The three freedoms of the Cynics

by Massimo Pigliucci

“What is the most beautiful thing in the world?” “Freedom,” replied Diogenes of Sinope. (Diogenes Laertius, Lives of Eminent Philosophers, VI.69)

These days there is much talk of freedom, and just as little understanding of what it is and what it entails. Especially in the United States, certain people seem to conceive of freedom as the ability to act unimpeded in life. “It’s a free country!,” they proudly shout, and promptly proceed to engage in one obnoxious behavior or another, such as not wearing an antiviral mask on public transport, even when mandated by law.

This kind of freedom is referred to by philosophers as “negative,” in the sense that it hinges on non-interference by others. We do, in fact, enjoy several negative freedoms. For instance, when I’m in my apartment in New York I have ample freedom to do or not to do what I wish. But of course my negative freedoms have limits, even within my own home. I cannot blast music at 3am, because that interferes on other people’s negative freedoms, like the freedom of my neighbors to get a good night sleep. … (continue on Medium)


  1. A couple of notes, and always good to see discussion of Cynicism.

    The Cynics themselves trimmed their sails as needed. Cynicism didn’t die out, but it certainly did fade, during the peak of the Roman Empire, for obvious reasons. (If I ever finish my “Three Christs of Galilee” novel, one of three is half-Greek, half-Jewish, and from the Decapolis, a stronghold of Middle Cynicism.)

    Were Stoics better than Cynics on autarkeia? You might put forth Epictetus, and I would counter with Seneca, who of course, like Plato et al, “paid court.” I may be retrojecting my neo-Cynicism, but I think that the Cynics didn’t believe that they had life on a loan from Fortuna and so had the upper hand. Ditto on not trying to find a Logos behind life. So, I would offer that a (neo) Cynicism “lite,” which allows for not rejecting quite so many possessions and not getting the begging bowl out, like the “auditors” in Gnosticism, aids to monks in Buddhism, etc., is maybe the preferred non-indifferent?

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    1. I don’t know Socratic, what you are describing sounds more like Stoicism than Cynicism. Then again, there is an obvious kinship between the two, so perhaps.

      (Btw, yes, Seneca. But Julian the Apostate was complaining about latter day Cynics who only pretended to be such…)

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  2. I’m not so familiar with later period Cynicism. I do recall Julian’s complaint, but am not sure of the basis of it.

    Sidebar: SEP, interestingly, does NOT have an entry “Cynicism”! Weird. Sad, too.

    Per your other observation, Wiki says that Imperial-era Cynicism came to be seen as “an idealized form of Stoicism.” That same link notes that Epictetus also complained about non-ideal Cynics, and perhaps Julian’s complaints were similar.

    Per my unfinished novel, Gadara, if I remember correctly, as one of the (many Markan variants) possible locations of the story of the “demon called Legion,” was a center of early Imperial Cynicism.

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