There are few greater temptations in our time than cynicism.
November 17, 2022
There are few greater temptations in our time than cynicism. I spent much of my life, as a teen and young adult, mired in cynical attitudes which I mimicked from the media I consumed, and which provided powerful excuses for being a shitty person. Eventually, I suffered enough, and sought new modes of being. Gradually, through a combination of reading and choices, I started to change. I now view cynicism as a pernicious, albeit attractive, blight on individuals and culture.
“At times, the joy that life attacks me with is unbearable and leads to gasping hysterical laughter. I find myself completely out of control and wonder how could life could surprise me again and again and again, so completely. How could a man be a cynic? It is a sin.”
The first response to Norm Macdonald’s great tweet about cynicism, from the user “Bingus Pingus,” illustrates the most important aspect of modern cynicism: it is resigned. “Bingus,” responding to the now-dead comedian calling cynicism a “sin,” speaks for the whole of modern cynickery—a word I invented by combining cynicism and trickery—when he says: “This assumes being cynical is a choice.” Joy, laughter, surprise—all get crushed beneath the boot of Bingus’ absence of choice. It’s no one’s fault, Bingus the cynic pleads. Right?
The cynic, in his mind, doesn’t choose to be a cynic; he can’t help it if he sees reality the way it is. “Anyone would become cynical if they were honest and saw things honestly like me.” Life contains bleak evil. The modern cynic internalizes this and—first out of scandal, then out of fear—affirms this as the ultimate reality. The existence of self-centeredness is a kind of revelation for him: the curtain is pulled back, and voila! Reality! But one naive view is simply replaced by another, and the cynic ultimately falls into another one-dimensional trap. “The world is a fucked up place, man. People are so fucked up.” Brilliant. Most people, the cynic believes, operate on useful—albeit harmful—fictions to help them cope. The cynic, in all his glorious realism, does not.
Modern cynicism can be defined as something like, “the resigned certainty that, at bottom, people and life ultimately suck.” Kierkegaard described it well: “There is a shrewdness which, almost with pride, presumes to have special elemental knowledge of the shabby side of existence, that everything finally ends in wretchedness.” Cynicism is a knowledge claim. It claims to know everything ahead of time. But it is also a process: an attempt to continually unmask facades, to reveal the dark truth underneath. Cynicism is attractive because it is partially true. There is a lot of pain and suffering, caused by selfishness and malevolence, and people frequently cover it up. There are reasons to be cynical. The cynic uses this half-truth to adopt a passive, pessimistic disposition toward life. Let’s paint a more specific portrait of the cynic in our time.
If the cynic is realistic, he is not realistic enough. His resigned negativity leads inexorably to resentment—and then to incoherent self-deception. The cynic’s useful fiction is his cynicism: it’s his post-hoc justification for impotent cowardice and fear. He refuses to step into his own life, and learn what can only be learned in the process. He shirks responsibility. His worldview is the outgrowth of this fundamental life-denial, which poisons everything he thinks and sees, like a drug.
Confronted with the reality of evil, he locates this evil outside of himself: in society, other people (usually most passionately in those closest to him), “the world.” To protect himself from culpability, he adds the Bingus twist: it’s not my fault that I respond the way I do. In some cases, he goes so far as to say that the bad person isn’t at all responsible for his badness—he is just one node in a system/chain of causality/existence itself. Of course, in practice, the cynic doesn’t believe this, and is constantly, albeit passively, upset at various “injustices.”
The cynic is a victim of the world, but he can’t do anything to help himself. The cynic’s seething resignation spins him in circles of despair. He is unable to meaningfully integrate his own evil “into” himself, to take it “upon” himself and contend with it, with an eye toward overcoming it. He is unable to integrate the Good, which is always only an ideal, a mirage escaping human capability, held in the cynic's mind only as a measure of how terrible things actually are by comparison. He finds comfort in complaining.
If the cynic is not realistic enough, he is also not cynical enough. He is suspicious of everything except his own cynicism. He rightly sees through thin optimism, then arbitrarily chooses to stop there. The cynic is like someone who, while traveling by boat, stops in the middle of the ocean, and after a while starts to believe that the whole world is water. Everything is something to see through. However, when he gazes down into the water, everything beneath it appears black. If the cynic is self-aware, he may even half-realize that he is also full of shit. But then the cunning cynic scowls and says—See? Aha, I knew it! Everything is a deception. Even I am full of shit! At the bottom, all except the bleak is false. Everything confirms this.
