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 books—they 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 cynicism—either to describe himself or more generally—he 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 askesis—despite his frail health—was 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 nastiness—in Nietzsche’s case belying a kind and sensitive nature—provides 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 other—the 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.