What Is Cynicism?
February 3, 2002 2:33 AM   Subscribe

I've been accused in the past of only posting clever and astonishingly cynical quips - so just to prove that I'm no fly-by-night-non-serious-funster here is an informative link. It requires no flash plugins of any sort..... ladies and gentlemen I give you.... What Is Cynicism? thank you.. As usual, details within.
posted by y2karl (32 comments total)
"Cynic"-A blackguard whose faulty vision sees things as they are, not as they ought to be.

Ambrose Bierce, The Devil's Dictionary

Cynicism began with Antisthenes, a student of Socrates, but found its name and proponent in Diogenes of Sinope. Another later Diogenes, Diogenes Laertius, in his Lives Of The Eminent Philosophers, wrote of his namesake, Diogenes lighted a candle in the daytime, and went round saying, "I am looking for a man." We know him as the stock and comic cartoon character of the philosopher holding a lantern, looking for an honest man. Honest, however, is a poor translation of short and long of the Greek arete, implied in Diogenes' I am looking for a man in the Greek.

Diogenes Laertius said of Antisthenes, Antisthenes used to say that envious people were devoured by their own disposition, just as iron is by rust…

When asked what learning was the most necessary, he said, “Not to unlearn what you have learned.”

When he was praised by some wicked men, he said, “I am sadly afraid that I must have done some
wicked thing.”

Of Diogenes of Sinope, Diogenes Laertius wrote, Plato having defined man to be a two-legged animal without feathers, Diogenes plucked a cock and brought it into the Academy, and said, “This is Plato’s man.” On which account this addition was made to the definition,—“With broad nails.”

Diogenes wrote no book and lived a life that caused Plato to describe him as a Socrates gone mad.

The root word of cynic is kynos, dog, from Diogenes’ reply to once having been told he lived the life of a dog. His response was that dogs ate shit and carrion, and yet had arete, for they would go against a bear or lion, fight to the death for their masters.

Our modern day sense of cynicism differs from Diogenes. Bertrand Russell in the 30s, or, recently, William Chaloupka, even an Irish Unitarian minister, have weighed in the topic, but the best source for out times would be Peter Sloterdijk in his Critique of Cynical Reason. (Sloterdick, incidentally, addresses issues near and dear to the techie heart)

On the net, an outstanding site is Rick Bayans' Cynic’s Sanctuary, where you can take The Official Cynics Self-Test, sign off on the 714 Things To Be Cynical About checklist, or you can read Tim Madigan’s In Praise of Cynicism from Free Inquiry Magazine.

But whatever you do, remember this handy retort whenever feathers are ruffled as you go on your cynically merry way.
posted by y2karl at 2:34 AM on February 3, 2002

Cynicism is the weapon of the wounded.
posted by Postroad at 2:44 AM on February 3, 2002

so basically, you're saying that bill hicks was the "one true" messiah, right?
posted by rhizome23 at 3:01 AM on February 3, 2002

From In Praise Of Cynicism

The Cynics felt that happiness is achievable during one's lifetime. Idealists like Plato scorned this notion, and looked for true happiness in the next world. The Cynics also felt that humans should be comfortable with their own bodies, and not ashamed of their animal nature. In the words of Friedrich Nietzsche, "For the happiness of the animal, that thorough cynic, is the living proof of the truth of cynicism." The bodily functions are natural, and should not be taboo. The contemporary philosopher Peter Sloterdijk, in his book The Critique of Cynical Reason, goes so far as to call the Cynics the precursors of the modern-day ecology movement. By living close to nature, and by spurning the trappings of a consumer society, the Cynics did their best to maintain ecological balance. "Cynical philosophers," says Sloterdijk, "are those who do not get nauseated."

