Why not Cynicism?

362538_f520by Steve Snyder

If there’s one thing that a lot of people are sure they know about Cynicism, it’s that it’s nothing other than a usually unwarranted, almost totally negative attitude about life in general, and most of its individual elements.

And, if they think they’re talking about Cynicism the philosophy, with a capital C, they’re dead wrong. With a lowercase spelling, cynicism as a psychological attitude may be just that. As one of the great philosophies of classical Greece, with roots in the pre-Alexandrine Hellenic era, older than Stoicism and perhaps with pre-Socratic connections, they’re dead wrong [1].

Even people with some interest in philosophy usually know little that is true about Cynicism: that its founder, Diogenes, told Alexander to get out of his light, and that he (Diogenes) was known for masturbating in public.

Those are (likely) true, but they are mere tidbits, and the second was trotted out more than 2,000 years ago, and from that time on, as a transparent attempt to denigrate Cynicism. A denigration which was helped, to be fair, by the fact that later Cynicism did at times — perhaps in part facing the stark nature of Roman might — become a bit more like its own caricature.

There is an apt Existential Comics entry about comparing different schools of Greek philosophy [2], which provides an entertaining starting point to offset the caricature (especially if you click the “don’t get the joke” below the comic).

There, you’ll see this exchange that allegedly took place between Plato and Diogenes as further illustration, as Existential Comics notes:

Diogenes was in a stream washing vegetables. Coming up, Plato said, “My good Diogenes, if you knew how to pay court to kings, you wouldn’t have to wash vegetables.” “And,” Diogenes replied, “if you knew how to wash vegetables, you wouldn’t have to pay court to kings.”

Well put, well put, as Tevye the Dairyman [3] might also say. Then again, Tevye himself, for instance in the song “Tradition” [4] from “Fiddler on the Roof,” might be seen as well illustrating the need for Cynicism:

“Because of our traditions, we have kept our balance for many, many years. Here in Anatevka, we have traditions for everything: how to eat, how to sleep, how to wear clothes. For instance, we always keep our heads covered, and always wear a little prayer-shawl. This shows our constant devotion to God. You may ask, how did this tradition start? I’ll tell you. I don’t know. But it’s a tradition. And because of our traditions, every one of us knows who he is, and what God expects him to do.”

Questioning not just authority, but the conventionality of traditions in general, is at the core of Cynicism, as are the radical methods by which such conventionality is questioned by the Cynics.

Stoicism — Cynicism’s close cousin —  has gotten a revival of late, for instance with Stoic Week, and essays here at Scientia Salon on concepts such as Stoic meditation and the “Stoic egg” [5,6]. Moreover, echoes of Platonism have never gone out of style for people looking for a transcendent ultimate reality, and concerns for ethical matters in large, complex modern societies, have brought back a renaissance for Aristotle and his version of virtue ethics. Even Skepticism as a philosophy gets more appreciation these days, as the lowercase “skepticism” of modern times diverges far less from it than cynicism does from Cynicism. And yet Cynicism and its “sneer” remain almost as unappreciated, and at least as misunderstood, as Epicureanism and its “swerve.”

It shouldn’t be thus. Cynicism has older roots than Stoicism, and one can think of Socrates, in his iconic role as a gadfly, as a stepfather of sorts to Cynicism, although he may have been too wedded to convention for Diogenes’s taste.

Without following Diogenes in every respect, maybe we could think of Stoicism  as “the stiff upper lip” and of Cynicism as “the laughing sneer” from ancient philosophy. Or, per Camus, who I argue has some direct intellectual connection with the Cynics, to live it — at least inwardly — as a rebel. That’s not meant to denigrate Stoicism, but I do think that it had a more accepting attitude toward societal conventions, as well as a higher view of the rationality of human actions, stemming from its concept of the world-infusing Logos.

