Are You Too Cynical?

The history, psychology, and philosophy of cynicism

Diogenes looking for a human being

Cynics often come across as contemptuous, irritating, and dispiriting. But they are the first to suffer from their cynicism. They can miss out on the things, such as friendship or love, that make a life worth living. They tend to hold back from the public sphere, leading to a reduced social and economic contribution and relative poverty and isolation—which, along with their pessimism, can predispose them to depression and other ills. Their cynicism seems self-fulfilling: by always assuming the worst about everyone, they tend to bring it out, and not least, perhaps, in themselves.

Diogenes the Cynic

But cynicism also has brighter sides. To understand these, it helps to take a look at the long and distinguished history of cynicism. The first Cynic appears to have been the Athenian philosopher Antisthenes (445-365 BCE), who had been an ardent disciple of Socrates. Then came Diogenes, the paradigm of the Cynic, who took the simple life of Socrates to such an extreme that Plato called him “a Socrates gone mad.”

The people of Athens abused Diogenes, calling him a dog and spitting in his face. But in this he took pride rather than offense. He held that human beings had much to learn from the simplicity and artlessness of dogs, which, unlike human beings, had not “complicated every simple gift of the gods.” The terms cynic and cynical derive from the Greek kynikos, which is the adjective of kyon, or ‘dog’.

Diogenes placed reason and nature firmly above custom and convention, which he held to be incompatible with happiness. It is natural for human beings to act in accord with reason, and reason dictates that human beings should live in accord with nature. Rather than giving up their time and efforts in the pursuit of wealth, renown, and other worthless things, people should have the courage to live like animals or gods, revelling in life’s pleasures without bond or fear.

The stories surrounding Diogenes, though embellished, or because embellished, help to convey his spirit. Diogenes wore a simple cloak which he doubled up in winter, begged for food, and sheltered in a tub. He made it his mission to challenge custom and convention, those “false coins of morality.” Upon being challenged for masturbating in the marketplace, he mused, “If only it were so easy to soothe hunger by rubbing an empty belly.” He strolled about in broad daylight brandishing a lamp. When people gathered around him, as they inevitably did, he would say, “I am just looking for a human being.” His fame spread far beyond Athens. One day, Alexander the Great came to meet him. When Alexander asked whether he could do anything for him, he replied, “Yes, stand out of my sunlight.”

History of Cynicism and Related Schools

Diogenes was followed by Crates of Thebes, who renounced a large fortune to live the Cynical life of poverty. Crates married Hipparchia of Maroneia, who, uniquely, adopted male clothes and lived on equal terms with her husband. By the first century, Cynics could be found throughout the cities of the Roman Empire. Cynicism vied with Stoicism, a broader philosophical system that emphasized self-control, fortitude, and clear thinking, and that, in the second century, could count the emperor Marcus Aurelius among its adherents. Zeno of Citium (334-262 BCE), the founder of Stoicism, had been a pupil of Crates, and Cynicism came to be seen as an idealized form of Stoicism.

Other philosophical schools that took off around the time of Alexander include Skepticism and Epicureanism. Like the fifth century BCE sophists to whom he opposed himself, Socrates had skeptical tendencies, claiming that he knew little or nothing, and cultivating a state of non-knowledge, or aporia. Pyrrho of Elis travelled with Alexander into India, where he encountered the gymnosophists, or “naked wise men.” Pyrrho denied that knowledge is possible and urged suspension of judgement, with the aim of exchanging the twin evils of anxiety and dogmatism for mental tranquillity, or ataraxia. The most important source on Pyrrhonism is Sextus Empiricus, who wrote in the late second century or thereabouts. In the 16th century, the translation of the complete works of Sextus Empiricus into Latin led to a resurgence of skepticism, and the work of René Descartes—”I think therefore I am,”and so on—can be read as a response to a skeptical crisis. But David Hume, who lived some hundred years later, remained unmoved by Descartes, writing that “philosophy would render us entirely Pyrrhonian, were not Nature too strong for it.”

Like Antisthenes and Diogenes, Epicurus of Samos dedicated himself to attaining happiness through the exercise of reason: reason teaches that pleasure is good and pain bad, and that pleasure and pain are the ultimate measures of good and bad. This has often been misconstrued as a call for rampant hedonism, but actually involves a kind of hedonic calculus to determine which things, over time, are likely to result in the most pleasure or least pain. Epicurus explicitly warned against overindulgence, because overindulgence so often leads to pain; and, rather than pleasure per se, emphasized the avoidance of pain, the elimination of desire, and mental tranquillity (ataraxia). “If thou wilt make a man happy” said Epicurus “add not unto his riches but take away from his desires.”