You know, if you read the links, Postroad, you might make an informed remark.
posted by y2karl at 3:04 AM on February 3, 2002


By the time Christianity had come to dominate the Western world, Cynicism had lost its puckish flavor, while retaining its critical view of idealism. It started to accommodate itself to powerful institutions, while remaining contemptuous of them. Sloterdijk refers to this as "enlightened false knowledge"-the feeling that life is basically worthless and the best one can do is ridicule those who believe otherwise. In his chapter "In Search of Lost Cheekiness," Sloterdijk calls for a return to ancient Cynicism and its positive assertion that a life without ideals or metaphysical certainties can be a lot of fun. There is such a thing as positive disillusionment, as Plato and his friends were so rudely reminded.
posted by y2karl at 3:15 AM on February 3, 2002

so basically, you're saying that bill hicks was the "one true" messiah, right?

Sorta goes without saying, don't it?
posted by Optamystic at 3:39 AM on February 3, 2002

Never heard of him.
posted by y2karl at 3:47 AM on February 3, 2002

Or the other one.
posted by y2karl at 3:48 AM on February 3, 2002

I'm not.
posted by y2karl at 4:26 AM on February 3, 2002

Apologies for minor derailment into Hicks territory. (He's one of those guys that I'm sorta fanatical about).

I'm still reading the collection of links, Karl. Fascinating stuff. I so needed something cool like this to help me pass the time at work this morning. Thanks.
posted by Optamystic at 4:29 AM on February 3, 2002

I will check him out sometime.
posted by y2karl at 4:34 AM on February 3, 2002

The best thing about this post, IMO, is to remind us the real cynics weren't bored, blasé, seen-it-all sceptics, as current cynics pretend to be, but down-to-earth realists out to enjoy life as it was.

It's funny how different cultures attribute different social values to cynicism. In Anglo-American culture I'd say it was cool to be cynical, world-weary, difficult to excite. Over here in Southern Europe(including France) "cynic" is a term of abuse, essentially meaning a cruel, hypocritical pessimist who enjoys looking at the dark and bitter side of everything.

The "good" word for your meaning of "cynical" is "sceptical", but it's not that good. It's considered wishy-washy and "safe" to pooh-pooh everything new and hide behind your supposed lack of faith in humanity.

Fascinating stuff. Thanks again, y2karl. It's a dog's life keeping up with all the nuances but your posts are not only fun, they're downright educational. And since you always screw up on some later comment("I'm not")and then repent five minutes later("I will check him out sometime")your humanity keeps it all from being at patronizing. I'm expecting a mega Bill Hicks post from you, with aprropriate Greek forebears, in the late Spring. ;)
posted by MiguelCardoso at 5:28 AM on February 3, 2002

Funny how the post button turns out to be the reveal typos button as well - rodii's classic comment.
posted by MiguelCardoso at 5:31 AM on February 3, 2002

(This is going to be long, but those were some meaty links. If you haven't read them yet, do yourself a favor read them all. Then go to your Super Bowl party and drop some philosophy on the locals.)

The cynic seems to me a vital archetypical character. The truth-seeker, who casts aside convention and comfort in order to hold a mirror up to society, exposing its' flaws. (Diogenes wandering through the countryside, in search of a man with arete). It seems that only in death do these men gain any widespread respect, and I suspect that is mostly because death shuts them up, and renders them non-threatening to the powers that be. (John Lennon, Martin Luther King, Bill Hicks on a smaller scale.)

The Bertrand Russell link is an excellent example. He's often thought of as a brilliant upstart who, towards the end of his life, began believing his own hype, and whose work became lazy and even self-parodying. But I believe the linked essay to be some of his best work.

He speaks of societal frameworks, with their inherent limitations, and how cynics are perceived as a danger to these frameworks. As I interpret it, he says that as a society grows more complex, and as humankind advances in knowledge, it becomes more and more difficult to wholeheartedly embrace concepts such as patriotism and religious dedication. A cynical mindset allows one to see that institutions, because they are comprised of humans who are by nature self-serving, are inherently corrupt. Governments, churches, romantic love, "beauty", the things that people have dedicated their lives to at various times in history are all at best flawed, and at worst, devices that are too often used to give official sanction to actions that arise from the most base and indefensible parts of our nature.