The capital-C philosophy did take a “sneering” attitude toward convention — but that was not the end point of it by any means, as opposed to the lowercase psychology, which will be set aside for the rest of this essay, as the difference between the two has hopefully been made clear. Cynicism was about a true “callout” of convention and authority, as tools to reach the Cynic understanding of eudaimonia (flourishing). The sneer, if you will, was a tool to try to break the non-Cynic’s attachment to conventions, be it conventions related to power, fame, money, or mores. The sneer is because Cynics know we can do better, and this, I maintain, is probably the biggest difference between Cynicism and Stoicism, as this essay notes [7].

I highly recommend the book “Cynics” by William Desmond [8]. A review of it notes:

“Far from being pessimistic or nihilistic, as modern uses of the term ‘cynic’ suggest, the ancient Cynics were astonishingly optimistic regarding human nature. They believed that if one simplified one’s life — giving up all unnecessary possessions, desires, and ideas — and lived in the moment as much as possible, one could regain one’s natural goodness and happiness.”

Desmond shows that Cynics were acting the way they were in what might be called an activist Westernized version of Zen. At their best, Cynics were encouraging a kind of activist detachment from conventional preoccupations, and even from all but the barest of physical needs.

That said, while some of their antics, like Diogenes telling Alexander to get out of his light, sound courageous and enlightened, others, like masturbating in public, were as repulsive to his fellow Greeks as they are to readers today. But that was the intent. That sneer at acceptable behavior was designed to break down conventional attitudes about mores in general, with all that word meant in the classical world.

The literal or metaphorical sneer of the would-be Cynic is similar to the literal or metaphorical lopped-off finger of the Zen student. The main difference is that Cynicism is not specifically anti-logical, unlike Zen and its koans. Although Cynicism, unlike Stoicism, did not drink deeply and heavily from the well of Logos, it was nonetheless a related philosophy, and part of the larger worldview of classical Greek schools of thought that appreciated the value of rationality.

It is arguable that Cynicism hasn’t totally disappeared. Indeed, some biblical scholars, like John Crossan, have imagined Jesus as a Jewish cynic, a notion rooted in the fact that Middle-era Cynicism was strong in the biblical Decapolis, as well as in east Syria. I think Crossan overstates the case, but it’s not totally implausible. The elements of denialism that are strongest in Christianity arose from the same area of eastern Syria that was a strongpoint of later Cynicism, and my disagreement with the likes of Crossan is more in the nature of degrees than substance. I certainly find it plausible that (assuming a historic Jesus) a Jesus born in a Gentile-influenced Galilee would have come across Cynic teachers. But that was probably not the primary influence on Jesus. Many other Jews challenged the Hellenistic Jewish culture of the Sadducees and the Herodians, without any reference to Cynicism.

That said, I see Cynicism as having some influence on Sufi Islam as well as certain strains of Christian denialism like the “holy fool,” common in Eastern Orthodoxy. It may also have some connection to some Hasidic Jewish ideas.

At the same time, playing the “holy fool” was often just that — playing it, not really being it, starting with Cynicism itself. It’s why the likes of Lucian of Samosata lampooned it, which in turn probably also hastened Cynicism’s decline, as did its association with the last non-Christian Roman Emperor, Julian. In the ersatz version of “holy fools,” Rasputin comes immediately to mind. So, a good Cynic, to go “meta,” needs to practice his philosophy on his own philosophy!

Plausible historical connections aside, the substantial question facing Cynicism is whether we can really do better as a species: should we be that optimistic about Homo sapiens? I’m not so sure, which is part of my discomfort with ancient Stoicism, one that’s referenced by a few other philosophers I’ve seen writing about Stoic Week — its comfort with the powers that be, and situations that may be.

Taking off on the Serenity Prayer (a modern Christian incarnation of the so-called Stoic fork), I would rather do and speak differently. Rather than “accepting the things I cannot change,” I prefer to “accept there are things that I cannot change.” The Serenity Prayer-Stoicism idea would have us ignore the emotions attached to those unchangeable things, and it would have us also ignore that these things often exist for very irrational reasons.

