Traces of Cynic Monotheism in the Early Roman Empire

By Bosman, P. R. | Acta Classica, Annual 2008 | Go to article overview
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Traces of Cynic Monotheism in the Early Roman Empire

Bosman, P. R., Acta Classica


Cynic philosophy's roots go back to the 4th century BC, but it experienced a revival approximately simultaneous with the dramatic rise of Christianity. The two movements had much in common, not least their shared criticism of traditional Greco-Roman religion. (1) Two fundamental forces driving early Christian rejection of popular religion were belief in the one God of Judaism and a close association of his will with the rules for righteous living. It may be asked whether anything similar can be found in the Cynicism of that era. Some sources indeed suggest that the Cynics--traditionally focussing exclusively on ethics--were prepared to link their way of life to belief in a single God who provides or communicates the principles of correct conduct to the Cynic sage. (2)

Cynicism gradually gained prominence as popular philosophy during the Roman Empire. (3) By late antiquity, some Christian authors considered the Cynics to be their closest rivals from among the philosophical schools. (4) If the claim may be accepted that monotheism was a prerequisite for the success of early Christianity, (5) one may suspect that a contemporary movement with popular appeal would also have harboured thoughts on a topic of such crucial importance. This suspicion is strengthened by the Antisthenic roots of Cynicism. (6) Antisthenes, the late 5th/early 4th century Socratic, is credited with probably the least ambiguous formulation of monotheism in all antiquity, expressed in terms of the sophistic nomos-physis antithesis. As reported by Philodemus, Antisthenes claimed in his Physics that there are many gods 'according to custom' (kata nomon), but only one 'according to nature' (kata fusin). (7)

Unfortunately, evidence from Cynic literature of the Roman era is meagre and ambiguous, as reflected in the absence of an opinio communis on the issue of Cynic religion. (8) However, indications exist of some Cynics at least who shared with the majority of ancient philosophers a belief in one God governing the universe. (9) Before we attempt to establish the outlines of such a belief and even of a rudimentary theology, the Cynicism of the first centuries of our era and their attitude towards religion must be briefly considered. Following two low-keyed centuries, Cynicism became something of a philosophical mass movement during the early imperial period. (10) By the 2nd century AD, Cynics were a common sight in imperial centres, as Dio and Lucian observe:

   twn de Kunikwn legomenwn esti men en th polei plhqo~ ouk oligon ... 
   outoi de en te triodoi~ kai stenwpoi~ kai pulwsin ierwn ageirousi 
   kai apatwsi paidaria kai nauta~ kai toiouton oclon ... 
   There is no small mob of the so-called Cynics in the city 
   (Alexandria) ... these gather at cross-roads and alleyways and 
   temple-gates, and they deceive boys and sailors and such crowds ... 
   toigaroun empeplhstai pasa poli~ th~ toiauth~ radiourgia~, kai 
   malista twn Diogevnh kai Antisqenh kai Krathta epigrafomenwn kai 
   upo; tw kuni tattomenwn ... 
   For this reason every city is filled with such knavery, 
   particularly with those who enlist with Diogenes, Antisthenes, and 
   Crates and are posted under the dog. (12) 

Taking into account that both these authors had Cynic sympathies, the passages reveal an apparent schism between the cultured or educated Cynics on the one hand, and the uneducated, charlatan Cynics on the other. Our sources are virtually all from the literate side of the controversy and strongly biased against the seemingly huge but voiceless group who, they claim, took to the externals of the philosophy without comprehending its intellectual core: these Cynics sported the costume, but degraded it with coarse, abusive behaviour and lack of integrity. The same authors (and others such as Seneca, Epictetus and Julian) also eulogise the early Cynics and those contemporaries they believe to be the true heirs of Diogenes, such as Demetrius and Demonax.

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