"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

29 Jan 2012

Why Nietzsche was a Cynic Philosopher

Nietzsche has been recruited to many causes, some of which directly contradict the other. If one wishes to read about Nietzsche the misogynist or Nietzsche the feminist icon, Nietzsche the antichrist or Nietzsche the admirer of Jesus, it is simply a matter of locating the appropriate text. As Georges Bataille says, the multi-layered irony in Nietzsche’s work allows one to use (or abuse) Nietzsche’s writings to support just about any position one wishes to take: ‘It is common to retain only one aspect of Nietzsche, suiting the one who assumes the right to choose.’ But I am not the first to claim Nietzsche as a Cynic, as his sister’s testimony suggests:

There is no doubt that . . . my brother tried a little bit to imitate Diogenes in the tub; he wanted to find out with how little could a philosopher do.   Elizabeth Forster-Nietzsche

We also have Nietzsche’s own testimony that he is a cynic. In his final work, Ecce Homo, in answer to his question ‘Why I Write Such Good Books,’ Nietzsche replies ‘There is altogether no prouder and at the same time more exquisite kind of book than my booksthey attain here and there the highest thing that can be attained on earth, cynicism.’ And in a letter describing Ecce Homo to Georg Brandes, his first biographer and critic, Nietzsche says, ‘I have now written an account of myself with a cynicism that will become world-historical.’ For the most part then, when Nietzsche uses the term cynicismeither to describe himself or more generallyhe uses it positively: ‘the highest thing that can be attained on earth’. The pejorative use of the term may well appear in Nietzsche’s text, but as with much of his writing, the reader needs to separate out for them self Nietzsche’s all-too-human comments from his more serious philosophical message. 
     All the evidence points to the fact that, like the Cynics, Nietzsche lived an ascetic lifestyle. He was preoccupied with self-discipline and testing himself against the elements (Cynic ponos and askesis) and for Nietzsche, self-perfection was the real goal of morality. Living on his meagre pension, his lifestyle outwardly exhibited itself as very simple and his total abstinence from alcohol was a denial which even Diogenes did not endure. Nietzsche then, like the Cynics, embraced the minimum necessary for life as a strategy for survival. The tiny room where he lived and worked, devoid of decoration or comfort, has parallels with Diogenes own choice of dwelling. Driven by his need to reach the limits of pain and endurance, one way in which Nietzsche practised askesisdespite his frail healthwas to take long walks into the mountains. His typical day would start at five in the morning in his small rented room in the Swiss Alpine village of Sils-Maria. He would write until midday and then take long walks up the surrounding peaks, eventually retiring early to bed after a snack of bread and ham or egg alone in his room. An examination of Nietzsche’s work reveals many examples of his testing himself against the elements, raging against comfort in all its manifestations: physical, intellectual, and moral. Nietzsche was particularly mindful of the Cynic’s avoidance of suffering by affirming life itself. In his lectures on Greek literature, Nietzsche recalled an anecdote concerning Antisthenes. Plagued by pain and very ill, Antisthenes asked who will free him from his suffering. When Diogenes shows him a dagger, Antisthenes is said to have responded: 'I said from suffering, not from life.' Nietzsche concludes from this incident the following observation:

A very profound statement. One cannot get the better of the love of life than by means of a dagger. Yet that is the real suffering. It is obvious that the Cynic clings to life more than the other philosophers: ‘the shortest way to happiness’ is nothing but the love of life in itself and complete needlessness with reference to all other goods.