Which gets us to the “neo” modifier as I propose it: how do we pivot from Cynicism to a possible neo-Cynicism?

My suggestion for a neo-Cynicism would take ancient Cynicism and detach it from some of its optimism about the world. I’d then run it through some sort of filter of philosophical pessimism [9], whether that be provided by Schopenhauer, Camus, Cioran, Unanumo or someone else [10]. I note that the trick is to do this without adopting a world-weary stance that seemingly cropped up at times in Stoicism, or without moving from Cynicism the philosophy to cynicism the cheap psychology.

You’ll note that the philosophers listed above are, generally at least, in the vicinity of Existentialism, and I am presenting neo-Cynicism as a philosophy that accepts human nature simply as it is. If that is pessimism, either philosophically or psychologically, that is what it is.

Given that Cynicism has at least some roots in the pre-Socratic era, as pessimism arguably does as well, it seems to me that it was Diogenes’ greatest wrong-footing to stake out such an optimistic stance on human nature. Classical Greek pessimists (no capital “P,” as it’s not a recognized philosophical school) incorporated eudaimonia, or flourishing, as part of their worldview. Linking back to the Stoicism that had Cynic roots, they too recommended “acceptance” of uncontrollable things, while noting that the best result from that stance was really only an avoidance of pain, not an increase of happiness. Take that a step further, along with the convention-rejecting ideas, even the rebellion, if one wills, of Diogenes, and it’s not too far a step to the Camus of “The Rebel” and “The Myth of Sisyphus.”

At this point someone might cry out, “Why not Rousseau?” While Rousseau was of course pessimistic about human existence in the context of modern society, he was quite optimistic about humans in a “state of nature.” And, given that man has evolved to become, per Aristotle, a “civilized animal” (sic: that’s a better translation than “political animal”) our “state of nature” is and will remain a state of being conscious, of being self-conscious, and of being temporally conscious. We may rebel against social convention, we cannot rebel against our selves.

There is nothing wrong with classical Cynic simplicity nor with Rousseau’s state of nature. But, there is also nothing to guarantee that either leads to virtue, as Hobbes noted in his famous “nasty, brutish and short … a war of all against all” comment, summarizing his own understanding of the human state of nature. That is why classical Cynicism needs to be run through that filter of pessimism, or at least one of skepticism.

Per comments on Massimo’s Stoic Week essay, yes, this is syncretistic. But most philosophies are. As noted above, Stoicism and Cynicism overlapped, Neoplatonism borrowed from Gnostic-related ideas, and Cynicism appears to have been influenced by Pythagoreanism. Similarly, scholars of religion estimate that there’s some new religious variant group invented every week, if not more frequently. As long as we are clear about what’s being synthesized, and why, I see no compelling problem. (Similarly in art,  Stravinsky said his best music was what he stole from others.)

I also see Cynicism as the most political of ancient philosophies, in the broad sense of what political philosophy means. If we extend political philosophy in today’s world to include economics, I think the need for the Cynic’s contempt becomes more obvious. Neoliberal economics has run aground with little to offer but an Internet-based new version of capitalism, traditional business conservatism can’t even achieve that, Marxism was unscientific even before 1989, and the economics of religious-based political philosophy will always be based on the conventions of whatever religion is at hand.

How might neo-Cynicism develop from its ancient roots? One option is to take it in a more specifically anti-systemic direction. Tis true that there’s no such thing as being a complete anti-systemetician in philosophy in general or in life in particular, but I think it is still possible, and desirable, to move a fair degree in that direction. If we understand Cynicism as attacking convention for convention’s sake, we can extrapolate the approach beyond social mores, to include attacking conventionality in the very way we think.

