Cynics and Satirists in the Greco-Roman world (Mark 2)

Illustration: Cynicism in the Roman world

The Cynics were members of a loosely organized school of philosophy founded in late fifth-century B.C. Greece. They rejected a conventional value system that emphasized such social constructs as wealth and status, seeking instead to live a virtuous life as defined by living according to nature. Cynics believed that society placed value on worthless things. They espoused primitivism as a way of life; some have compared them to the “hippies” of America in the 1960s. Their value system was based upon the equation that living a life void of any artificial value will inevitably lead to happiness. Anecdotes about Cynics abound. Alexander the Great reportedly visited Diogenes the Cynic and asked him to request anything at all. Diogenes, who was sunbathing at the time of the visit, responded simply by asking Alexander to move in order to stop blocking the sun. On the other hand, Socrates was reported to hve told the Cynic philosopher Anthisthenes (who made a point of always wearing ragged clothing), “II can see your pride through the holes in your cloak.”

Satire flourished in Roman culture. Satirists, like their predecessors the Cynics, were fundamentally social critics. One significant difference is that satire was more an art form than a philosophy (although Cynics did also engage in literary satire). Satirists wrote plays, novels and poems that ridiculed the vice and moral decay found in contemporary Roman society. Horace (died 8 B.C.) and Juvenal (dead early second century A.D.) can probably be regarded as the greatest Roman satirists. Both the Cynics ans the Satirists sought to ridicule what they saw as the foolish trappings of society. For example, in Satire 3 Juvenal attacked the debauchery of the Hellenistic upper classes, and in Satire 6 he listed in great detail the supposed vices of Roman wives. However, the extant writings of both Cynics and Satirists are often characterized by perverse kinds of self-indulgence, as well as by ferocious anger, crassness and obscenity (especially on the part o the Satirists).

Recently it has become fashionable in some scholarly circles to argue that Jesus Himself was a Jewish follower of a cynical philosophy. In reality, other than the simplicity of His life, Jesus had nothing in common with the Greek Cynics. Roman authorities clashed with Cynics because the latter  tended to be anarchic. Jesus, who taught, for instance, that people should pay their taxes (Mark 12:17), could hardly be classified as anarchic.

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