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Relevance of Ethics of Ancient Greek Cynicism to contemporary society - a very actual article today!

Prof. Vytis Valatka participated in the Learning Mobility in Portugal in November 2019 as representative of VGTU University on behalf of CSB project. He gave a presentation between past and present very very centred on the core topic of our common learning process as consortium of 6 Universities and an NGO involved in "Cultural Studies in Business" Erasmus Plus project.

Furthermore, the article is absolutely contemporary. It makes a very interesting parallelism from Ancient Greek principles to COVID-19 quarantine period.


Contemporary European study programs in Business face the lack of subjects of Cultural Studies. The need of the latter in Business Studies is more than evident, as Cultural Studies contribute to a better understanding of various human, cultural and societal phenomena including economy, management, business etc.

This article presents the importance and relevance of the studies of Classical Philosophy and Ethics to the contemporary society. The article concentrates on the importance of temperance as one of the main ethical principles of Classic Greek Cynicism to the studies of classic and modern society and their phenomena. The paper also demonstrates how the above mentioned principle facilitates to grasping the very essence of human nature as well as reveals possible and feasible ways to happiness, success, efficiency and sustainability in various human activities. For example, one of the important guides for those activities could be expressed by the classical Latin proverb “Festina lente”, or “Make haste slowly”, which is even more relevant under conditions of global quarantine.

So, let us forget about the latter and start a short time travel to the ancient Greece absolutely free from Covid-19.

So, let us travel in time to ancient Greece. The philosophical school of Cynicism founded by Antisthenes (445 BC – 365 BC) and Diogenes (412 BC – 323 BC) is one of the most original and interesting phenomena of the Ancient Greek philosophy. The school was founded in Athens at the end of the 5th century BC and ended its existence in 529 AD, when Emperor Justinian I closed all philosophical schools in Athens. The Cynics earned fame mostly because of the uprising against the whole Antique Civilization, which was the first total uprising against civilization in the history of western thought. According to Cynics, civilization annihilates temperance – the main feature and essential virtue of human nature, leading to a healthy, tranquil and happy life, or in modern words, a high-quality life. Moreover, civilization replaces natural temperance with surplus of pleasures, which is especially pernicious to the human nature. The means procuring such a surplus (wealth, fame, renown, power, nobility etc.), are as pernicious as surplus itself, also they become significant marks and objectives within the frames of civilization. The cult of pleasures and tools of their hunting is also an evident vice and disease of contemporary civilization. Therefore, it’s highly plausible that diagnosis of antique variant of perpetual malady of civilization and proposed medicine may be also beneficial to a contemporary society.

And let us begin with identification of above mentioned malady linking the ancient world with the contemporary one. Why, according to Cynics, the chase of surplus of pleasures is such a huge vice and such a complicated disease? Why did Antisthenes maintain: “I'd rather be mad than feel pleasure”? It is the subtle analysis of pleasures made by Cynics that gives the answer. Such an analysis noticed fundamental principle, which could be entitled “the principle of flywheel”. This principle runs like this: “the greater surplus of pleasures a person achieves, the greater surplus of pleasures he desires in the nearest future”. Such a person little by little loses his natural freedom and becomes a total slave to surplus of pleasures, he permanently chases for pleasures, constantly desires them, having no possibility to live out of their reach. Nevertheless, no surplus of pleasures can fully satisfy him, no indulgence in pleasures can procure him with happiness – the permanent state of tranquil and undisturbed soul. Cynical philosophers compare the hunter for pleasures with a man possessed with dropsy: this man is constantly being tortured by unappeasable thirst, and the more abundantly his thirst is satisfied, the greater it grows. Such a man is always discontented; he is permanently tormented by anxiety and terror that he will never reach so desirable a quantity of pleasures or even, because of a sinister twist of fortune, will lose the pleasures he already possesses.

According to Cynics, the means for pursuit of pleasures also never suffice. There is no limit for fame, power and property. A man is never satisfied with wealth and fame he possesses, there is no end to striving and strengthening of power, and a libertine never finds the ultimate woman to provide him with pleasures in which he could finally calm down.

In other words, human nature under conditions of civilization is severely ill. To prevent it from death it is necessary to heal that serious disease. But what kind of treatment is required? Which remedy is capable to overcome this chronic tendency to chase pleasures and their instruments? After Cynics, there is only one medicine for the above mentioned malady. And it is nothing else but return to the natural temperance – the essential human virtue.