A neo-Cynic project should also lessen the original’s asceticism to some degree — not just the sexual aspect of it, but its larger anti-material stance. Without the need to go ascetic, scorning and sneering at materialism and excessive attachment to material possessions is more needed than ever, especially in the consumeristic society that is the hallmark of the modern developed world.

In all of this, the key is to remember that any rebellion against convention is not to be done simply for the sake of rebellion, but rather for the amelioration of both one’s individual psyche and that of the larger community. Neo-Cynicism may be an important part of an increasingly urgent move beyond the present capitalistic system.


Steve Snyder is a newspaper editor and an atheist with a graduate theological degree. He blogs at Socratic Gadfly on politics, atheism, journalism, sports, and philosophy.

[1] Cynicism (philosophy), Wiki entry.

[2] Existential Comics, Greek Hold’em.

[3] Tevye the Dairyman, Wiki entry.

[4] Fiddler on the roof — Tradition, YouTube.

[5] Why not Stoicism?, by M. Pigliucci, Scientia Salon, 6 October 2014.

[6] The Stoic egg, by M. Pigliucci, Scientia Salon, 17 November 2014.

[7] Difference Between Ancient Stoicism and Ancient Cynicism, Ratio Cynicorum, 2 September 2012.

[8] Cynics, by William Desmond, University of California Press, 2008.

[9] Pessimism, Wiki entry.

[10] Somewhat reluctantly, I recommend Joshua Foa Dienstag’s “Pessimism” for further reading. While the book is good, it’s one of those pieces of writing that could have been great, but isn’t. Parts of it cover issues of historicity, linear vs. cyclical time, detachment vs. rebellion and more.


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67 replies

  1. Is this cynical? Jack Bauer interrogates Santa Clause:


  2. Ahem… I screw up the “boldening” of my previous post. It should have read:

    Hi Hal, in my defense I did say we were “closer to” and not “are” Bonobos. We humans show great flexibility to mimic the traits of many species, regardless of inherited predispositions which are likely found across many primates/mammals.

    I like the idea of being contingent-ist. In a way I suppose that works with the Cynicism Socratic is discussing. There isn’t only one possible story for you as society is wont to set out for everyone.

    Sorry about the repeat.


  3. Hi Hal. Nope, I don’t think ‘orthogonal to logic’ works. It would be like saying that playing tennis is orthogonal to reading a book about it. They are just different activities. If a young player spent all his time thinking about tennis and not playing it then we might well tell him or her to stop thinking and play the game, but we wouldn’t be rejecting logic, just encouraging the use or non-use of it as appropriate to the task in hand.


  4. Seems like the people truly carrying this tradition in the modern world are squatting punks and people in that musical scene.


  5. Aravis,
    thanks for that clarification. I am glad to see we are mostly in agreement.
    Jewish thought is deep and complex. It can be mined in many different ways. One of those ways is to see it as an extraordinary literary treasure. It is a pity that more people don’t read it simply from a literary perspective. It is well worth it.

    Your earlier comments about Jewish practices have brought home to me that religion is a lifestyle that serves to enable, motivate and support a form of ethical behaviour. It is not enough to subscribe to an ethical school, one must also subscribe to a lifestyle that enables the ethical behaviour. An interesting example of that was the practices that Massimo described when he adopted Stoicism.

    This I think, is the most important criticism one can level against Cynics. Their radical lifestyle is, for the vast majority of people, simply unsupportable. But shorn of its lifestyle it becomes merely a minor variant of Stoicism, an interesting intellectual oddity, more honoured in the breach than the observance.


  6. Hal,

    “Really? I thought it was just all the shades of grey.”

    I suppose I should have said light and dark, but I was trying to elicit some response on the nature of good and bad. Are they absolutes, as in Jesus is absolute good and Hitler is absolute bad, or is there some inherently relativistic relationship? Can there be a universal state of goodness, without the comparison of corresponding bad?
    Safe to say, there are a number of political correctness boundaries that would be crossed, if we were to examine all the side effects of various evil acts in history and found some benefits accrued from them, though it is somewhat allowed to question the totality of benefits from supposed acts of goodness. Religions have their dark sides and wars seem the final method of population control, as we overcome plagues and general brutality of life.
    The point being that if we are going to have a coherent debate over the benefits of Cynicism, or even cynicism, then possibly we need to examine the more simplistic notions of good and bad.


