Cynicism: an other life, an other world, an other space?

In Foucault’s last series of lectures at the Collége de France (1983-4), he explores the ancient philosophy of Cynicism and its relation to truth-telling (παρρησία – parrhēsía). The Cynic for Foucault was above all the parrhesiast (parrhēsíastēs) par excellence, the person who has the courage to tell all, to tell the truth.

Here are a few brief notes/thoughts in the context of heterotopia, with a more thorough note-summary below if interested[i].

The Cynic took and enacted common philosophical principles to their extreme limit, for example, avoiding any distraction by inessentials or the trapping of life. For a Cynic like Diogenes this meant living a life of poverty, wandering the streets half-naked, begging for food and so on. This was what ‘caring for the self and others’ meant in practice for the Cynics, concentrating on the fundamentals of life and utterly, shamelessly and openly conforming to their principles.

For Foucault there is a central, curious paradox in Cynicism. It is commonplace and scandalous, familiar and strange, ordinary and unacceptable. Established, traditional philosophers recognised themselves in it but also rejected it. Foucault uses the metaphor of a ‘broken mirror’ in which philosophers  recognised what philosophy is but at same time offered a ‘grimace’, something ugly and violent (232), a series of breaking points.

With the Cynics parrhēsía is not just about frankness, telling the truth, it involves living that truth, displaying it. Cynicism constantly both urges and manifests the question: ‘what can the form of life be such that it practices truth telling?’

Placing in a much wider context, Foucault suggests that the Cynicism offers the possibility of  an other life (un vie autre), whereas Platonism poses questions regarding an other world (un monde autre). Platonism contemplates the mirror of the soul, the pure world of truth, whereas Cynicism leads to how life must be lived in the truth, aiming ultimately, through encouraging others to lead a true life, to shake up and the change the world itself, actually to make an other world.

Foucault then briefly looks at possible later manifestations of Cynicism which might be taken up in future research. He mentions forms of asceticism in the Christian monastic tradition, nineteeth century revolutionary politics and certain forms of modern art.

This is a tiny snap-shot (for more see below). As I read the lectures, I wondered if there were any connections between these forms of otherness of Cynicism and the notion of other spaces (des espaces autres) that might be taken up in a future study.

If we just stick to some of the examples of heterotopia that Foucault offered:

Utopian Jesuit colonies are places to lead an other life with the promise of an other world (as mentioned above Foucault mentions that the whole ascetic tradition would be worthy of study regarding forms of later Cynicism).

Brothels, fairs, festivals offer a transitory slice of an other world/life. (Foucault in his lectures on Cynicism refers to Bakhtin and the festival/carnival as a possible later manifestation of the Cynic life).

Prisons, asylums, cemeteries, gardens of antiquity are microcosms that compress and invert our world/ life in different ways – Genet’s (a modern Cynic?) stories of prison life come to mind here.

In sum, heterotopias in various marginal ways mirror and break with the familiar world in which we live – offer glimpses of an other world, an other life.  Modern forms of Cynicism involve potentailly fascinating other spaces.

Foucault, M. (2008)[1984] The Courage of Truth: Lectures at the Collége de France (1983/4) trans. G Burchell. New York: Palgrave McMillan.

[i] Lecture 7 March 1984

Foucault returns to the history of Cynicism which he suggests is difficult to capture as it takes a range of forms. EG Contrasting portrayals of it at two extremes: marginal, ostentatious vagabond, insolent on one hand, and man of culture, simple life, eloquent on the other. There are also different attitudes to it, positive and negative. Its origins seem to go back into early antiquity, something at its core that is universal. On the other hand, wanders, on fringes of society. General view ends up that some aspects are seen as deplorable and should be rejected whilst other parts are worth cherishing, preserving following. There is very little knowledge, theory, doctrine involved. It was popular and addressed widely to the public and not just an elite. Was it popular because simple or was it simple because it was popular?

Dio Chrysostom describes 3 categories of philosophers: those who remained silent as though public would not grasp it; those who taught a body of knowledge to pass on to a select group in schools; and the Cynics who went around openly seeking the most vulnerable to engage.

But above all Cynicism was not about passing on knowledge; it was about moral and intellectual training in what was useful to be independent, to endure, to battle, an ‘armature for existence’ 205. Seen in Seneca – better to know a few simple precepts thoroughly.

A notion of two ways to virtue: (1)that which takes time, is easy, no great effort and achieve virtue through logos/discourse and (2) the short way which is difficult, full of obstacles, requiring silence, practice, exercise, endurance and destitution.

Rather than theory, put forward anecdotes, models, examples. Foucault describes it as a ‘traditionality of existence’ rather than a’ traditionality of doctrine’. Restoring memory v restoring moral strength/courage. Traditionally history of philosophy about doctrines rather than forms of life, styles of life.

To go back, what interests Foucault in the Cynics is how  parrhēsía emerges in the life of a person, the speaking of truth emerges in the ‘manifestation of existence’,  a testimony of truth, or truth in the form of life. The theme of the true life was important in ancient philosophy, in Christian spirituality and much later in political ethics. This is his on-going focus: subject/truth and the history of the relationship….

The Cynics take things to extreme and make traditional notions of the true life grimace- a ‘carnivalesque continuity’ of themes rather than a break with traditional philosophical values….

14 March 1984

Traditional philosophers found a ‘scandalous banality’ in Cynicism.

Foucault tries to capture this by using term ‘eclecticism with reverse effect’. It takes up a arrange of traditional features of philosophy of the time but not to draw a consensus rather to offer a ‘shocking practice, something strange, hostile even war like.. The commonest features are drawn together to form a series of unacceptable breaking points for philosophy.

To go back to the leading theme of the whole series of lectures, courage of truth, he has described political bravery, Socratic irony, both involved risking one’s life for telling the truth but here with the Cynics it is  not just telling the truth, it’s living it, displaying it. Foucault then argues that this question has been progressively marginalised, forgotten to extent disappeared today because:

(1) Religion and spirituality and its institutions have taken up the question of the true life (confiscation of the problem of the true life)

(2) Science and its institutions assert that scientific practice leads to the truth (invalidation of the problem of the true life).

So in Western thought this question has become increasingly ‘worn out, eliminated’

So this is why Cynicism fascinates him – it is the point of departure of this great ‘exterioration of the problem’. 237.

So the Cynic life takes up four different principles of traditional philosophy but puts them in practice in an extreme form, takes them on literally to their limit of expression in life: (1) unconcealed life; (2) independent life, (3) straight life and (4)the sovereign life (master of itself).By taking them on fully and displaying them, these themes clashed with some of the basic values of Greek-Roman society.:

(1) unconcealed life – Plato commended in terms of true love, Seneca saw it enacted through the examination of a friend, in letters, Epictetus evoked the internal gaze of God. But for cynics IE Diogenes, this unconcealed life is dramatized in public, visible – but this clashed with conventional values of ‘propriety’ which traditional philosophy accepted, endorsed.

(2) independent, unalloyed life. Again traditional themes in say Plato but here taken to mean a life of poverty, of living the most wretched existence. But this clashed with deep-seated notions of the best and the crowd. It is not just a question (EG Seneca, a very wealthy man) of not being absorbed by wealth and preparing for life without such trappings but actually living a life of absolute poverty. It is not a virtual exercise; it is real. It is even more than living a humble life (EG Socrates),it is unlimited and ends up humiliated, dependent, ugly – which again clashes with values of beauty, posture etc. The same with begging, slavery and no care of reputation. These were unacceptable to Greeks and Romans and clashed with values of honour etc.

(3) straight life – about following laws, a certain logos, but Cynics followed what they saw as ‘natural laws’. To conform to such laws means for example overturning ban on incest and cannibalism and generally giving a positive value to animalism – obvious clash..

21 March 1084

(4) Sovereign life is a life in possession of itself, belonging to oneself (Seneca) but this also open to relationship to others either in teacher-student mode or friendship mode. One must be useful to others a guide etc.  But again with cynics this is taken up but pushed to limits, accentuated, dramatized with the arrogant assertion that the Cynic is King. An aspect of Platonism in guidance to king’s soul but here Cynic is the King and at the same time in relation to actual kings that sit on thrones, he is anti-king. He bursts their pretentions.

Cynicism is a battle against desires and passions but also against customs, conventions, and institutions. He does not simply pass on or encourage a beneficial sovereign life, independent, self-sufficient, based on care of self (Seneca) he manifest a wretched kingship, harsh tests, struggle with self and others.

It is a ‘militant life’ despite anachronism. A form of life that is important in the history of ethics: ‘combatant-soldier who endures poverty, hardship, derision for the benefit of all, to shake up the world, to change it – militancy in and against the world.


16 October 2017