It is important to notice that Cynical philosophers do not mean an ordinary temperance, i.e. the sense of proportion in everything. In fact, they are talking about a radical temperance – the ultimate constraint of human needs. In modern terms such a variant of temperance may be entitled as the ultimate reduction of consumption. According to Cynics, only a minimal quantity of food, drink, sexual pleasures, clothes, shoes and other goods can entirely content human nature. More to say, those minimal needs are the most necessary ones, which actually can be fulfilled always and everywhere. At least they may be easily fulfilled in the living world of Cynics – Ancient Greece, where mild climate and exuberant nature do not allow Cynical philosophers to starve and freeze, where simple barrel can serve as an elementary shelter, as in the case of Diogenes.

Hence, according to Cynics, the virtue of radical temperance guarantees to a human being happy and careless life by protecting him/her from pernicious pursuit of pleasures that never suffice as the main disease of the Ancient Greek civilization. According to Cynics, this radical temperance is the only possible medicine for that disease. But how is this medicine produced? In other words, how is it possible to reach that blissful radical temperance? Cynics offer the only recipe for production of this remedy. In their opinion, it is asceticism (askesis) that leads step by step to the desirable temperance.

But what did cynics mean by such a mysterious word “askesis”? It is the term of ancient Greek language, and the principal meanings of it are “practice”, “training”, “exercises”. So, Cynical askesis was the certain kind of exercises. Namely, exercises strengthening and tempering both body and soul, deliberating human being from yoke of passions and vices, and disaccustoming him from permanent chase of pleasures.

Cynical philosophers distinguished two species of askesis: training of body and training of soul. For example, “Diogenes used to affirm that training was of two kinds, mental and bodily: the latter being that whereby, with constant exercise, perceptions are formed such as secure freedom of movement for virtuous deeds”. Both kinds of training perfectly complement one another. Moreover, “the one half of this training is incomplete without the other”. We face here a very important question. Namely, which exercises are designed for body and which ones are attributed to soul? It is a laconic phrase of Antisthenes that delivers the precise answer: “who wants to get a virtuous man ought to strengthen his body by gymnastics and exercises of endurance and his soul by education”. It is important to notice that such an education must include numerous myths about Antique heroes having practiced radical temperance (Hercules, Theseus, Odyssey etc.) which in modern terminology may be named the stories of success. As for exercises of endurance, they include learning to suffer pain, heat, cold, thirst and hunger. Among exercises, designed to body, Cynics also numbered manual work, which was honoured with status of important moral virtue.

So, according to Cynics, it is physical and spiritual askesis alone that can lead human being to virtue of radical temperance. Furthermore, the virtue of radical temperance requires constant practice, which must last lifelong. For, if a person no longer cultivates temperance, this virtue little by little begins to surrender to temptation of passions and vices and, finally, gets forgotten as a verse of Iliad or Odyssey, which is no longer read nor repeated in memory.

Cynics diagnosed the main malady of ancient Greek civilization, the pursuit of surplus of pleasures. Such a phenomenon is particularly characteristic of the contemporary consumer civilization. Modern science, technologies and telecommunications make variegated pleasures easily ACCESSIBLE to global consumption. The delectable objects permanently tempt us from TV, Cinema and computer screens. Our ears are constantly delighted and vibrated by sounds flowing form CD players or even live concerts. Plenty of pleasures, even the most piquant ones, can be lightly ordered hic et nunc by telephone, internet etc. On the other hand, the insufficiency of these lightly available pleasures is more than evident - the contemporary society faces numerous cases of diverse depressions, neuroses, suicides, various forms violence, racial, ethnic, cultural, religious discrimination and so on. Moreover, the surplus of pleasures, being broadcasted, propagated and ideologized via various channels, diminishes the quantity of creative energy and critical mass in society as well as immunity of the latter to different ideological, political, economical and the other manipulations and black technologies. There is no doubt about that. But there is some doubt as to whether the remedy proposed by Ancient Cynics could be pertinent and effective in the modern world as well.