  7. Brodix:
    Bad is good because without bad there would not be good, and that would be bad?
    Where do things start, where do they end? Form is the apex of that process?

    Believe it or not, Quantum Physics is in the process of answering a lot of this, it turns out, using non-locality, and entanglement. And the Quantum is certainly a driver of the sort of evolution Lamarck envisioned.

    The fundamental property of life is adaptation. Human ethology is also, like Baboon ethology, absolute. Morality, ultimately, is codified ethology, so morality, good and bad, are also absolute.

    The Greeks knew about baboons, indeed. They also learned mathematics from the Egyptians. However, no Greek school of philosophy took baboons as models for humans. I do. But well, I’m not Greek.

    The point about Homo being a super-baboon is that both species evolved in the same environment, and found the same neurological solutions.

    There were giant baboons, and they came early in the Homo Erectus extermination list, as they competed for the same resources.

    It’s fashionable to laud Bonobos: they are the modern version of the good savage of Rousseau.
    However, it’s fashionable to admire what one does not know. Bonobos live south of the Congo River, in the deep, tall forest, in a gentle environment. Bonobos have few enemies: leopards fear them, and humans are few. They eat the world’s largest fruits, some fifty pounds or more. They have plenty of sex in captivity, and females are large and dominant. So cheap lovers of love proclaimed them to be lovers, and ideals.

    Yet, it turns out, Bonobos still kill each other. However, not doing it with as much enthusiasm as normal chimps do, Bonobos could never compete with normal chimps, let alone kill the occasional lion.

    Normal chimps have evolved in a very competitive, lethal environment. I saw one once, in the savannah park, miles from any serious forest, where plenty of lions roam. He went up a ridiculously small tree, looking threatening and hyper energetic. How could that be? Well, lions are not stupid: they avoid dangerous prey (they will generally leave if human children walk towards them, as I personally experienced).

    Baboons roam the savannah, they are very much like human in a crucial way: they are born soldiers. They form armies, they get militarily organized, with lethal discipline, they have fiercesome leaders. And they are experts of terror and make-belief: they depend upon both to drink everyday.

    Predators fear baboons: although they sometimes sneak on them at night, they typically flee when a large baboon troop is on the move towards water. As baboons need to drink, nothing stop them. And their terror tactics are astounding. They also throw stones (from below, and that gave me some advantage, in mock fighting; yes, they are playful).

    Baboons need lethality, organized mass violence and terror, so that they can express the love that allows them to survive. No species does this to this extent, but for man.


  8. As with the Stoicism essays, I enjoyed this one and the comments as well.

    What I am taking form these as very simple summary is that Cynicism provides an important caution against danger falling into conventional traps that can corrupt our best nature while stoicism can help us guide us to recognize what is beyond and what is within our control.

    It tends to be human nature I think to pick sides or teams and this I think can be self defeating as no single idea ( or even set of ideas ) holds as ‘true’ in the unique contexts we find ourselves in.

    I think there are some conventions that support are our best nature and many that can corrupt it. What is our best nature is of course a fuzzy concept itself. There is also no clear boundry that helps us demarcate what is within and what is beyond our control. Similarly in Buddhism there is no clear definition of how to empty oneself of the desire to remove desire. I think any good philosophy helps us cultivate more clarity in the fuzzy nature of these tensions and boundaries so that we are not blind to them. That sentence is itself contains a contradiction.


  9. Per the last comment of Massimo in part, and even more, Hal Morris, Cynicism also is effective in countering what Hal called “story.”

