while others grew their own food, living, as it were, in a permanent state of protest.

The Cynics' relationship to the power elites can be symbolized in a story that is told about an encounter that is said to have occurred between Alexander the Great and the Cynic philosopher Diogenes of Sinope. Diogenes was relaxing and enjoying the sunshine one day, when Alexander the Great came up to him and asked, "Is there anything I can do for you?" Diogenes replied, "Perhaps you could step back a bit. You're blocking the sunlight.” The Cynics wanted nothing from the power structures and saw them as an impediment rather than as a positive vehicle.

The Cynics were probably the longest-lived anti-establishment movement, lasting from about 350 BC to around 400 AD. Unfortunately, they left relatively few writings, and much of what we know about them is what others, often their critics, had to say.

Our own society, in many respects, is not much different from the world of ancient Greece and Rome. We have our various state, corporate and charitable elites, and those who say and do what is pleasing to the elites are rewarded, while those who criticize are marginalized and left to fend for themselves. In the Canadian blind community, those who say nice things about service providers like the CNIB are rewarded by the power structure, while those who offer valid criticisms and resistance are marginalized. The Alliance for Equality of Blind Canadians finds its voice marginalized precisely because we strive to be independent of the structures in order to monitor and offer valid criticisms. We differ from the Cynics in that the Cynics chose to be marginalized, believing that that better enabled them to speak truth. We, on the other hand, choose to speak truth and find ourselves exiled to the margins because of it.

There is one lesson the Cynics may teach us, in the story about the encounter between Alexander the Great and Diogenes. Sometimes, when agencies like the CNIB ask, "Is there anything we can do for you?" we must have the strength to say, "Perhaps you could simply step back a bit and stop trying to speak on our behalf. You are blocking our way!"


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