How Did Socrates’s Teaching Inspire Cynicism?

Socrates’s teaching spurred other philosophical movements. Here are five ways he inspired Cynicism.

Feb 15, 2024By Natalie Noland, BS Politics, Philosophy, and Economics
how socrates teaching inspire cynicism

 

Born in fifth-century BCE Athens, Socrates was an influential figure who became known as one of the founders of Western philosophy. He is infamously known for his teaching method, by which he asked his students questions to create an open dialogue to stimulate critical thinking. In some cases, his students became influential philosophers in their own right — like Plato, one of Socrates’s most famous students, whose writings on his teacher are some of the only sources for Socrates’s beliefs. Because he taught his students to question everything, he helped pave the way for new philosophical movements.

 

Cynicism Is a School of Philosophy

Bust of Antisthenes. Source: World History Encyclopedia
Bust of Antisthenes. Source: World History Encyclopedia

 

Cynicism is a school of philosophy that emerged in ancient Greece in the 4th century BCE. It was founded by Antisthenes, a student of Socrates, and was continued by Diogenes of Sinope, one of its most famous practitioners. Cynics advocated for a simple life, rejecting social conventions like materialism and the pursuit of wealth or power. They thought virtue was the ultimate good, aimed to live in accordance with reason, and challenged traditional norms. 

 

If Socrates were around, he’d recognize more than a few of their beliefs. Since the Cynics founder was Socrates’s student, it’s no surprise to learn that Socrates himself played a role in inspiring Cynicism — and that many of their tenets overlap. Here are five ways Socrates’s teachings inspired the Cynic movement. 

 

Socrates Valued Virtue as the Highest Good

abel socrates teaching line drawing
Socrates teaching his disciples by Joseph Abel, 1801. Source: Waddesdon Manor, UK

 

While Socrates’s works later became significant to many different branches of philosophy, the thinker himself was mainly concerned with ethics and morality. He talked about how to live a successful life and what it meant to be good. In this, the Cynics followed Socrates’s lead. They emphasized virtue as the highest good, the ultimate goal in life, and believed that to live virtuously was to live successfully. Although Socrates and the Cynics had slightly different views of achieving virtue — the former emphasized wisdom while the latter believed in harmony with nature — both believed that living in accordance with reason was the key. 

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He Taught His Students to Always Be Skeptical

socrates death brown ink
Death of Socrates by anonymous German artist, 19th century. Source: The Metropolitan Museum of Art

 

Socrates’s social skepticism landed him in hot water with the local Athenian government of his time, but it was one of the core foundations of his philosophy. He was never satisfied with how things were, and was constantly looking to debate the state of the world — even when it was controversial and went against the status quo. The Cynics found inspiration in this, though they took it even further than Socrates did. While he simply remained skeptical as a way to open conversation, Cynics rejected society’s standards and conventions altogether, choosing to live outside the realm of normality. 

 

His Students Understood that Questioning Is the Best Learning

raphael the school of athens
The School of Athens by Raphael, 1509-1511. Source: Musei Vaticani

 

If there’s one thing Socrates was good at, it was asking questions. And what did he love to question the most? Traditional values. Socrates believed that wisdom was reliant on continual inquiry. It wasn’t enough to accept things as they were; one must be skeptical of everything to achieve true good. The Cynics were big proponents of this as well. Although they didn’t necessarily question the same things — Socrates was fond of denying the gods, while Cynics preferred to challenge norms — the Cynics took a page out of Socrates’s book to push back against prevailing social values on their quest for virtue. 

 

Socrates Passed on His Indifference to Material Wealth

diogenes of sinope waterhouse
Diogenes by John William Waterhouse, 1882. Source: Art Gallery of New South Wales

 

Part of Socrates’s philosophy focused more on the immaterial aspects of life — such as virtue, justice, and wisdom — than physical things. He was more concerned with living a good life than he was with living a wealthy one, and he was largely indifferent to the material world. This view heavily influenced Cynic philosophy, which rejects luxury and comfort to focus instead of advocating for a simpler life. One of the founders of Cynicism, Diogenes of Sinope, took it to the extreme and became known for living in a large jar with only a few personal belongings.  

 

Cynics Followed His Lead and Taught in Public

Socrates standing before seated group in temple portico by L.P. Boitard, 1750. Source: Wikimedia Commons
Socrates standing before seated group in temple portico by L.P. Boitard, 1750. Source: Wikimedia Commons

 

One reason Socrates’s teaching became so controversial was because it was done in public spaces. Unlike some of his contemporaries, Socrates did not have a formal school, so his classroom was Athens itself. He taught in various gathering spots — such as marketplaces and gymnasiums — which often sowed discord among politicians and the city’s elite. While this eventually led to his death, it was a powerful way to get his messages out to a wide variety of people, and Cynics decided to use the same approach. They took their philosophical discussions to the street, though they were much more eager to embrace their contentious reputation.

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By Natalie NolandBS Politics, Philosophy, and EconomicsNatalie is a freelance writer from Rhode Island. She has a BS in Politics, Philosophy, and Economics from Northeastern University with a minor in Writing. Her academic interests include ancient philosophy, logic, and game theory. She enjoys reading, watching movies, and kayaking in her spare time.