Like the Cynics then, Nietzsche lived his philosophy, but he also shared the Cynics objection to scientific and religious dogmatism and an antipathy towards pre-existing truths. The myth of progressive enlightenment is also dismissed by both the Cynics and Nietzsche, who believed instead in cycles of return. Moreover, although it is by no means conclusive evidence of a cynical stance, we have Nietzsche and the Cynics mutual dislike of Plato. Next, we can point to the contempt by both for pretentiousness: a hatred of narrow provincialism, and hostility towards political and other social institutions. Nietzsche and the Cynics saw themselves outside of such narrow preoccupations; they were cosmopolites: ‘citizens of the world’. Nationalism was dangerous to the species, which is why Nietzsche made a plea for intermarriage between nations. It seemed to Nietzsche a selfish and unreasonable influence that tied people down to the same companions and circumstances, and to the daily round of toil. Nietzsche expressed the same citizen of the world sentiments as Diogenes: ‘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.’
     We can also turn to Nietzsche’s linguistic style for evidence of a cynical mode of discourse. His use of aphorisms and epigrams to stimulate the reader’s senses has strong links with Cynic genres such as the chreia. Compare for example Diogenes’ response when asked why he was walking around in broad daylight with a lighted lamp; “I’m looking for an honest man,” with Nietzsche’s aphorism, 'I looked for great human beings, but all I ever found were the apes of their ideals.' Like the Cynic Menippus, Nietzsche also mixed his literary style. Polemic, satire, irony, parody and his preference for the aphorism, mark him out as a true inheritor of the Cynic writing tradition: ‘What? Is humanity just God’s mistake? Or God just a mistake of humanity?’ But in whichever genre Nietzsche chose to present his writing, it is his biting sarcasm and cynical tone that most marks him out from other modern writers. 
     Nietzsche is not for the feint hearted, and like Diogenes, he appears, in his commentary at least, to be conceited, intolerant, and annihilating. This external arrogance and nastinessin Nietzsche’s case belying a kind and sensitive natureprovides for the daring honesty and unrestraint that makes a cynic a great cynic. The targets of Nietzsche’s attacks, whether history, the law, religion, science, or philosophy, all have one particular element in common, one that shields truth more effectively than any otherthe suffocating glue of morality. Nietzsche, like all cynics, questioned too much and was too inquisitive to be content with crude answers like religion, which he saw as a prohibition against people thinking for themselves. He despised even more the concomitant moral smugness of such belief systems and the way in which moral superiority was equated with goodness and righteousness, and thus became morality itself.
     Nietzsche also provides a powerful connecting philosophical thread linking the Cynics with the postmodernists: a classical scholar who was discussing postmodernist ideas even before the arrival of ‘modernism’. Michel Foucault, in The Order of Things was the first to acknowledge Nietzsche as the founder of postmodernism, and, as Nietzsche often referred to himself posthumously, we may wonder whether those of us reading his work today are in fact Nietzsche’s intended audience: ‘I want to be right not for today or tomorrow but for the millennia.’ His contempt for totalizing theories and scientific certitude, and his hostility towards progress and modern ideas at the end of a different century, uncannily echo both the themes of 200 BC and those we are presented with today. We can see the influence of Nietzsche’s philosophy in the work of many postmodernists: the antipathy to any system; the rejection of the Hegelian view of history-as-progress; an awareness of, and criticism of, the increasing pressure for conformity; and an obsession with the subjective and the small story. Nietzsche railed against established views of history, science and knowledge that prevailed during preceding centuries and set the scene for many of the philosophical and cultural genres that appeared and were superseded in relatively quick succession during the following century.
     One criticism that has been levelled at both Nietzsche and the Cynics is that of nihilism; precisely because their uncompromising attacks on popular doctrines and values are mistaken for a belief in nothing at all. But the reverse is the case. Nietzsche had a passionate belief in the validity of a search for the real; a search obscured to most of us by the lie of idealism. Cynicism merely seeks to expose the triteness, the mythology, and the hidden agendas that have corrupted such systems, inviting one to rediscover their fundamental meaning and purpose: the simple creed that made them possible in the first place. What cynicism does not claim to do is offer an alternative system. However, having exposed the lie, the question still remains whether most of us are prepared to accept the truth. 


