"Indeed, a minimum of life, an unchaining from all coarser desires, an independence in the middle of all kinds of outer nuisance; a bit of Cynicism, perhaps a bit of ‘tub’."
Friedrich Nietzsche

19 Nov 2011

Cosmopolitan activism

“Why cling to your bit of earth, or your little business, or listen to what your neighbour says? It is so provincial to bind oneself to views which are no longer binding a couple of hundred miles away.” Friedrich Nietzsche
Paradoxically, clinging to their little bits of earth around the world defines the modus operandi of the 'occupy' movement; opposed as it is by the desperate attempts of the enforcers of law and order to eject the occupiers from their plots, sometimes through the use of ancient and obscure by-laws. Last week, in my home city of Cardiff in the UK, I witnessed the glee of Council officials and the police as a torrential downpour of rain prevented what may have been a much larger and sustained occupation outside Cardiff Castle. This was the occupiers second attempt to set up camp, on this occasion prevented from occupying their former pitch in front of the castle by an exhibition of luxury cars.


It's cosmopolitan features is another parallel between today’s occupy movement and the protest of the ancient Cynics — although in the case of the Cynics thiers was a way of life as well as a response to a global crisis. It is interesting to note what prompted these cosmopolitan characteristics. Further comparisons can be drawn to our current crisis, not least, in the case of the Wall Street and other US protests—unless, of course, you are a banker—the lie (and death) of the American dream that: if one works hard and your company prospers, you too shall prosper.




Rejecting any loyalty to country or state, and adopting the customs of any nation that complemented their lifestyle, the Cynics regarded themselves as citizens of the world: the first cosmopolitans. And one of the customs they may well have borrowed can be traced to the Buddhist maxim that: if one desires nothing, one lacks nothing (trade links already existed between the Mediterranean and India). And considering the time in which they lived, other of their practices, such as disregarding local laws, would have put the Cynics well outside of the normal rules of society, and at some considerable danger. This included welcoming women and slaves as equal members of their community. But then the Cynics were aware that, as other advanced civilisations such as the Egyptians and Babylonians had developed along very different lines to Greek society, creation must be the work of humans not gods, and therefore also capable of change.


One of the more interesting stories about the possible origins of Cynicism involves the Cynosarges (Park of the Agile Dog), a gymnasium and a temple to the worship of Hercules. The Cynosarges was the only place where Athenian ‘bastards’ were permitted to worship and exercise. Bastards were defined by Athenian law as including anyone with an Athenian father but whose mother was a slave, a prostitute, or a foreigner, as well as those whose parents were not legally married citizens. Generally well assimilated into Athenian life, a law passed in the fifth century B.C. prohibited bastards from exercising in the gymnasiums (Hercules is himself described by Luis E. Navia as a “legendary bastard, par excellence”). For some reason this law did not extend to the Cynosarges which became a regular gathering place, not only for official bastards, but also self-proclaimed bastards: those who felt illegitimate within the conventional rules of society.


There are also some direct parallels here with the early Jesus movement some 300 years later, a movement for which the Cynics might take some credit for influencing. The main trade route between the Mediterranean coastal town of Ptolemais and Gadara (birthplace of Cynics Menippus, Meleager and Oenomaus) passed just 8 miles north of Nazareth. It seems unlikely then that Jesus (man or myth) would not have been influenced by his Greek neighbours. Other similarities aside (ascetic lifestyle, philosophy, style of discourse, attitude to others and troublesome behaviour) it is the early Christians cosmopolitnism that is of particular interest here. We hear from Mathetes in his Epistle to Diognetus that, “Christians inhabit the world, but do not belong to the world” and that, “they live in countries of their own, but as sojourners. They share all things as citizens; they suffer all things as foreigners. Every foreign land is their native place, every native place is foreign. . . . They pass their life on earth; but they are citizens in heaven.” Yet unlike the cosmopolitan Christianity of Paul—a more evangelical version of the philosophy of Jesus—the Cynic had no interest in trying to convert others to their way of life. Indeed, Diogenes (nicknamed ‘the Dog’ because of his growling, snapping demeanour) was more likely to chase those who came to gawk at him away with his stick.


This view that ‘heaven’ could be an attitude of the living rather than a repository for dead souls, is borne out in Thomas (113): when asked by his disciples, “When will the kingdom come?”, Jesus answers, “It will not come by waiting for it. It will not be a matter of saying “here it is” or “there it is.” Rather, the kingdom of the father is spread out upon the earth, and men do not see it.” This acknowledgement that the right life could be lived here on earth, not through the deferred gratification of an afterlife, has similarities to the Cynic Crates’ conviction that the ideal republic was not restricted to a geographical place, nor to a racial or ethnic group, nor to historical or cultural traditions. It was a republic without boundaries or social distinctions. Through his understanding that a utopian state could never exist, Crates chose to create his own utopia within himself and his circle of family and friends.


And so, while I admire their temerity and applaud today’s protestors for bringing to our attention the debase and currupt state in which human civilisation now finds itself, the lessons from history show that even the demise of capitalism would only be a brief interlude from the ongoing folly of the human project. By its very nature the human race has shown time and again that it cannot control its own destiny or improve civilization. Religion, politics, science and the law, have all failed to deliver on their promises of a better world. And one does not have to look very far for the evidence. Not only the immorality and corruption of the banking crisis; the new millennium also features a recurrence of human cruelty and exploitation normally associated with darker periods of our history: slavery, human trafficking, piracy, and a level of religious fundamentalism that has resulted in acts of terrorism, barbarism and 'holy' wars. But this is not a nihilistic or defeatist observation; “cynical” in its negative sense of the term. As with the example of Crates, what cynicism represents is a way to maintain one's personal integrity in the midst of chaos; to embrace being only human.


First and last word to Friedrich Nietzsche, perhaps the greatest ‘cynic’ philosopher of all time:
“Once upon a time, in some out of the way corner of that universe which is dispersed into numberless twinkling solar system, there was a star upon which clever beasts invented knowing. That was the most arrogant and mendacious minute of ‘world history’, but nevertheless, it was only a minute. After nature had drawn a few breaths, the star cooled and congealed, and the clever beasts had to die.”

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