    I use the word “narrative” for this. It often happens in social or political discussion when one person is imputed to have representative characteristics of a class, as in “Darren Wilson’s just another bad cop,” Michael Brown’s just another African-American thug,” “that guy who doesn’t totally agree with Rebecca Watson is a men’s rights activist” (that’s for you, Massimo), etc.

    Cynicism can cut through becoming wedded to stereotypical narratives. And we need a tool like this.

    Another word for “narrative,” when carried out on a regular basis? “Groupthink.”

    That of course is not the only convention to challenge, but it’s one of the larger ones.


    Second, Massimo’s fuzziness and contradictory self-reference. In informal logic, if it’s not 100 percent self-referential, then it’s not 100 percent contradictory, right? More seriously, this touches a bit on the demarcation issue, which you’ve discussed a bit elsewhere, and even more, on consciousness as an emergent property, which you’ve touched on a lot in the past, and surely will in the future.


    Third, the issue of Pessimism, primarily in its philosophical sense but also in its general sense.

    The attitude of some respondents is exactly another reason why we need a revival of Cynicism, in my opinion, and especially along my guidelines, and doubly so in the United States.

    We drown in a tidal wave of “positivity” in this country, almost all of which is barely scientific, if that, and a large part of which is outrightly New Agey! If being a modern Cynic, in my philosophical sense, but not the psychological sense, means in part moving beyond that, I hope people buy in by the gallon! (I heartily recommend Barbara Ehrenreich’s “Bright-Sided.)

    Otherwise, I know Husserl doesn’t use “bracketing” as I did, but I was stealing the meaning of the idea for psychological purposes.

    That said, one can argue, either for capital-P or small p-versions, that P(p)essimism is actually R(r)ealism. (Non-Platonic sense, please, even with a capital.)


    Fourth, a couple of other notes, related to Massimo on Stoicism.

    On the ancient overlap — I value Stoicism, not so much for control of my emotions, but control of expression of my emotions to others, If I sometimes vent or storm in the privacy of my own braincage, that is a different issue.

    And, you mentioned crossing a “milestone” birthday as part of what drew you back to Stoicism. I’m the same age, had that last pre-Social Security milestone 11 months and a couple of weeks ago. I see myself becoming more the Cynic as I get older.


  10. Steve Snyder: “Desmond shows that Cynics … might be called an activist Westernized version of Zen. … The main difference is that Cynicism is not specifically anti-logical, unlike Zen and its koans.”

    This is misleading and wrong. Zen (or the entire Buddhism) denies that the nature (low case ‘n’) universe is the final reality but does not deny it as a transient reality. Thus, the laws and logic of the transient reality can never reach the final reality, and this is not anti-(worldly)-logic by all means. Zen does ‘claim’ that it knows (understands) the final reality but adamantly insists that (the final reality cannot be described by any means (including all languages). Of course, Zen is wrong, and it is a cop-out. I have showed that this nature (lower case ‘n’) universe is shaped with four locks, and those four locks are popped out by Nature (capital ‘N’) which is the ‘spirituality (timelessness and immutability) in its essence. That is, we are able to ‘reach’ the final reality via the nature laws (four locks).

    Steve Snyder: “If there’s one thing that a lot of people are sure they know about Cynicism, … with a capital C, they’re dead wrong.”

    You are wrong.
    Selfishness and/or simple lifestyle are the surface, superficial. Rebelling with sneers (without any substances) is the essence of Cynicism. That is,
    The essence of Cynicism (with capital C) = cynicism (with lower case ‘c’)

    The essence of Cynicism is rebelling with sneers, with contempt but without substances, and it is in general a negative mentality and philosophy. Yet, by being ‘ignorance’ in essence, it is often unavoidable in life or in society.

