Eudaimonia Christmas


Hello, and Welcome to Practical Cynicism, my name is Eric DeMott, and if you’re listening when this episode launches then its Christmas day. Merry Christmas to any and all who are celebrating, gathering with loved ones, opening presents, enjoying a well cooked meal or any other kind of merriment. To everyone not partaking in the festivities, don’t worry, this episode intends to be as philosophical as any other if not more so since we have a lot of history, geography, and culture to cover as well. Anyone who thought my last episode overstepped and was afraid that I would spend my Christmas special breaking into song, don’t worry about that. What you should worry about is how there could be any relationship at all between the Cynicism we’ve discussed on previous episodes and Christmas, or rather Christ himself.

The Cynic Jesus Theory

But there is a surprising amount of academic literature discussing the question of whether or not Jesus was a Cynic, or how much influence Cynicism had on Hellenistic Judaism or early Christianity. I encountered this idea very early in my research on Cynicism, and despite how fascinating I find it, the sheer amount of expertise needed to cover this topic will forever exclude me from offering an expert opinion. So, much to my chagrin, we’re all stuck with my amateur and shallow synopsis. For comparison, Tanner’s main project on Practical Stoicism now is, as you know, reading and discussing Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations. This is the private journal of one very well studied Emperor of Rome, we know a lot about who he was, where he wrote it, what was happening in his life and in the Empire while he wrote it, and the first page and the last page all happen within the span of his few decades on this beautiful little planet of ours. But, evaluating the connections between Cynicism and the Reason for the Season demands the discussion of hundreds of years of history, many different cultures, empires, and requires me to paint the picture in broad strokes. So if you’ll allow me, we must first put this Nativity together.

The Hellenistic World

Of course, the manger goes in Bethlehem, just outside Jerusalem, but that’s just coordinates on a map, I want to describe the cultural, political and historical landscape in which Bethlehem was placed. This requires us to back up several hundreds years, and discuss the birth of another son of another god(s). Alexander III of Macedon, son of King Phillip II, is also surrounded by stories of divine parentage. One story suggests that Phillip found his wife Olympia in bed with a massive snake, who of course was Zeus, because who else is seducing women in the form of animals? Nine months later, the goddess Artemis herself assists in the birth of Alexander as her great temple in Ephesus burns down. In 336 BC, twenty-year-old Alexander has been tutored by Aristotle himself, trained in war, and becomes the King of Macedon. This begins a decade of unstoppable conquest. Macedon was situated in North Greece, and from there Alexander conquered the known world.

Year after year after year he pushed the borders of his empire across the borders of many well known, and much older empires. Year by year, he conquered, all of what we would now call Greece, Turkey, Egypt which makes him Pharaoh and son of Ra, yet another God, but that’s not enough so he conquers Armenia, Persia, Southwest Pakistan, Afghanistan, Northeast Pakistan, North India, West India, and Iraq. All of these nations and territories each with there own rich histories, cultures and religions now combined into one new, and massive kingdom, like rivers pouring into one new tumultuous sea. How could one man rule over such a great empire?

We’d have to wait several hundred years for such a man, because Alexander drops dead in 323 BC at age 32, allegedly on the same day as our beloved Diogenes. Diogenes and Alexander are inseparable as two sides of the same coin, the man who conquered the world vs. the man who conquered himself. Upon his death, Alexander’s empire was rapidly split up amongst his generals, but the damage, so to speak, was done. This period becomes known as the Hellenistic because in the wake of Alexander’s conquest came the creation of new cities built with overwhelmingly Greek influence. The Greeks called themselves Hellenes, and their lands Hellas, and so as their culture spread into Egypt and the Middle East, and the world became Hellenistic. Greek becomes the common language of business, and politics, and the influence of Greek philosophy, literature, religion, and art has immeasurable impact. One of my favorite examples of this is Greco-Buddhist art.