So, why don't we give more respect to the cynical voice? Most people are too busy "having lives" to worry about what the President or the Pope are up to. Or to look at themselves as individuals in a harsh light, with an eye toward self improvement, and by extension, societal improvement. And people who choose this cynical stance, even with the noblest intentions, are almost unanimously viewed as amusing cranks or malcontents. There is something deeply flawed about a society in which Andy Rooney considered is the most foremost cynic of the day.
posted by Optamystic at 5:58 AM on February 3, 2002

the real issue is balancing on that fine line between cynicism and nihilism. can i get a amen from the congregation?
posted by rhizome23 at 6:33 AM on February 3, 2002

Amen, yes indeedy.
posted by MiguelCardoso at 6:36 AM on February 3, 2002

Ah, but you didn't provide the best link from Cynic's Sanctuary, Rick's Notebook, which is updated monthly (he also has weekly mini-essays now). It is generally very good and I never miss it.
posted by rushmc at 6:49 AM on February 3, 2002

metalk for this karl.? diogenes also confronted plato with his vanity, lived til 90 and slept in a bowl. He told alexander the great to get the hell out of his light. and bierce really bites my butt, hes nothing but a cheap twain with a dictionary.
posted by clavdivs at 7:30 AM on February 3, 2002

sorry karl, your no diogenes.
posted by clavdivs at 7:31 AM on February 3, 2002

Then in the Latin, I'm a dvd, I guess. Anyway, in looking back through the links, I see my Sloterdijk quote came from the Irony, Humor and Cynicism Study Guide of Ralph Dumain's The Autodidact Project, which seem very interesting and appropriate in this time and place. Certainly, his essay Cultural Sophistication & Self-Reference on American Television: Seeds of Hope? provides, at least, cover for all chronic The Smpsons quoters--

Bart: Oh my God...the dead have risen and they're voting Republican.

Sideshow Bob: You want the truth? You can't handle the truth. No truth- handler, you. Bah! I deride your truth-handling abilities.

Sideshow Bob: Because you need me, Springfield. Your guilty conscience may force you to vote Democratic, but deep down inside you secretly long for a cold-hearted Republican to lower taxes, brutalize criminals, and rule you like a king. That's why I did this: to protect you from yourselves. Now if you'll excuse me, I have a city move to run.

I always liked the way Kelsey Grammer put the juice in and rule you like a king. Now, if you will excuse me, I have to move today.

Oh, Miguel, yesterday was Groundhog Day, the cross-quarter holiday at mid-point between the Winter Solstice and Vernal Equinox. It's a descendant of a far more ancient holiday still celebrated in Southern Europe: Bear Day. (In Poland, Hungary, Austria and Greece, it's still celebrated as Bear's Day, and symbolizes the end of winter, where the bear, the guardian and keeper of the vegetation--Adonis?--once again reemerges after the winter death. And there's your Artemis link, Carol Anne) Different totem, same rules.

And how's that for an autodidactic project?

So, props to our forebears all around.

posted by y2karl at 8:54 AM on February 3, 2002

And outside, a Bewick's Wren is making its springtime song and the hummingbird just floated by Nevada's window perch--so forget the official forecast from Punxsutawney Phil!
posted by y2karl at 9:01 AM on February 3, 2002

And from the New Cynic's Dictionary:

Geek: The lowest form of life at a carnival and the highest form of life at a technology company, which implies the superiority of carnivals.
posted by y2karl at 9:26 AM on February 3, 2002

" It is said that Diogenes trampled upon Plato's carpets with the words "I trample upon the pride of Plato", who retorted, "Yes, Diogenes, with pride of another sort."

this is precisely what really gets under my skin about cynics. plato was kind of a putz in some regards, yes. but the characterizations of plato here really remind me of the characterizations of socrates from aristophanes' clouds. clouds is a comedy, and a harsh one at that. socrates is portrayed as a bumbling fool, using rhetoric to prove ridiculous things.

