Why Cynicism Used To Be A Good Thing

March 25, 2018

Diogenes de Sinope was the father of cynicism. He lived in Ancient Greece, during the 4th century B.C. The old followers of this cynicism were very different from modern day cynics. Theirs was pure criticism. They didn’t agree with many of the hypocrisies of society and wanted to live in a much more authentic way.

The word “cynical” comes from the Greek word “kinus”, which means “dog”. Because of this, people viewed cynicism at that time in a very low light, and associated it with the life of a dog. Diogenes himself lived like a dog, in absolute poverty. Yet, at the same time, his philosophical teaching had a real bite to it that made him one of the most incisive thinkers of his time.  Thus the dog analogy saw both sides of a dog’s life.

“Cynicism works like a drug to distance yourself from others. It is an anesthetic to help you not to feel the danger around you, until its subtle poison enters your whole life. At first it certainly relieved you and helped you laugh at your fears. But in the end it poisoned you.

-Marcela Serrano-

These days cynicism has taken on a very different meaning. Modern day cynics don’t believe in values and they boast about it too. They don’t criticize society with a view to improving it, but just to condemn it. They don’t make any sort of valid contribution. We also apply the word cynic to those who openly take advantage of others, even to the point of being proud of it.

Diogenes of Sinope and primitive cynicism

Diogenes is credited with wonderful things, full of moral greatness. He didn’t even have a house, his only home was a barrel. He looked like a beggar, due to the rags he dressed in.  Yet, despite this, he was one of the most insightful men of his time. Plato named him “A crazy Socrates”.

Diogenes and Cynicism

It is said that Alexander the Great was interested in getting to know him. He went to find him and introduced himself with, “I am Alexander the Great”. To which the cynic replied, “And I am Diogenes, the dog.” After a short conversation, Alexander said to him “Ask me for whatever you want”. Diogenes replied, “Move yourself, you’re blocking out the Sun”.

According to another anecdote, Diogenes was in the square one day, eating vegetables that others had thrown in the trash. Another philosopher went past him and said, “If you worked for nobles like me, you wouldn’t have to eat vegetables”. Diogenes answered, “If you ate vegetables like me, you wouldn’t have to work for the nobles.” These incidents give us a idea of the type of thinker he was.

Modern cynicism

Power and money have always been a source of corruption, whatever the place and whatever the time. However, with the appearance of capitalism and the fall of the great utopias, it has now reached its greatest heights. Money and power have motivated the most despicable behaviour there has been in our society.

Man with coin slot in back

We could say that the father of modern cynicism is Machiavelli, the great philosopher of power. He is credited with the famous phrase “The end justifies the means”. After him came a string of philosophers who exalted individualism to its highest place. According to them, what human beings should seek is selfishness at all costs. Any course of action that benefits you is perfectly valid, whatever that may be.

Throughout history, men with great political or economic power have always tended to act with great cynicism, in the modern sense of the word. As figureheads that have guided or directed societies, they have become a model for many. A lot of people see this as perfectly correct. And much more so after the fall of the great ideologies and utopias. The power of money was defeated and that is why the end justifies the means has become such a relevant saying.

Cynicism in interpersonal relationships

From the upper echelons of power, cynicism has expanded and infiltrated our everyday relationships. We can see it especially clearly when some kind of power game is being played out. One example of this would be the employer-employee relationship. We can also see it in men-women and adult-children relationships.

While there is a strong current against cynicism, it continues to have an important place in our current society. It is, however, often expressed in a very subtle way. Like when an employer, a man, or an adult in the previously mentioned relationships imposes a rule simply at their whim. Then, when the employee, woman or child protests, they answer, “If you don’t like it, you can lump it!”

Cynical behaviours are perverse. When they come into our human relationships it makes them very unhealthy. In the short, medium or long term, there are also negative consequences for those who fall into this type of behaviour. False affections promote hidden sins and stimulate hypocrisy. Although they give you an immediate selfish satisfaction, you lose far more than you gain.

Images courtesy of Kylli Sparre