  1. However, Nietzsche was FARRRR from an ascetic (as are all REAL Cynics). He emphatically pointed out that Christianity embodied ascetic ideals and nihilism. He sought to critique the ascetic lifestyle and focused his attention on how Christianity was the embodiment of life denying ideals. In this sense, Nietzsche and his type of Cynicism, are FAR from ascetic. By claiming "Amor Fati," Nietzsche showed that he was a lover of life and that he had the utmost respect for truth (for Nietzsche, truth was always a woman, a clothed or concealed woman, a tasteful and decent woman). In the eyes of the Cynic, as illustrated by Nietzsche, how can we say he lived an ascetic lifestyle when he accused society of being an active embodiment of both nihilism and asceticism? Nietzsche turned away from asceticism (turning away was his way of negating) and embraced Life in all its components (Amor Fati). Nietzsche illustrated his true love for Life when he has Zarathustra marry Life (embracing the eternal recurrence) and then dying only to be re-born and living his life again at the start of act 4 (Read Loeb's "The Death of Nietzsche's Zarathustra" for more on this subject) in Thus Spoke Zarathustra. He embraced life by fashioning his own "way" and this could hardly be called asceticism. Claiming Nietzsche was an ascetic is almost like claiming he was a nihilist! Through the life denying ascetics eyes (the Christian), Nietzsche was the ascetic one and was "decaying" or "going to hell." Moreover, to real Nihilists (Christians, followers of Schopenhauer, or what I call "cultured" individuals nowadays), would see Nietzsche as someone who had no meaning in life and hence was Nihilistic. You couldn't accept either labels as true without laughing like Zarathustra once does to expound the spirit of gravity! Nietzsche saw the world as nihilistic and could not live in accordance with such filth. Nietzsche saw ascetic ideals as a turning away from life and he wanted to do the EXACT OPPOSITE. To call Nietzsche an ascetic or to ascribe asceticism to Nietzsche's conception of Cynicism is a complete and blatant falsity (as are many ways that people commonly interpret Nietzsche).

    -By the way, Bataille is ABSOLUTELY INCORRECT to claim you can use Nietzsche to justify any opinion you
    would like. If you believe this then I suggest you do some more research on Nietzsche as a whole. He wanted more than anything for people to see him for what he really was. He did NOT want to be open to ANY interpretation. Just like the way he wanted to correct and clarify the opinions on Socrates and Jesus he wants to make sure NOBODY does the same thing with him. Why in the world would he write Ecce Homo if he wanted to be thought of as a gadfly as Bataille and yourself seem to suggest? As long as Nietzsche is thought to be "open to any interpretation" than it is NOT us he meant his work for. He must have came MUCH too soon than he even initially thought.

    "Seeing that before long I must confront humanity with the most difficult demand ever made of it, it seems indispensable to me to say who I am. Really, one should know it, for I have not left myself "without testimony." But the disproportion between the greatness of my task and the smallness of my contemporaries has found expression in the fact that one has neither heard nor even seen me. I live on my own credit; is it perhaps a mere prejudice that I live? ... Under these circumstances I have a duty against which my habits, even more the pride of my instincts, revolt at bottom, namely, to say: Hear me! For I am such and such a person. Above all, do not mistake me for someone else!"

    He said it, not me--Do not mistake Nietzsche for someone else....

    1. Thank you,Thus Spoke Jash, for your good reply!!

    2. Ok, I realize I'm 4 years late. But Nietzsche made it very clear in that ascetic ideals are necessary for human flourishing. What matters is 'who' adopts them, and for what purpose. Artists and philosophers adopt ascetic ideals to improve themselves, whereas decadent moral ascetics adopt them (and attempt to force others to adopt them) in order to drag down the powerful.

      Read Essay III of the Genealogy of Morality

  2. N. Lived an ascetic lifestyle. His conception of asceticism has more to do with the intentions behind the lifestyle than the practice of austere living itself. For him it paradoxically became a way to more deeply experience life, but he would accuse others of using this way of living to dull and deaden the will.