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#5: Cynics, Stoics, and Other People

Copyright © 2014 by William B. Irvine

Medical researchers recently made headlines when they reported that cynics are more likely to develop dementia than non-cynics. In the study, published in the journal Neurology, nearly 1,500 people, whose average age was 71, were asked how much they agree with statements like these: “I think most people would lie to get ahead” and “It is safer to trust nobody.”

Several years later, these individuals were tested for dementia. It was discovered that those who formerly displayed cynical tendencies—which researchers equated with a tendency to mistrust other people—were three times more likely to develop dementia than non-cynics were. This was after controlling for other factors that could trigger dementia, such as high blood pressure.

When I read this study (summarized here), it occurred to me that the “cynical” people in the study weren’t Cynics in the classical sense of the word. The individuals who scored high on the “cynicism” test can better be described as anti-social curmudgeons.

The classical Cynics—including my favorite, Diogenes of Sinope—were endearingly eccentric individuals who seem to have had many friends. What they distrusted was not people but pleasure. Because of this distrust, the Cynics lived an ascetic lifestyle. Their strategy for “dealing with” pleasure was to avoid pleasant things. Despite their asceticism, though, they retained their sense of humor.

Early in his life, Diogenes and his father had been exiled from Sinope, in modern Turkey, because either he or his banker father had adulterated the coinage there. When someone later brought up this incident in an attempt to shame Diogenes, he responded that yes, it was true that the people of Sinope had sentenced him to exile, but added that he in turn had sentenced them to remain in Sinope.

On another occasion, Diogenes was enjoying a sunbath—one of the few pleasures a Cynic would allow himself—when Alexander the Great walked up and asked whether Diogenes wanted anything, the suggestion being that Alexander had it in his power to grant any wish. Diogenes replied that yes, there was something Alexander could do: stop blocking the sun so Diogenes could continue his sunbath. Alexander was impressed by this response. Indeed, he is reported later to have said that if he couldn’t be Alexander the Great, he would want to be Diogenes.

The Stoics have Cynicism in their bloodlines. The original Stoic, Zeno of Citium, had been a student of Crates the Cynic. Zeno soon drew the conclusion, though, that humans are not well-suited to asceticism. He therefore softened their doctrines in his development of Stoicism.   He agreed with the Cynics that we should distrust pleasure. Where he disagreed was in how we should deal with it. Our goal, said Zeno, should not be to avoid pleasure altogether but, while enjoying pleasant things, to take steps to avoid being enslaved by them.

Neither the Cynics nor the Stoics were antisocial, in the manner that the curmudgeons in the above-described survey were. In particular, the Stoics fully admitted that people need the company of other people in order to be happy and that people benefit from friendship. They also realized that other people are the principal source of irritation in daily living. With this in mind, the Stoics devised strategies for preventing other people from disrupting their tranquility.

One strategy was to immunize themselves against the insults, both blatant and subtle, that other people directed their way. As part of this strategy, the Stoics advocated insult pacifism: when insulted, we should act as if nothing had happened. And if we feel that we must say something in response, self-deprecating humor was our best bet. (I describe insult pacifism in greater detail here.)

It isn’t clear whether the above study proves that being an anti-social curmudgeon will increase our chance of developing dementia. One thing that would have been clear to both the Cynics and Stoics of the ancient world, though, is that being an anti-social curmudgeon would vastly increase our chance of having a miserable existence.

A 21st century Stoic will seek the company of other people. Yes, they will irritate him from time to time, but steps can be taken to keep this irritation to a minimum. And what irritation remains, he will remind himself, is a small price to pay for the joys of human companionship.

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