but plato actually created something, and something important at that. it is said that if aquinas had had access to plato as well (all he had was aristotle; some arabics got all the greek texts and wouldn't give plato to the bad christian kids that tried to steal all their philosophy) christianity would be a WHOLE lot more functional and balanced. that is not to say that any religion that integrated plato would be a Basically Good one; just that aquinas did some amazing things with aristotle, and had that been tempered by his doing amazing things with plato, we'd have a kinder, gentler christianity, methinks.

diogenes, while doing something important in examining the arete of men, did nothing to define arete so that others could also look into their fellow man. plato, on the other hand, wrote the meno, which asks "what is virtue?". he doesn't actually *define* virtue, mind you, but he tries, and at least gives the reader somewhere to start.

a lot of the stuff attributed to cynics here - "Or to look at themselves as individuals in a harsh light, with an eye toward self improvement, and by extension, societal improvement", most notably -- is stuff i would attribute to socrates sooner than diogenes. i'd be really interested in seeing more about the legacy of diogenes' inquiry, if he had one. especially as compared to the legacy of socrates' inquiry.

so basically, if you haven't, read some plato. take it with a grain of salt and it's *great*.

Cynicism is the weapon of the wounded.

i think this is a valid reply, nowadays. at least with the current usage of cynicism. i don't think a person becomes cynical until they've been hurt. they don't get cynical about politics until it doesn't go their way (not necessarily until it personally affects them, but when things go opposite to what they want to happen). they don't get cynical about other people until someone else hurts them. so in that way, yes, cynicism is the weapon of the wounded. but to be wounded implies that you also have experience, which will hopefully temper you in some fashion or another.

this post is already way too long, but as an aside, the long definition of arete above -- at least the top half -- is really misleading and unright, according to my greek class.
posted by pikachulolita at 9:31 AM on February 3, 2002

i like your style.
posted by Spoon at 2:56 PM on February 3, 2002

As well you should.
posted by y2karl at 7:32 PM on February 3, 2002

but you are very funny karl.
"about the legacy of diogenes' inquiry" one of the best questions ive seen from mefi. The diogenian legacy i think is one for interpretation. diogenes did live (as far as we know) Nietzsche seems to have taken up the torch (so to say) with zarathrustra...but what do we miss and we do miss alot. diogenes was a student of Antitheseis, diogenes begged him to take him on until the old man gave in. Diogenes was born into a somewhat middleclass familiy but his old man was a coinshaver(ahhh crime) diogenes was also a slave....set free. If alexander came to him, what does that say about this man? no one can take away who he is...not even the greatest man alive... "get out of the light" The phrase watchdog comes to mind of old diogenes. but what of the dog that watches that becomes the dog watched? good post karl.
posted by clavdivs at 7:43 PM on February 3, 2002

"I pissed on the man who called me a dog. Why was he so surprised?"

posted by rodii at 9:07 PM on February 3, 2002 [1 favorite]

You could explain Flattery and Plagiarism next.
posted by Spoon at 1:26 AM on February 4, 2002

Or Affectionate Parody--Spoon, you're a meme. Consider yourself one of the MetaFilter, if not Internet, Immortals.
posted by y2karl at 8:09 AM on February 4, 2002

Aniother link from the Irony, Humor and Cynicism Study Guide of Ralph Dumain's The Autodidact Project that I forgot to add: THE WAGES OF CYNICISM. It's a review of the Critique of Cynical Reason by Peter Sloterdijk.

Buried in his gloomy text, whispered between the pages, there's respite from the dialectical gauntlet of cynicism vs kynicism. He finds exit from that maze in the repudiation of deferred life and in a mystic affirmation of a sacred present. Those who have ears to hear will hear.

OK, now it's back to work earning my wages.
posted by y2karl at 12:49 PM on February 4, 2002

"I pissed on the man who called me a dog. Why was he so surprised?"-havent heard that one...fitting
posted by clavdivs at 2:58 PM on February 4, 2002

« Older Salon makes a go of premium service.   |   Free Radio Linux Newer »

This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments