In my intellectual travels, one thing above all others has vexed me. One thing above all others is likely to send me into a tangential rant about subtleties of meaning and logical correctness.
“You’re a cynic.”
When used in common intellectual debate, this word is used as some kind of ad hominem finishing move. Usually, when people levy this declaration at people or ideas, it is done so with the apparent assumption that it is decisive. Certainly, there is no recovery. The cynic or offerer of the cynical idea should just accept that s/he has committed some moral treachery. The hope is, I suppose, that the cynic will be shamed into retraction and all witnesses will be swayed to the accuser’s position because…of some reason I don’t understand.
My immediate reaction to such accusations is usually, “It is cynical. Aaaaand…?”
To this, people generally react as if cynicism is a mortal sin and I have just admitted to not knowing or caring about the difference between right and wrong.
Perhaps cynics are unpleasant, but so are people who stink, and “You’re smelly!” fails to imply the kind of rhetorical coup that “You’re cynical!” is supposed to (though it is an attempt at a similar public shaming to no real logical benefit).
The difference between “stinky” and “cynical” is that most modern people, even cynics, would rather not be stinky, but many cynics take pride in their cynicism. How could this be? If it is a moral and/or ethical transgression, certainly only a monster would take pride in it.
The answer is, of course, that cynicism is not a moral or ethical transgression. Historically speaking (and in the minds of many proud contemporary cynics), cynicism is the very opposite. It is a system of virtue.
This, among other things, is a major contributor to the mutual befuddlement/indignation that tends to occur between cynics and their detractors.
Just about anyone who is anyone or aspires to be anyone in the realm of socio-political commentary or debate has an opinion on cynics and what cynics are.
The relative generosity or disapproval expressed in these definitions, I suspect, has a great deal to do with whether or not the individual offering them is/was a cynic himself, but it also depends on which definition of “cynic” the speaker is operating on:
Cynic: A blackguard whose faulty vision sees things as they are, not as they ought to be. Hence the custom among the Scythians of plucking out a cynic’s eyes to improve his vision. –Ambrose Bierce
The power of accurate observation is commonly called cynicism by those who have not got it. –George Bernard Shaw
Cynicism is intellectual treason. –Norman Cousins
What is a cynic? A man who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing. –Oscar Wilde
A cynic is a man who, when he smells flowers, looks around for a coffin. –H.L. Mencken
Let us consult the free online dictionary:
1. A person who believes all people are motivated by selfishness.
2. A person whose outlook is scornfully and often habitually negative.
3. Cynic A member of a sect of ancient Greek philosophers who believed virtue to be the only good and self-control to be the only means of achieving virtue.
Obviously, definitions one and two are the most often intended when the word is used in contemporary discourse. Two is a bit feeble in my opinion, since it makes cynicism sound erroneously synonymous with pessimism, which it is not. (Though it is possible and even common, I suppose, for a person to be both a cynic and a pessimist, neither necessitates the other.)
Definitions one and two are, for the most part, what detractors (including our quotesters above) are operating on when they express disgust with cynicism.
But neither definitions one nor two (despite appearances) are actually that far removed from definition three. Etymologically, as one might suspect, they stem from this third meaning, and though cynics, even in Ancient Greece & Rome, were never popular with intellectuals (they were, however, well-beloved of the common people), there has been an apparent gradual and subtle widespread cultural defamation of cynics and a selective, reductive understanding of what cynicism entails.
The pro-cynic quotesters above (and many cynics) are operating from a stance seated much closer to the third definition of the word, whether they know it or not.
Diogenes, perhaps the most famous Cynic (or infamous, as you like it), offered this explanation for his conduct:
“I am Diogenes the Dog. I nuzzle the kind, bark at the greedy and bite scoundrels.”
Diogenes was a beggar-philosopher who lived in a tub and spent much of his time wandering around Athens harassing well-to-do and other “respectable” citizens, berating them (and occasionally beating them with a stick) publicly for their greed, false pride in material possessions, and treatment of those beneath them (including himself). His assaults were varied and often hilarious; he is said to have pissed on a group of feast-goers like a dog might, when, as if he were a dog, they threw him only bones.
Here is one of my favorite nuggets of wisdom from Diogenes:
Friends of Diogenes wanted to ransom him, where upon he called them simpletons; “for”, said he, “lions are not the slaves of those who feed them, but rather those who feed them are at the mercy of the lions: for fear is the mark of the slave, whereas wild beasts make men afraid of them.”
(You can read a few brief summaries of Diogenes’ exploits and a handful of quotes here: Diogenes the Dog.)
To Diogenes, Cerberus of Hades was a kind of a mascot, and Hercules was a hero for having brought him out of the shadows of the underworld.
But Diogenes was not just “The Dog.” Cynicism was an offshoot of Socratic thinking which originated with Antisthenes, a student of Socrates. Diogenes was also referred to as “Socrates gone mad.”
From Wikipedia (I know, I know. But it will do for my purposes here):
[Cynics’] philosophy was that the purpose of life was to live a life of Virtue in agreement with Nature. This meant rejecting all conventional desires for wealth, power, health, and fame, and by living a simple life free from all possessions. As reasoning creatures, people could gain happiness by rigorous training and by living in a way which was natural for humans. They believed that the world belonged equally to everyone, and that suffering was caused by false judgments of what was valuable and by the worthless customs and conventions which surrounded society. Many of these thoughts were later absorbed into Stoicism.
Historically, then, from this brief description, it would appear that Cynics adhered to a combination of what we would now recognize as Buddhist, Trancendentalist, Existentialist, Communist, Humanist, Taoist, Anarchist, and Ascetic ideas.
While few contemporary cynics live lives of poverty or disavow material possessions in order to live in accord with nature, the spirit of social rebellion and contempt for arbitrary social norms, hierarchies, and niceties (and indeed for the people who adhere too vehemently to them) that characterized Ancient Cynicism persists and is often what earns people of such tendencies the title of “cynic” in contemporary parlance. Offense taken to or discomfort caused by a “cynical” person’s affronts to politesse (which now often includes obligatory expressions of positive thinking) has led to the current characterization of cynicism as a necessarily pessimistic attitude.
Arguably, the cynic has not changed in his/her rejection of arbitrary social norms; there has simply been an injection of new types of norms or greater emphasis on different types of norms, rejections of which are perceived as a given norm’s opposite. Greeks were uniquely concerned with human exceptionalism and the inherent virtue of civilization, so Diogenes’ rejection of their society made him feral–an animal–in their eyes. A dog, to be exact, who lived on the fringe, off the scraps of their enlightened affluence. Likewise, with the contemporary injection of optimism or a positive/kindly view of human nature as a prevailing/emphasized social ideal, cynicism’s refusal to acquiesce becomes synonymous with misanthropy and pessimism.
In that way, despite considerably different lifestyles, any number of apt comparisons exist between Ancient Cynics with a capital C and those accused of cynicism with a lowercase, contemporary c.
It may be said, for example, that those accused of contemporary cynicism are often guilty of pissing on a feast of de rigeur (and often arbitrary) positivity rather than any actual feast.
But they are not necessarily fatalists, which is, in large part, what sets a cynic apart from a pessimist.
As with Ancient Cynics, contemporary cynics’ snarling and biting and pissing tends to overshadow their necessarily and fundamentally idealistic nature. There is, of course, no reason to be disgusted by or aggressively derisive of what one sees if one doesn’t have some very firmly held, even romantic, ideas about the way things ought to be and what could or should be done to make them better.
But this doesn’t necessarily make a cynic jaded or wounded, even if plenty of cynics may very well be.
In any case, if a cynic is snarling, you might as soon accuse a dog of being a dog and expect that to stop him as you would accuse a cynic of cynicism and expect that to cause him/her to quit.
Accusations of cynicism only work on those who don’t hear “Cynicism.” Those cynics who know (or even have a vague sense of) their intellectual/philosophical heritage will be proud, not ashamed, and rightly so.
In the end, it is gamble to throw this word around. If you raise it with intent to harm one of Diogenes’ dogs, he or she may bite or, better yet, simply oblige you and piss on your shoes.