The Cynics were a school of Greek philosophy and early fans of self-sufficiency. Living well for the Cynics meant living off the land. Hard work equated to a virtuous life. The four schools of philosophy: the Cynics, the Sceptics, the Epicureans and the Stoics were established in the early part of the third century BC partly as a reaction to the collapse of the old form of society based on independent city states.
One of the first Cynics was Antisthenes, who followed Socrates and who lived a fairly conventional life, mixing with other thinkers in the rather elite circles of early Greek philosophy, but after the death of Socrates and the collapse of Athens, he seems to have gone through a mid-life crisis. He rejected the fine clothes, high conversation and the wining and dining favoured by his aristocratic friends and instead starting hanging out with the workers, apparently dressing like a labourer.
Declaring that refined philosophy was worthless, Antisthenes left the rarefied atmosphere of the academy and started teaching philosophy in the open-air to those without education in what might be considered the first open university. He wanted to return to a so-called more ‘natural’ way of living and that meant doing away with government, private property, marriage and religion. He also thought slavery should be abolished. So what did that leave him with, apart from smelly clothes and clean conscience? Well, not much, according to historians. Antisthenes disliked any form of luxury and thought that indulging the senses was wrong. He reputedly said: ‘I had rather be mad than delighted.’
Few people would echo his view nowadays. Given a choice, most people would prefer to be delighted rather than mad, as delight in our understanding carries much less stigma than madness. But perhaps we need to consider Antisthenes in the context of his time. He was by no means the only philosopher to despise luxury. Socrates before him created the identity of a philosopher-eccentric by dressing in old rags and sometimes neglecting to put on his sandals. Granted that a Mediterranean climate makes it much easier to wander around in the ancient equivalent of beach wear all year round, maybe these philosophers were not as rebellious as they seemed, but their example in giving up luxury is worth examining.
A new Waitrose opened in my home town this week. The giant high street mobile advertising, the wrap-around sandwiching front and back of the local newspaper, the texts, the endless stuff in the letter box, the home visits from freshly uniformed Waitrose butlers bearing free cheese and wine samples on silver platters ensured that I took notice. In the interests of philosophical research I went to see what all the fuss was about.
As I stalked the shelves, browsing what looked to me to be the same sort of produce and goods you get in every other supermarket, I wondered why people had chosen to come to Waitrose in droves. Apparently on opening day people started queuing at 7am, an hour before the store officially opened. So what is going on? What’s the appeal? Part of it must be that Waitrose is a marketing triumph: it packages things nicely, makes everything look pretty, trains staff to smile and to help the customers feel good, and then makes a huge profit. If that sounds cynical, it’s meant to in the spirit of the original cynics who would not have been seen dead near Waitrose.
Nevertheless, my visit to the shiny new store made me wonder whether there is something interesting going on because from what I could see most people shopping in Waitrose know exactly what they are doing. Most people shopping in Waitrose are buying what they can’t get elsewhere and that’s the feeling of a shop that cares, even if it is manufactured.
Walk into Waitrose and you feel uplifted by the sense of abundance and plenty, by the sense that the age of austerity, exemplified by the dusty cut-price world of Lidl and Aldi and the now struggling Morrisons is over at last. Goodbye cruddy old Co-op with your worn-out slippers and cardigan and your unappetising deli. Hello Waitrose with your Easter-egg colours, your outlandishly priced delicacies and your sweet smile. Spring is finally here!
For the Cynics, luxury was to be avoided if you wanted to feel good. For people living in 21st century Britain, luxury is what makes us feel good. So why have things changed so radically? Why is it now that when we want to cheer ourselves up, we are encouraged to do so by brands that parade their luxury status. I bought muesli the other day; wholesome muesli that used the word ‘luxury’ prominently on the front of the packet. Why? I didn’t buy it for that reason; I just wanted some breakfast cereal, so why did the company try to persuade me that I’d somehow invested in my wider well-being? It is precisely this form of marketing that makes many people feel cynical.
Dropping out to grow my own muesli seems a bit extreme, but not as extreme as Diogenes, another Cynic who followed Antisthenes. Diogenes famously claimed to be ‘a citizen of the world,’ but decided rather bizarrely to live like a dog. Indeed the word ‘cynic’ is derived from the Greek word kynikos, which means canine. He ditched most of his clothes, didn’t wash and moved his bones into a burial urn, a big terracotta pitcher. He was visited by many dogs and considered them to be his friends. Naturally when people annoyed him (and you can just guess at how much he was teased) he barked and howled and sometimes sank his teeth into his tormentor’s ankles.
Alexander the Great apparently dropped by one day and the great leader famously asked Diogenes if there was anything that he could do for him: some more Winalot, perhaps, or maybe a brisk run on the seafront followed a good scratch on his tummy? Diogenes famously told Alexander that yes there was something that Alexander could do for him and that was that he could get out of his light. Alexander’s reply is lost in history.
Diogenes believed that living simply was the only way to live freely. For him, moral freedom is only possible without desire for material possessions. In this respect he belongs to a long tradition of ascetics and alternatives who believe that withdrawing from the temptations of society is the way out of the bind of consumerism. But for modern society it certainly is not that clear-cut. We have recognised that it doesn’t have to be all or nothing. We are not about to start lining our kennels with newspaper. Most people don’t mindlessly consume luxuries. We are canny enough to know the real motivations behind supermarket temptations, and we are open-minded enough to make our choices. We don’t need to give up on comfort in order to achieve wisdom. True wisdom lies in the subtleties of discernment.