    Two days ago, “Nature” published a great article (http://www.nature.com/news/scientific-method-defend-the-integrity-of-physics-1.16535 ), written by the most prominent physicists (George Ellis & Joe Silk). They finally came out to challenge the validity of M-string theory and the multiverse. The missions of M-string theory are to provide theoretical bases for Standard Model free parameters (such as, Alpha) and for the popping mechanism for the SM particles. After the total failure on these missions, they came up a ‘cop-out’, the multiverse; that is, those two are happenstances.

    I came to know about Massimo about one year ago when he critiqued the Multiverse. I stated then that the best way to show that multiverse is wrong is by showing the ‘correct answers’, and I repeated showing them at this Webzine.
    One, how to derive those SM free parameters (see https://scientiasalon.wordpress.com/2014/08/28/the-return-of-radical-empiricism/comment-page-2/#comment-6855 )

    Two, how to pop out SM particles (see https://scientiasalon.wordpress.com/2014/05/22/my-philosophy-so-far-part-ii/comment-page-2/#comment-2432 )

    Their challenge to the multiverse shows two points.

    Point one, they finally realized that M-string theory and multiverse are wrong.

    Point two, they challenge those without substances (the correct answers) but bickering about the ‘methodology’, and this is a standard ‘cynicism’.

    Cynicism is not just about a way of simple living and rebelling the authorities.


  11. Cynicism is just bad philosophy. It should be domain-specific like optimism and pessimism. And I’m pessimistic that it’ll be revived as a general philosophy, considering its lowercase cousin’s ubiquity.


  12. Jake, I think you are referring to the psychological attitude (small-c) rather than the philosophy (capital-C).


  13. Patrice,
    While we would like our ethos to be absolute and many act on that belief, the effect is extremism, whether it’s baboons, ISIS, or hyper-capitalism and the consequence is an equal and opposite reaction. Politicians and priests can make a career out of demonizing the other side of the equation, but eventually philosophers have to deal with the dichotomy, even if few would pay to hear it.
    It can’t just be a happy medium, as that’s just another term for the big flatline, but the wave action does equal out.
    There is no universal frame, or absolute form. We extract meaning like we extract signals from the noise and it’s not always what others hear. While biology resets quite regularly, culture builds larger and larger waves, which only crash when there is little recourse for those depending on them.
    It’s not all quantifiable either. Even a moving car doesn’t have an exact location, or it wouldn’t be moving. Energy is conserved, but form isn’t.
    It’s my fifth, so so long.


  14. I guess it’s so vague that I don’t know what it even means then. I’ve read the post twice and all of the comments and I’m told that it’s not a mix of iconoclasm and pessimism, so I’m lost as to what it means to be a Cynic. Unconventional? Who knows?


  15. Jake, it may seem vague, but not more so than that of many persons who espouse an affiliation with some belief system that is then modified to accomodate personal experience and circumstances. Steve has suggested reading the Wiki articles for background information. There are two entries. One deals with the ancient Greek school of Cynicism ( https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cynicism_(philosophy ) ) while the second deals with contemporary flavors ( https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cynicism_(contemporary) ). I would advise that you not place much credence in the section on the “health effects” of “cynical mistrust.” IMO, a better discussion of ancient Greek Cynicism can be found here: http://www.iep.utm.edu/cynics/

    This will at least give you a better grasp of how Stoicism can be viewed as a “refinement” of some of the common concerns of Cynic philosophers.


  16. Maybe asking what contemporary Cynicism would look like misses the point. It would look like ancient Cynicism/Stoicism does. The problem has not changed, neither should the answer. The problem, as Steve has stated in the comments, is ‘authenticity’. The first concern of philosophy is the first concern of religion. That is, I am dying. With this in mind, how do I live? Keeping this concern in it’s rightful first place, that is, keeping the main thing the main thing — is authenticity.

    The Stoics saw even the lowest forms of life seeking self perpetuation and saw this *sentience* as an essential expression of the Cosmos/God. Furthermore, this sentience is refined and deepened into its greatest expression: the Human Being. Likewise, did Judaism, Christianity, and their predecessors see Humanity as the image of God.

