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Greek Praise of Poverty

P01043
P01043
Awards

Awarded the National University of Ireland Centennial Prize in Academic Publishing in Languages, Literature & Linguistics, 2008

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The Greek Praise of Poverty

Origins of Ancient Cynicism

William D. Desmond

“Rich in new and stimulating ideas, and based on the breadth of reading and depth of knowledge which its wide-ranging subject matter requires, The Greek Praise of Poverty argues impressively and cogently for a relocation of Cynic philosophy into the mainstream of Greek ideas on material prosperity, work, happiness, and power.” —A. Thomas Cole, Professor Emeritus of Classics, Yale University

“This clear, well-written book offers scholars and students an accessible account of the philosophy of Cynicism, particularly with regard to the Cynics’ attachment to a life of poverty and their disdain for wealth. I have truly profited from reading William Desmond’s book.” —Luis Navia, New York Institute of Technology

William Desmond, taking issue with typical assessments of the ancient Cynics, contends that figures such as Antisthenes and Diogenes were not cultural outcasts or marginal voices in the classical culture of the fifth and fourth centuries B.C. Rather, the Cynic movement had deep and significant roots in what Desmond calls “the Greek praise of poverty.” Desmond demonstrates that classical attitudes toward wealth were complex and ambivalent, and allowed for an implicit praise of poverty and the virtues it could inspire.

From an economic and political point of view, the poor majority at Athens and elsewhere were natural democrats who distrusted great concentrations of wealth as potentially oligarchical or tyrannical. Hence, the poor could be praised in contemporary literature for their industry, honesty, frugality, and temperance. The rich, on the other hand, were often criticized as idle, unjust, arrogant, and profligate. These perspectives were reinforced by typical Greek experiences of war, and the belief that poverty fostered the virtues of courage and endurance. Finally, from an early date, Greek philosophers associated wisdom with the transcendence of sense experience and of such worldly values as wealth and honor. The Cynics, Desmond asserts, assimilated all of these ideas in creating their distinctive and radical brand of asceticism. Theirs was a startling and paradoxical outlook, but it had broad appeal and would persist to exert a manifold influence in the Hellenistic period and beyond.

ISBN: 978-0-268-02582-3
256 pages
Publication Year: 2006

William Desmond is a lecturer in the Department of Classics at Trinity College, Dublin.

“In his thought-provoking The Greek Praise of Poverty: Origins of Ancient Cynicism, William D. Desmond proposes that the chief reason for this widespread appeal and longevity is that, for all its flamboyance, Cynicism in fact had deep roots in traditional Greek culture, and in particular in Greek suspicions of wealth, and praise of frugality and the simple life . . . erudite [and] scholarly. . . .” — Times Literary Supplement

“According to Desmond, democratic populism, Greek heroism, and a philosophic yearning for absolute truth—forerunners of Cynic asceticism—all derive from the virtue of frugality. . . . Philological and philosophical, Desmond draws widely from the original Greek sources and argues persuasively for his provocative conclusions.” — Choice

“The ancient Cynics have long been seen as exceptional and outside the margins of Greek culture. William Desmond makes a powerful argument against this perception, by searching for the origins of Cynic ideas and attitudes within mainstream Greek culture and society. He examines a wide number of different texts, ranging from Homer to Hesiod to the tragic poets, Thucydides, Herodotus, Xenophon and of course Plato and Aristotle. . . This is a very successful and interesting book that deserves to be read by a wide audience.” — Bryn Mawr Classical Review

“In this investigation of the early stages of Cynicism in the classical period (450-323 B.C.), Desmond argues that figures such as Antisthenes and Diogenes were not cultural outcasts or marginal figures, and that the Cynic movement had deep and significant roots in the ‘Greek praise of poverty’ and the virtues that it could inspire.” — New Testament Abstracts

“Through a comprehensive analysis of wealth and poverty in classical Greek thought, Desmond recounts two concurrent themes. The first illuminates the Greek understanding of the virtue of poverty, running mainly from Hesiod to Aristotle, through concentrating on the late fifth and early fourth centuries’ historical, comedic, and philosophical writings; the second illuminates this understanding’s continuation in Diogenes and Cynical thought in general.” — First Things