I think that their shared emphasis on ataraxia makes the four Hellenistic schools of Cynicism, Stoicism, Skepticism, and Epicureanism more related than different.

Cynicism endured into the fifth century. In City of God (426 CE), St Augustine says that “even today we still see Cynic philosophers.” Although Augustine scorned Cynic shamelessness, Cynicism and especially Cynic poverty exerted an important influence on early Christian asceticism, and thereby on later monasticism. In the early first century, when it was more popular, it may even have influenced the teachings of Jesus.

Cynicism Today

“Cynicism” acquired its modern meaning in the course of the 18th and early 19th centuries, stripping Ancient Cynicism of most of its tenets and retaining only the Cynic propensity to puncture people’s pretensions.

Today, cynicism refers to doubt or disbelief in the professed motives, sincerity, and goodness of others, and, by extension, in social and ethical norms and values. This attitude is often accompanied by mistrust, scorn, and pessimism about others and humanity as a whole.

Cynicism is often confused with irony, which is saying the opposite of what is meant, often for levity, emphasis, or concision; and with sarcasm, which is saying the opposite of what is meant to mock or convey anger or contempt. Sarcasm can involve cynicism if it punctures the pretensions of its target, especially when the target has not been given the benefit of doubt. Adding to the confusion, irony can also refer to an outcome that is clearly and emphatically contrary to the one that would normally have been expected.

Antonyms, or opposites, of cynicism include trust, faith, credulity, and naivete, which refers to lack of experience or understanding, often accompanied by starry-eyed optimism or idealism. In Voltaire’s Candide, the naïve Candide befriends a cynical scholar named Martin:

“You’re a bitter man,” said Candide.

“That’s because I’ve lived,” said Martin.

The Psychology of Cynicism

The line between cynicism and accurate observation can be very fine, and it is easy and often expedient to dismiss truthfulness as cynicism. Few grownups in our society are entirely devoid of cynicism. Cynicism exists on a spectrum, and it might be argued that most cynics, cynical though they may be, are not nearly cynical enough. As Terry Pratchett wrote of the fictional Vimes:

If there was anything that depressed him more than his own cynicism, it was that quite often it still wasn’t as cynical as real life.

Cynics often take pride and pleasure in their cynicism, including perhaps in the uneasy mix of discomfort and laughter that it can provoke in others. They may seek out the company of other cynics to “let rip” and test the limits of their cynicism. Popular satirical publications and programs such as the Onion and Daily Show have a strong cynical streak. Beyond the humor, cynicism, like broader satire, holds up a mirror to society, just as Diogenes held up a lamp to the Athenians, inviting people to question their beliefs, values, and priorities, and pointing them towards a more authentic and fulfilling way of living.

This all fits with the theory that cynics are nothing but disappointed idealists. On this reading, cynics are people who began life with unrealistically high standards and expectations. Rather than adjusting or compromising, or quietly withdrawing like the hermit, they went to war with the world, deploying their cynicism as both weapon and shield. Sometimes their cynicism is partial rather than global, circumscribed to those areas, such as love or politics, which have led to the greatest disillusionment.

Cynicism may be understood as a defensive posture: By always assuming the worst of everyone and everything, we cannot be hurt or disappointed—while also making ourselves feel smug and superior. Under her apparently thick skin, the cynic may be much more delicate and sensitive than is commonly imagined.

At the same time, cynicism can be a kind of pragmatism, ensuring that all angles have been covered and all eventualities foreseen. The nature of the cynicism reveals itself in its temperature or flavor: scornful and gratuitous cynicism is more likely to be an ego defense, whereas calm and happy cynicism, however actually cynical, is more likely to be a form of efficiency—not to mention comedy.

Cynicism can also be understood in terms of projection. The ego defence of projection involves the attribution of one’s unacceptable thoughts or feelings to others—and is the basis of playground retorts such as “mirror, mirror” and “what you say is what you are.” By projecting uncomfortable thoughts and feelings onto others, a person is able not only to distance himself from those thoughts and feelings, but also, in many cases, to play them out vicariously and even to use them in the service of his ego. But there is a caveat. While projection is most certainly an ego defense, to dig deep into our shared humanity to read the minds of others is, of course, a kind of wisdom—so long as we are not also deceiving ourselves in the process.


So are you too cynical?

Probably yes, if your cynicism is primarily a psychological defense, and hindering more than helping you.

Probably no, if your cynicism is measured and adaptive, and more of a thought through philosophical attitude that aims at joy, efficiency, and peace of mind.


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