As Greek and Buddhist cultures intermingled in ancient Gandhara, now Pakistan, the art styles combined to create statues of Buddhas that look like Greek gods, and have Hercules sitting next to the Buddha. And this cultural traffic flowed both ways, as reports from this new world flowed back to Greece, like the reports of Cynic-like philosophers in India called Gymnosophists, meaning naked philosopher in Greek. These wise men wore no clothes, and had no possessions at all, and if the story is true, Alexander met to interview them, with the Cynic Onesicritus in his company.

The changed boundaries on the map now put Jerusalem in the geographic middle of this new Greek world. And like the Buddhists in Gandhara, the Jews in the region were impacted by the art, philosophy and literature of the Greeks. By 250 BC it is said that “all of Judaism, both in Palestine and the Diaspora, should be regarded as Hellenistic Judaism.” The Old Testament is translated into Greek, and Temple services were being held in Greek in many places. In Jerusalem, the high priest’s son, changed his name from the Hebrew Jesus, to the Greek name Jason, he proposed to turn Jerusalem into a Greek Styled city, and build a gymnasium below the great temple. He is said to have shifted his countrymen to a Greek character. And where you have Greek cities you end up with poor, homeless, vagrant people, some of which were Cynics.

This is attested to in the Talmud, where it is noted that a cynic is one who destroys what you give him, like for instance, a mug. Now we fast forward a few hundred years, giving all of these cultures time to mix, and settle and, of course, stir up again as Rome ascends to world domination, and conquers for itself the kingdoms of Alexander, adding yet another culture to the mix, but now pushing Jerusalem to the outskirts of Rome’s frothing maelstrom capital. And so we move our attention back again, slightly outside of Jerusalem, back to our nativity, on a silent, holy night in Bethlehem, where a baby is born.


This baby grows up in this multi-cultural world, influenced by Judaism, Hellenism, Roman occupation, living among the the ruins of ancient Egypt and Babylon, Israel, and Greece as Rome builds on top of all of this history. With so many influences at play its unwise, if not impossible, to say that Jesus was any one thing, especially if that one thing is a Cynic. So where is the overlap, where can we detect a hint of Cynicism in Jesus’s behavior or teachings?

As I’ve explained on previous episodes, Diogenes performed certain acts to confront cultural norms within Greek culture, and there are many instances of Jesus doing the same within Jewish culture. There is as much wisdom in these actions as there is shock value. Jesus and his disciples were criticized for associating and preaching to prostitutes, which we know that Diogenes did as well in his own way. But the principal behind both is something like, meeting people where they are. The Cynics worked in public because that’s where the people were, and the people needed to hear the message. If meeting and sitting with prostitutes is shameful because they are prostitutes, as his accusers imply, preaching and working with them is getting at the real root of the problem.

Jesus was also criticized for working on the sabbath, in violation of Jewish law, to which he responds that David, of David and Goliath fame, once stole bread from the priests at the temple without sin, and the priests of the temple treat the Sabbath as any other day. This is easy to translate into Cynic terms, some rules are cultural and some are universal, those who obey the universal laws are like priests in the temple, and violate cultural laws with no shame or guilt or sin. The Cynics actually had a great syllogism for exactly this problem. When accused or stealing bread from a temple Diogenes might say that Wise people are dear friends to the Gods, and friends share everything, therefore the Gods are sharing their bread with me, their friend, who is wise.

Another story has Jesus sitting with various men and women, until he is interrupted by someone announcing that his mother and brothers have come to see him. and he replies “Who are my mother and my brothers?” And looking at those around him he said “Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.” This message is one of the strongest, and is repeated similarly by Paul, with respect to other labels that need to be disregarded, in Galatians he writes “There is no Jew, no Greek, there is no slave, no free, there is neither male nor female: for all are one in Christ Jesus”. This is the contemporary version of Diogenes’ “I am a citizen of the cosmos”, within a pre-Hellenistic, Classical Greek context, the only entity needed to be refuted was the City, but in Jesus’s time he had to refute family ties, cultural ties, economic labels, and gender roles.

Where the Cynics tried to live with one rule, Reason According to Nature, Jesus only requires that people live according to God. Who is Him, and His Father and His Spirit. To one up Alexander, it was necessary that Jesus not just be the Son of God, but to also be God. And this is as good a time as any to mention that Diogenes is also Greek for son of god. Back in the day in order for anyone to listen, you basically needed to be the son of someone’s God. Luckily today you just need a friend with a podcast.

And like any good Cynic would, Jesus chooses poverty, hunger and hardship over wealth, food and pleasure. “Blessed are the poor … the hungry … the weeping, and woe to the rich, the full and the laughing”. This inversion of values, is peak Cynicism. Jesus sends out his disciples with advice that is perfectly befitting for a Cynic, Sell your possessions, give your money to the poor … it is hard for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God” But like Diogenes these disciples had few to no possessions and accepted food and shelter from others, not as charity but as payment for their works, he sends his disciples into the towns to do their work, telling them to carry no purse, no bag, no sandals, and receive whatever food and drink is given, quote “for the laborer deserves to be paid”.

The Meaning of Christmas

There are many more parallels and angles I could present to keep demonstrating overlaps between Jesus and Cynicism but I think I’ve shown enough to make a simple point, this is a surprising and interesting feature of history, perhaps even more interesting because Cynicism did not become nearly as widespread as Christianity. Ultimately, I think it’s inconsequential whether we think Jesus was a Cynic or not, because those who took up these lessons and the many other lessons he taught would come to be known as Christians, to the exclusion of other labels.

But on this most Christmas-y of mornings I propose that the Cynic overlaps are the most important for informing us on the meaning and manner of the holiday. Take your pick of Christmas stories, the Nativity, the Grinch, the Christmas Carol, the Christmas Story, etc. The very first Christmas, when Jesus was born, took place in a manger, with little fanfare, there were no stockings, no tree, no figg-y pudding, no lights, no carolers. “It came without ribbons. It came without tags. It came without packages, boxes or bags.” Sure there was gold, frankincense and myrrh, but this is only proof that even the three wise men didn’t know what to get anyone for Christmas, and even their gifts arrived 12 days late. I have a three month old this Christmas, and I can tell you with certainty that these gifts would fly well below her radar.

Stories like the Christmas Carol show us year after year that all the gold and frankincense in Scrooge’s purse is not enough, because it has no value when compared to the fellowship of mankind, all of us brothers and sisters for a day. The Christmas story too shows us that pursuing gifts, and setting our hearts on Red Rider BB-guns is the fast lane to falling into the false world of marketing, commercialism, and literally shooting our eyes out. Even Santa who is nominally about solving the logistics of delivering material goods, who dangles presents before us all year, is really focused on our behavior, perhaps our Virtue, were you naughty or nice?

Our stories about Santa nowadays like the Santa Clause or Elf, are really about realizing what is truly important at Christmas, helping others, focusing on family, re-evaluating what is valuable, or as a Cynic might say clearing the smoke from your mind so you can finally see through the distractions clouding your judgement and your Virtue. Christmas is a time to remember and celebrate the wisdom in all the lessons we’ve covered and perhaps we’ve covered too much in this episode, so let me package it up, wrap and tie it with a bow.

Santa, Jesus and Diogenes want you to be Nice, Good and Wise, so we must not focus on material goods or wealth, not focus on the cultural borders that separate us, or the little details and rules that obscure the big picture. In Cynicism and Stoicism, it’s often said that the goal is Eudaimonia, which is often translated as Happiness, a happy life. In England, they say Happy Christmas, but in the States we say Merry Christmas, and all mean the same thing on a day like today. Eudaimonia is Happy, and Happy is Merry. Eudaimonia Christmas is a mouthful, but know that on a day like today, Eudaimonia means merry.

On Christmas of all days, The message is simple, and Cynic: Eudaimonia Christmas

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Eric Demott

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