“Lo, God has sent you one who shall show indeed that it is possible. ‘Look at me, I have no house or city, property or slave: I sleep on the ground, I have no wife or children, no miserable palace, but only earth and sky and one poor cloak. Yet what do I lack? Am I not quit of pain and fear, am I not free? When has any of you ever seen me failing to get what I will to get, or falling into what I will to avoid? When did I blame God or man, when did I accuse any? Has any of you seen me with a gloomy face? How do I meet those of whom you stand in fear and awe? Do I not meet them as slaves? Who that sees me but thinks that he sees his king and master?’ There you have the true Cynic’s words…”
— Epictetus, Discourses III.22
The Stoics are descended from the Cynics, through Zeno of Citium who studied under Crates. Indeed, Epictetus mentions in his Discourses Diogenes of Sinope more often than he does Zeno, the very founder of the Stoic School. Both the Stoics and the Cynics hold that virtue is the only good, and the only thing necessary for eudaimonia. On this, they agree. On the matter of things indifferent (Gr: ἀδιάφορα), they differ heartily.
Desmond, in his book “Cynics“, notes that Epictetus is one of the more Cynical of the Hellenic Stoics. While this is true if you are comparing them to the Roman Stoics as a standard, it’s not true if you consider that we should be doing that comparison the other way ’round. The Roman Stoics should be measured against their earlier Greek forebears. The Romans, especially Seneca, Cato, and Marcus, had a level of material wealth and social role obligations that their Hellenic cousins simply never did.
The Romans took the tripartite study of philosophy, and discarded much of the things which did not mesh with their cultural norms. The Cynic’s parrhesia (Gr: παρρησία), or freedom of speech, and their flouting of social norms were entirely contrary to the Roman values of decorum and social compliance. From Cicero on, we have a trend of Romanizing the rough edges, the Cynic edges, off of Stoicism. However, to ignore this lineage, and the Cynic-like tendencies of the early Stoa is a mistake.
So, the Cynic lives with his wallet or sack, worn-out cloak, and staff. This is his uniform, and the extent of his worldly possessions. The Cynics were practicing a voluntary austerity and asceticism which set them apart from the wider Hellenic culture. They made plain their distaste for the material preoccupations of their day, and history is replete with annotations, aphorisms, and quotes holding up their mirror of non-conformity to the wider culture.
So, what sorts of ascetic practices, looking to our Cynic forebears for inspirations, might the aspiring Stoic adopt today?
- Simple food: The Cynics extolled the virtues of the lupin bean, and simple lentil soup, and crusty bread. Lupins are expensive and hard to come by where I live, but lentils are cheap and readily available. Zenonian Lentil soup might be a good start.
- Simple drinks: The Cynics praised the drinking of water over other choices, although Diogenes did say his favorite wine was “someone else’s.” Note: “The Water-Drinking Cynic” (Hydrokyon).
- Simple clothes: The Cynics had a uniform, and indeed many Stoics did, too. The tribōn or philosopher’s cloak, minimalist protection from the environment. The modern might reduce the wardrobe to a few identical pieces. Jeans, a solid color t-shirt, and a light jacket, maybe?
- Simple, natural grooming: A simple, utilitarian hair cut, not for style but to remove what’s useless or in the way, and for men an uncut beard.
- Simple shoes: Barefoot if possible, for most of us it may not be, sandals might be a reasonable substitute.
- Rough sleeping: Avoid the soft beds, sleeping instead on the ground or a rough pallet, with naught but a simple blanket or cloak.
- Walking: Which errands could we rather walk for, instead of taking our vehicles or public transportation?
Ascetic training was a core part of ancient Stoic practice, and it has been sadly divorced in the modern times. At minimum, if we will not practice these labors daily, once a month we should expose ourselves to some hardship so we might inure ourselves from the fickleness of Fate.
Is asceticism a part of your Stoic practice? Why or why not? Would you consider adding it to your practice?