Cynicism and The Function of Cynicism at the Present Time

From The Wall Street Journal:

The law of supply and demand, like the law of gravity, applies to just about everything. These days, for example, cynicism abounds—“We are all cynics now,” Ansgar Allen reports—and we value this oversupply accordingly, which is to say not at all.

In ancient Greece, however, true Cynics were few. Hard-bitten dissidents, they lived an aggressive, contrarian philosophy opposed to convention, keen on what is “natural,” and enabled by near-fanatical independence. Diogenes the Cynic, perhaps the best known of their number, scandalized Athenians by flaunting his bodily functions. But these enemies of propriety had a certain usefulness, much like short sellers in today’s financial markets. When human values seem built on thin air, count on a Cynic—or if necessary, a mere cynic—to realign them with reality by sneering at their emptiness.

Neither Mr. Allen’s “Cynicism” nor Helen Small’s “The Function of Cynicism at the Present Time” celebrates cynicism, but both make a kind of case for it. They also concern themselves as well with how we went from the paradoxically idealistic social criticism of the ancient Cynics to the nihilistic cynicism of our own times. The short answer is: Friedrich Nietzsche.

. . . .

Ancient Cynics, in a kind of perverse altruism, embraced extreme poverty, the better to credibly assail the complacent with their radical social critique. The self-interested cynicism of our own times, which sees every motive as ulterior, “prefers to express itself in private, as a grievance,” says Mr. Allen, a lecturer in education at Britain’s University of Sheffield. His book is in part a plea on behalf of “the obscene, confrontational force of Cynicism,” which he values as a mode of revolt suitable to “the predicament of those who look about them and find everything wanting.” One fears he is among them.

Ms. Small, in “The Function of Cynicism at the Present Time,” is also bracingly cynical about cynicism. The cynic’s caustic approach, she observes, means that he “arrogates power to himself over his listener,” and his radical self-sufficiency is a sham, for “despite appearances, the cynic is always on the make for recognition by others.” Yet Ms. Small sees cynical thinking “not as the isolated posturing of a radical or psychologically damaged few” but as a commonplace and useful check on the credibility of people promoting moral ideals.

. . . .

There was benevolent cynicism, the author suggests, in Bertrand Russell’s “Marriage and Morals,” a takedown of outdated sexual mores and regulations that, in 1940, prompted a New York judge to vacate the philosopher’s appointment to teach at City College. (John Dewey defended Russell in the Nation.) Russell’s provocative book exemplified cynicism’s utility by demanding that we justify conventions, taboos and legal restrictions and reminding us of our animal nature.

Cynicism’s bracing challenge comes at a cost. Diogenes, one version of the story goes, was exiled from his hometown of Sinope when his father was jailed for debasing the currency he was in charge of issuing. This history is also a metaphor, since cynicism can undermine confidence in the social coinage of tradition, ritual, civility—all the evolved practices that keep violence at bay and make life tolerable.

But has cynicism really become more pervasive these days? America has always had cynics, but we’ve had Cynics as well. Henry David Thoreau, a figure associated with nature, asceticism, self-reliance and social criticism, must have reminded someone in his day of Diogenes. We can see a family resemblance in Mark Twain, Thorstein Veblen and the Beat poets, too.

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal (Sorry if you encounter a paywall)

Before reading the OP, PG might have characterized himself as a cynic, but afterwards, he thinks he’s more of a practitioner of targeted skepticism.

While PG believes in the essential goodness of many a human being and in the potential goodness of many more, he also is cynical about certain types and classes of people.

It will come as no surprise to regular visitors to TPV that PG is both cynical and skeptical of a great many people associated with the world of traditional publishing, for example. He is also both cynical and skeptical about nearly all communists and socialists. (This isn’t a political blog. PG was just doing a bit more public self-examination than is probably wise.)

That said, PG is very much convinced that individual human beings and groups of human beings can be improved and even perfected, given enough persistence and some outside help at appropriate times.

Human beings are, of course, intensely social creatures and the influence of those around them can be very powerful. Hence, PG’s problems with the mores and habits of traditional publishing in general. (He readily acknowledges many more than one exception to this generalization.)

In the long run, however, PG believes that working on the bright side is a more successful strategy in business and in life, although there is no doubting the efficacy of dark-side strategies at certain times and in certain places in business, history and society.

PG has run out of philosophizing juice (to the great relief of more than one visitor to TPV).

3 thoughts on “Cynicism and The Function of Cynicism at the Present Time”

  1. As I like to say: I used to be a cynic, but I don’t believe in that crap anymore.

    One thing in the OP caught my eye: the idea that Mark Twain had something in common with the capital-C Cynics. There was absolutely nothing ascetic about the man. He married into money, lived a life of unmitigated luxury on two continents, and was waited on by servants at nearly all periods of his life from infancy to extreme old age. The only time he was self-sufficient, or nearly so, was during his spell on the frontier during and after the Nevada gold rush; and even then, with the born epicure’s unerring nose for the soft billet, he contrived to live as much as possible on the good offices of his brother Orion, who was Secretary of the Nevada Territory at the time.

    Certainly Twain was a cynic, in the mean, snivelling, small-c modern sense of the word. He enjoyed few things better than making mean jokes about the customs and ideals of people who were both poorer and better than himself. I admire the man as a writer, but reading his autobiography, followed by his published letters, and then the shameless official hagiography in which Albert Bigelow Paine tried to turn him into a plaster saint of the secular religion of liberal Americana – faugh! Any admiration I had for him as a man is long since gone out of the window.

  2. That said, PG is very much convinced that individual human beings and groups of human beings can be improved and even perfected, given enough persistence and some outside help at appropriate times.

    And don’t forget: genetic engineering! It’s coming, folks.

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