Live Like the Ancient Cynics

From The Atlantic:

There are a growing number of Marxists today. By which I mean followers of Groucho, not Karl. “Whatever it is, I’m against it,” Marx sang in his 1932 film, Horse Feathers. “I don’t know what they have to say / It makes no difference anyway.”

What was satire then is ideology today: Cynicism—the belief that people are generally morally bankrupt and behave treacherously in order to maximize self-interest—dominates American culture. Since 1964, the percentage of Americans who say they trust the government to do what is right “just about always” or “most of the time” has fallen 53 points, from 77 to 24 percent. Sentiments about other institutions in society follow similar patterns.

Whether cynicism is more warranted now than ever is yours to decide. But it won’t change the fact that the modern cynical outlook on life is terrible for your well-being. It makes you less healthy, less happy, less successful, and less respected by others.

The problem isn’t cynicism per se; it’s that modern people have lost the original meaning of cynicism. Instead of assuming that everyone and everything sucks, we should all live like the ancient Greek cynics, who rebelled against convention in a search for truth and enlightenment.

The original cynicism was a philosophical movement likely founded by Antisthenes, a student of Socrates, and popularized by Diogenes of Sinope around the fifth century B.C. It was based on a refusal to accept the assumptions and habits that discourage people from questioning conventional dogmas, and thus hold us back from the search for deep wisdom and happiness. Whereas a modern cynic might say, for instance, that the president is an idiot and thus his policies aren’t worth considering, the ancient cynic would examine each policy impartially.

The modern cynic rejects things out of hand (“This is stupid”), while the ancient cynic simply withholds judgment (“This may be right or wrong”). “Modern cynicism [has] come to describe something antithetical to its previous meanings, a psychological state hardened against both moral reflection and intellectual persuasion,” the University of Houston’s David Mazella wrote in The Making of Modern Cynicism.

There were no happiness surveys in Antisthenes’s times, so we can’t compare the ancient cynics’ life satisfaction with that of those around them who did not share their philosophy. We can most definitely conclude, however, that modern cynicism is detrimental. In one 2009 study, researchers examining negative cynical attitudes found that people who scored high in this characteristic on a personality test were roughly five times more likely to suffer from depression later in life. In other words, that smirking 25-year-old is at elevated risk of turning into a depressed 44-year-old.

Modern cynics also suffer poorer health than others. In 1991, researchers studying middle-aged men found that a cynical outlook significantly increased the odds of death from both cancer and heart disease—possibly because the cynics consumed more alcohol and tobacco than the non-cynics. In one 2017 study on middle-aged Finnish men, high cynicism also predicted premature mortality. (Although both of these studies involved only men, nothing suggests that the results are gender-specific.)

Link to the rest at The Atlantic

9 thoughts on “Live Like the Ancient Cynics”

  1. “Whether cynicism is more warranted now than ever is yours to decide. But it won’t change the fact that the modern cynical outlook on life is terrible for your well-being. It makes you less healthy, less happy, less successful, and less respected by others.”

    Yes, of course. Go along to get along and you’ll feel much better. If you don’t, have a dose or two of Soma. Be a nice little robot and do what the gub’mint says.

    • In Japan the dominant cultural trend has generally been “the nail that sticks up gets hammered down”.

      http://www.masafumiotsuka.com/english/sticking_nail/

      Some would like the US go that route.
      ” Shut up and conform! ”
      For 400+ years it hasn’t.

      More people should read DeTocqueville.

      With this one he, ahem, nailed it:

      “Society will develop a new kind of servitude which covers the surface of society with a network of complicated rules, through which the most original minds and the most energetic characters cannot penetrate. It does not tyrannise but it compresses, enervates, extinguishes, and stupefies a people, till each nation is reduced to nothing better than a flock of timid and industrious animals, of which the government is the shepherd.”

  2. “Since 1964, the percentage of Americans who say they trust the government to do what is right “just about always” or “most of the time” has fallen 53 points, from 77 to 24 percent.”

    It’s not just trusting the government to do the right thing… it’s trusting regular people to do the right/intelligent thing. Many people cut off their nose to spite their face.

  3. I like to say that a cynic is an optimist by nature and a realist by sad experience. I’m told this is a cynical definition, but I think it realistic.

  4. It’s fair to ask anybody what his standard is in evaluating any policy. We hear a lot about “doing the right thing.” What is the standard for evaluating the thing?

    • Ethics.
      Morality.
      Legality.
      In that order.

      Alternately, within organizations, doing the job.
      It’s not hard to figure out.

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