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The Greek Praise of Poverty

Origins of Ancient Cynicism

William D. Desmond

The Greek Praise of Poverty: Origins of Ancient Cynicism
Paper Edition

“Rich in new and stimulating ideas, and based on the breadth of reading and depth of knowledge which its wide-ranging subject matter requires, The Greek Praise of Poverty argues impressively and cogently for a relocation of Cynic philosophy into the mainstream of Greek ideas on material prosperity, work, happiness, and power.” —A. Thomas Cole, Professor Emeritus of Classics, Yale University

“This clear, well-written book offers scholars and students an accessible account of the philosophy of Cynicism, particularly with regard to the Cynics’ attachment to a life of poverty and their disdain for wealth. I have truly profited from reading William Desmond’s book.” —Luis Navia, New York Institute of Technology

William Desmond, taking issue with typical assessments of the ancient Cynics, contends that figures such as Antisthenes and Diogenes were not cultural outcasts or marginal voices in the classical culture of the fifth and fourth centuries B.C. Rather, the Cynic movement had deep and significant roots in what Desmond calls “the Greek praise of poverty.” Desmond demonstrates that classical attitudes toward wealth were complex and ambivalent, and allowed for an implicit praise of poverty and the virtues it could inspire.

From an economic and political point of view, the poor majority at Athens and elsewhere were natural democrats who distrusted great concentrations of wealth as potentially oligarchical or tyrannical. Hence, the poor could be praised in contemporary literature for their industry, honesty, frugality, and temperance. The rich, on the other hand, were often criticized as idle, unjust, arrogant, and profligate. These perspectives were reinforced by typical Greek experiences of war, and the belief that poverty fostered the virtues of courage and endurance. Finally, from an early date, Greek philosophers associated wisdom with the transcendence of sense experience and of such worldly values as wealth and honor. The Cynics, Desmond asserts, assimilated all of these ideas in creating their distinctive and radical brand of asceticism. Theirs was a startling and paradoxical outlook, but it had broad appeal and would persist to exert a manifold influence in the Hellenistic period and beyond.

ISBN: 978-0-268-02582-3

256 pages

“In his thought-provoking The Greek Praise of Poverty: Origins of Ancient Cynicism, William D. Desmond proposes that the chief reason for this widespread appeal and longevity is that, for all its flamboyance, Cynicism in fact had deep roots in traditional Greek culture, and in particular in Greek suspicions of wealth, and praise of frugality and the simple life . . . erudite [and] scholarly. . . .” — Times Literary Supplement

“According to Desmond, democratic populism, Greek heroism, and a philosophic yearning for absolute truth—forerunners of Cynic asceticism—all derive from the virtue of frugality. . . . Philological and philosophical, Desmond draws widely from the original Greek sources and argues persuasively for his provocative conclusions.” — Choice

“The ancient Cynics have long been seen as exceptional and outside the margins of Greek culture. William Desmond makes a powerful argument against this perception, by searching for the origins of Cynic ideas and attitudes within mainstream Greek culture and society. He examines a wide number of different texts, ranging from Homer to Hesiod to the tragic poets, Thucydides, Herodotus, Xenophon and of course Plato and Aristotle. . . This is a very successful and interesting book that deserves to be read by a wide audience.” — Bryn Mawr Classical Review

“In this investigation of the early stages of Cynicism in the classical period (450-323 B.C.), Desmond argues that figures such as Antisthenes and Diogenes were not cultural outcasts or marginal figures, and that the Cynic movement had deep and significant roots in the ‘Greek praise of poverty’ and the virtues that it could inspire.” — New Testament Abstracts

“Through a comprehensive analysis of wealth and poverty in classical Greek thought, Desmond recounts two concurrent themes. The first illuminates the Greek understanding of the virtue of poverty, running mainly from Hesiod to Aristotle, through concentrating on the late fifth and early fourth centuries’ historical, comedic, and philosophical writings; the second illuminates this understanding’s continuation in Diogenes and Cynical thought in general.” — First Things

Awarded the National University of Ireland Centennial Prize in Academic Publishing in Languages, Literature & Linguistics, 2008