Other Greek Philosophies of Note in Ancient Times: Skepticism and Cynicism

In our short study of ancient Greek philosophy we have looked at some of the pre-Socratic’s emphasis on the physis. Then we looked at Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle. In the last couple of articles we have discussed some of the philosophies with religious elements like Pythagoreanism, Epicureanism, and Stoicism.  But it is important to note that philosophy was more diverse than just the philosophies that we have looked at so far.

Branches of philosophy remind me of denominations in Christianity. Just like there are countless variations and combinations of tenets in Christian sects,  philosophy seems to have branched in a similar manner. A couple of other classical philosophies that had impact in ancient Greek culture and around the time of Christ were Skepticism and Cynicism.

The word “skeptic” comes from the Greek noun, skepsis, which means examination or inquiry. Obviously, this is different from the modern definition of “skepticism” which means doubt or disbelief. However it is easy to see how this definition changed from inquiry to doubt, because the eventual result for most skeptics is to be at a loss for what to believe because there are simply so many competing arguments, and no agreement on what is true.

It is also easy to see how this happens just by looking at what we have seen in our brief study of philosophy so far. For example, Thales said that the physis was water, and therefore that the earth rests on water. Anaximander rejected that and said that the earth was a flat cylinder at the center of the universe and was surrounded by revolving hoops of fire in what he called the “boundless” which generated the earth, air, fire, and so forth. Anaximander was rejected later when Democritus came up with the theory that the universe’s was really a vacuum, and the heavenly bodies were really comprised of these atoms that had congregated together some way, and were flowing in unison together through the boundless vacuum of space. However, while Democritus was much closer to what we believe today, his atomic theory included things like the soul being comprised of atoms also, which was later refuted by more recent philosophers.

When we read each philosopher we do not see uniform agreement with his predecessors, rather we see each philosopher challenging at least some of the precepts of his predecessors, and coming out with “new and better” ideas. This process was recognized early in the growth of Philosophy, and has continued throughout.  The end result of these changing perspectives was that some philosophers began to recognize that there were limitations as to what they could know, and therefore began to teach that the wisest course of action was to not make conclusions at all.[i] Thus a premise of Skepticism became that one simply cannot know the truth.

Obviously, skeptics believe that you cannot refuse to make all conclusions whatsoever because making judgments and decisions is absolutely necessary in the everyday course of affairs.  But when it comes to the grander scale of life on subjects such as the nature of the universe and the soul, it is impossible to know the truth.

There are two schools of Skepticism of note in Ancient Philosophy, Pyrrhonian and Academic.   The differences in content are hard to identify.  Pyrrho, 360-270 BC, is credited with starting the philosophy, but wrote nothing. Academic philosophy traces to the period of Plato’s Academy, probably when Arcesilaus took charge of the Academy around 272 BC.

What is known about Pyrrho is written by later writers. The following is attributed to Aristocles, a 2nd Century philosopher:

“Pyrrho declared that [1] things are equally indifferent, unmeasurable and inarbitrable. For this reason [2] neither our sensations nor our opinions tell us truths or falsehoods. Therefore, for this reason we should not put our trust in them one bit, but we should be unopinionated, uncommitted and unwavering, saying concerning each individual thing that it no more is than is not, or it both is and is not, or it neither is nor is not. [3] The outcome for those who actually adopt this attitude, says Timon, will be first speechlessness, and then freedom from disturbance . . .”[ii]

Skepticism Vs Belief

Skepticism epitomizes the gulf between philosophy and believing God.  Foundational to skepticism is that you cannot know the truth.  Foundational to being a believer is seeking and finding the truth:

Teach me thy way, O Jehovah; I will walk in thy truth: Unite my heart to fear thy name. (Psalms 86:11)

Skepticism was prominent from about the third century BC forward, and was certainly a force at work when original Christianity appeared.


Cynicism as a philosophy is said to have been started by Antisthenes, a pupil of Socrates. According to its some, Cynicism is a not as much a school as it is a way of life. The cynic steers clear of man made institutions and seeks to live in accordance with nature.

“Nature offers the clearest indication of how to live the good life, which is characterized by reason, self-sufficiency, and freedom. Social conventions, however, can hinder the good life by compromising freedom and setting up a code of conduct that is opposed to nature and reason. Conventions are not inherently bad; however, for the Cynic, conventions are often absurd and worthy of ridicule. The Cynics deride the attention paid to the Olympics, the “big thieves” who run the temples and are seen carrying away the “little thieves” who steal from them, politicians as well as the philosophers who attend their courts, fashion, and prayers for such things as fame and fortune.

Only once one has freed oneself from the strictures that impede an ethical life can one be said to be truly free. As such, the Cynics advocate askesis, or practice, over theory as the means to free oneself from convention, promote self-sufficiency, and live in accord with nature. Such askesis leads the Cynic to live in poverty, embrace hardship and toil, and permits the Cynic to speak freely about the silly, and often vicious, way life is lived by his or her contemporaries. The Cynics consistently undermine the most hallowed principles of Athenian culture, but they do so for the sake of replacing them with those in accord with reason, nature, and virtue. “[iii]

Christianity is sometimes said to have adopted practices of the cynics in:

  • speaking out against authority,
  • living an ascetic lifestyle, and
  • the gospels of Matthew and Luke are said to have similar teachings to the Cynics

[i] The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, A Peer-Reviewed Academic Resource, page located at http://www.iep.utm.edu/skepanci/
[ii] ibid, http://www.iep.utm.edu/skepanci/#H1
[iii] ibid, http://www.iep.utm.edu/cynics/

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