    But “Humanity” only takes place in individuals in community with other individuals. The idea of an abstract, collective Humanity is a chimera in which one loses one’s authenticity to convention.
    But to be an individual means first to face the ‘absurdity’ of the existentialists, which Hamlet calls ‘infinite jest’:

    ” Alas! poor Yorick. I knew him, Horatio; a fellow of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy; he hath borne me on his back a thousand times; and now, how abhorred in my imagination it is! my gorge rises at it. Here hung those lips that I have kissed I know not how oft. Where be your gibes now?… Not one now, to mock your own grinning? ….Now get you to my lady’s chamber, and tell her, let her paint an inch thick, to this favour she must come; make her laugh at that.”

    This is a powerful rant. But I think Shakespeare provides a commensurate answer to this in one sublime line of poetry, when Laertes says of Ophelia:

    “Lay her i’ th’ earth, And from her fair and unpolluted flesh, May violets spring!”

    That is, the vast, grimy, ubiquity of death does not lend it the reality that exists in one small moment of a beautiful life.

    So, all authentic religion/philosophy, like the Cynic, enjoins us to make something that is ours of this moment that is ours; something beautiful. To say ‘this is what is real’ is to say “this is what God requires of me”.

    As Cynics, whether Christian or whatever, we can learn from one another those values of self sufficiency (individuality), Equanimity (Serenity, Grace), Arete (Excellence, Joy), Philanthropy(love, generosity, forgiveness, gratefulness). We can learn this if we practice Parrhesia (honesty, integrity) with one another. As a community we can make these things a priority in the education of our children, and in doing so make present more beauty, authenticity, and reality/God.


  17. @Steve Snyder: by all means, your article is excellent. Even father/son or the identical twin are different entities. Thus, by describing the fine details between the capital ‘C’ and the lower case ‘c’ has its importance. My view is only the different aspect of the issue. My emphasis is their DNA makeup and its application. In my view, Cynicism has three genes.

    Gene 1: desiring the ‘perfection’: a virtuous life.
    Gene 2: rebelling the imperfection: yet it has only very weak weak force (with the tactics of sneers and contempt, etc.).
    Gene 3: having only the ‘ignorance’: not knowing the true answer for ‘perfection’. Without truly understand the ‘Nature’ (with capital N), the virtue and perfection are always in question, totally debatable. Cynicism lacks a methodology to show or to prove that its virtue is a perfection.

    These three genes show that the ‘essence’ of Cynicism is {rebellious with ignorance}. Although the cynicism (lower case c) is only an attitude but is still the ‘expression’ of the three genes above. Of course, I will not write a comment just for this. I do see Cynicism playing a major role in the meme-evolution which consists of the following steps.

    State one: ignorance + the ‘seed’ of enlightenment

    Step two: it consists of at least two states.
    Substate one: sieving out ‘stupidity’.
    Substate two: the rising of dishonesty.

    Step three: the rise of cynicism (rebelling the ignorance and dishonesty while does not know the answer).

    Step four: the enlightenment.

    With the total failure of M-string theory on its missions, it enters into the states of stupidity and dishonesty. Yet, now we are entering into the state of ‘cynicism’ (rebelling while without accepting the true answers), and George Ellis & Joe Silk’s article at ‘Nature’ is a very good indication.

    Paul Steinhardt is one of the major authors on ‘Inflation’ while he is now criticizing it. He just recently gave one great talk on this issue (only 25 minutes, at http://webcast.in2p3.fr/videos-6161 ). His key point is about the honesty. While he was a founder of ‘Inflation’, he must come out of it if there is unresolvable issues in it. Of course, he is still in the ‘stage’ of cynicism (not knowing the true answer).

    My key point is that ‘Cynicism’ sits at the boundary of ignorance/dishonesty and enlightenment. Thus, it plays a super important role in the meme-evolution-mechanism.


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