Even in Ancient Greece the imperative of radical temperance sounded extraordinary. Even more extraordinary it would sound in contemporary civilization where human beings have considerably greater number of needs, where consumption is refined, and globalized, where the tempo of life is evidently faster etc. True, even nowadays it is possible to meet people with extremely restricted their needs. For example, I know a philosopher who walks in the same shabby shoes for 20 years and is very satisfied with that. On the other hand, it is hard to imagine a modern man to utter sincerely the words once said by an unknown Cynical philosopher: “my dress is a thin cloak, my shoes are my own feet, my bed is the whole earth and I eat nothing but milk, cheese and beans”. It is hard to believe that in cold wintertime the author of this article could walk barefoot, thinly dressed, that in modo Diogenis he could live in barrel etc.

Nevertheless, it has to be admitted that permanent consumption, constant chase of pleasures, fast tempo of everyday life, a desire to be, to have, to do more and faster wear and exhaust contemporary human being not allow to contend himself/herself with simple things, to enjoy life, to experience the beauty of the moment. Moreover, those factors sow continual anxiety and fear to be late, to miss, to lose, not to consume and so on. So, contemporary chase for pleasures could be visualized through the image of a man who is always in hurry that never stops. He hurries to fulfil his numerous works in order to hurry to relish his desired pleasures, which are quite easily accessible but still quite numerous. Nevertheless, he neither accomplishes his works through, nor fully indulges in desirable pleasures, the quantity of which is increasing together with demand for higher intensity. This man is simply short of time for both of these purposes. Therefore, he closes himself in the never-ending circle of unfulfilled works and inexperienced pleasures, and, as Mike Jagger ceaselessly sings, still can’t get no satisfaction.

And what could stop this vicious circle of never-ending hurry leastwise from time to time or at least slow it a little bit down? One of possible means to do that could be a choice of more temperate way of life, i.e. the reduction of consumption. True, modern man is accustomed to luxurious and comfortable life; he is used to desire, have and consume plenty of things. Nevertheless, it is possible just to try to live more temperately refusing what is not necessary, indispensable, what can be postponed for tomorrow and even declined when tomorrow comes. In any case, at least a minimal temperance, a minimal reduction of consumption could at least minimally improve the quality of life bringing more health, sanity, tranquility, stability, consistency and elementary joy. And what is more to say, such a minimal, or mild, temperance would help people not to feel totally helpless in the face of various local and global crises. Moreover, minimal temperance would undoubtedly contribute to resource efficiency and so on.

So, the remedy proposed by ancient Greek Cynics would not suit in its original radical form to contemporary consumer civilization. In a figurative sense, radical temperance would be just a too bitter and too tough pill for the over squeamish stomach of a citizen of the modern world. On the other hand, milder and softer form of such a pill could hopefully contribute to facilitate the permanent malady of civilization. Of course, not to heal, but at least to facilitate. Consequently, not radical but a mild variant of temperance, which can be entitled as a sense of proportion in everything, is required nowadays. In other words, not the ultimate restriction of human needs but just a reduction of consumption could become a contemporary prophylactic.

As it was told, contemporary chase for pleasures can be illustrated by the image of man in never-ending haste. The mild temperance, in turn, may be visualized through the image of remedy for that haste as well as image of a man, who, according to Latin proverb “Festina lente”, hurries quite slowly. Or at least stops that hurry at least for a while to relish beauties of nature, to savor simple food, to talk with friends, to read a good book, to go to concert, theater and so on.

And what recipe can be proposed for the production of the above mentioned important contemporary remedy? In other words, which way leads to that mild temperance? Ancient Greek Cynics sought their radical temperance by askesis – exercises for body and soul. It is widely known that without learning, practice and training it is impossible to achieve positive result in any activity. Temperance is also no exception to this rule. True, reaching no longer for the ultimate constraint of human needs but simply for a sense of proportion in everything, practice of enduring heat, cold, hunger and thirst, so emphasized by Ancient Cynics, loses its former relevance. Still, body training by gymnastics, moderate exercises of endurance and manual labour, and, on the other hand, training of soul by sciences and letters also nowadays lead to proper sense and attitude of proportion. Therefore, it is safe to say that askesis of ancient Greek Cynics deprived of its radical dimension could become one of the possible ways to achieve a reduction in consumption – the type of temperance relevant to the contemporary world.

Article Written by Prof. Vytis Valatka, Department of Philosophy and Political Theory of Faculty of Creative Industries - Vilnius Gediminas Technical University (VGTU), Vilnius (Lithuania). Participant in the Learning Mobility C2 in Covilhã by UBI University – Portugal (November 2019), on behalf of the Erasmus Plus K203 Project "Cultural Studies in Business".