Cynicism, according to popular opinion, hinders our ability to be good to each other and productive to society. On Twitter recently, @ValaAfshar offered a typical piece of advice: “To achieve more, distance yourself from negativity and cynicism. In the long run, the optimists will create, solve, and do more.” Said @AnnieKNK: “we have left irony and cynicism in 2017. 2018’s self-defense mechanisms will be love and goodwill to our fellow man.” More succinct was @veryhighlybad: “cynicism is lazy and boring and not even a lil bit cool.”
People didn’t always think this way. When the philosophy of cynicism first emerged in Ancient Greece, its followers sought an alternative to the errors of civilization. “The positive philosophy of the Cynics was as minimal and as unintellectual as possible,” says University of Houston professor Dave Mazella, author of “The Making of Modern Cynicism.” “They avoided any luxury, but they considered anything more than a kind of simple cloth around your loins as a luxury.”
The Cynics lived on the streets, half-naked, sometimes defecating or having sex in public. For this, people began calling them “kynikos,” or “dog-like,” the root of the word “cynic.” But behind this provocative behavior was a more sophisticated philosophy: a rejection of civilization in order to live in harmony with natural instincts. Diogenes, their most famous member, was really funny, Mazella insists. People would ask Diogenes, “What’s the best kind of wine?” He would reply, “Someone else’s.”
In the 18th century, the Cynics’ ideas were reintroduced as a reaction against France’s lucrative colonial trade and the resulting economic expansion. Coffeehouses were full of influential merchants recruiting business partners. The irascible Jean-Jacques Rousseau believed that, as every conversation became a marketing opportunity, social interactions would degrade. This concern is reflected in Enlightenment-era encyclopedia articles. “There is this deep paranoia about hypocritical social actors, and constant skepticism about other people’s motives, and desire to unmask their hypocrisy,” says Sharon Stanley, a professor of philosophy at the University of Memphis. Thus is born the modern view of cynicism: People are driven by devious ulterior motives, and social progress is nearly impossible.
Yet Stanley sees a positive alternative in the work of the Enlightenment writer Denis Diderot. His work “Rameau’s Nephew” portrayed an unabashed cynic who thinks that, to be a part of society, you have to be willing to play by society’s flawed rules. This interpretation suggests that rather than being opposed to collective political action, cynicism might actually be necessary for it to work. “We might want to think of cynicism as a tactic that people can use to navigate all of the doubts that people rightly should have about our contemporary moment,” Stanley says. “Cynicism might actually be a way that we can continue to be political subjects and political actors without becoming disillusioned beyond repair.”
In this version, progress is still possible. It just requires us to abandon naive hope in favor of becoming a little more cynical.Zachary Davis is the host of “Ministry of Ideas,” a new podcast available on iTunes, Google Play, the NPRone app, and ministryofideas.org.