Cynicism is a parasite. It has no positive content—it is entirely dependent on the Good which it negates. The cynical assertion that life itself is bad leads to unacceptable conclusions, so the cynic thinly copes, always curdling in the sun of the Good. But the cynic cannot understand goodness. He cannot even understand evil. Those who actively seek goodness can understand both good and evil, because through the pursuit of good, the truth about the horror of evil is revealed. Good is like a light, exposing everything, including evil; evil is like darkness, which falls over everything, even the Good.
There is a social aspect to cynicism. We live in a passionless, reflective age. There is no pressing concern; no ultimate aim. At a time when progress is the stated goal, culture is stagnant. Politically, things are not better. In 2008, Barack Obama could still run for president on a platform of “HOPE”; in 2020, Trump’s “Make America Great Again” and Biden’s “Build Back Better” only had one thing in common: they looked backward.
We are afraid to imagine the future. Rather, we are afraid of what we cynically predict. Climate change, World War III, demonic AI overlord. People are constantly talking about change, but have never been more afraid of it, or cynical about its possibilities.
We don’t believe in the future because we don’t believe in ourselves, and we don’t believe in ourselves for good reason. Now, man is man due to his individuality as such. Man is created in his own image, and the result is psychotic, self-cannibalizing despair. The self is divided against the self. People are prone to self-sabotage. The disillusioned cynic looks out at a troubled world, and, in the absence of a transcendent model, he mimics it. The cynic begins with pride, and ends with pride. But pride grows like a weed, multiplying and spreading into new crops.
Socially, the modern cynic is liberated from the old strictures, but instead of utilizing this so-called freedom to create a better life, he is indecisive, weaselly, paralyzed by the abyss of choice. Unable to live in this uncertainty, and equally unwilling to commit to an orienting center, he rejects every solution preemptively. He comes to fetishize, then worship, the act of rejection itself.
The only thing the cynic values is this freedom to reject every potential solution to his cynicism. There is no Greatness. There is no God. There is no Love. There is nothing to look up at. There is nothing to grow into. There is only power, and power-relations. So he deconstructs, demystifies. He reads with a red pen, peering down his nose. His efforts do not lead to newer, more enlightened forms of knowing, but rather only to a snide and jaundiced squirming. There is nothing more worth learning. There is only gnawing dread. The cynic is encased in crusty certainty.
In sum, modern cynicism is passive. It is lifeless. Cynicism says No to the courageous Yes which life demands. It is folded in on itself; crumpled and small. It is arrogant and lazy. It “asks questions” as a means of avoiding the responsibility of an answer, and then asserts what it thinks it already knows—that things are bad. It is a perversion of intelligence, and often seems like intelligence, but it is really just a mask for something much more fundamental: cowardice, denial, metaphysical rebellion. Cynicism is what Peter Sloterdijk called “enlightened false consciousness,” which is “reflexively buffered” against all criticism of itself. It is a circle which continually reaffirms its own impotent biases. It posits a stupid world of stupid people—but the cynic himself is the most stupid of all. If the cynic is not stupid intellectually, he is stupid in a much more fundamental sense. He is Bingus’d out—with a sour heart bathed in cynickery.
Classical Cynicism, in the Greek philosophical tradition, was founded by Diogenes, who hated Plato’s abstract theories and believed rightly that virtue could not be separated from action. However, despite its many discontinuities with modern cynicism, there are some pertinent continuities. For example, Diogenes would masturbate in public.
The Greek word kunikos, which cynic comes from, means “dog-like.” The original cynics would often “bark” at those they disagreed with. In their attempts to liberate themselves—through endless questioning and living “in a state of nature”—they reduced themselves to animality.
But if the original Cynics were dogs because of their “bark,” modern cynics are tamed pets: they lay around and whine. The difference between classical Cynicism and modern cynicism is the difference between some scary guy literally trolling Plato, beating off in the public square to make a point; and the slavish disposition of the fappers in our contemporary landscape: braindead, bed-ridden consumers; empty-headed “creators,” who flick themselves on camera all day then order take out…
Nietzsche, despite his hatred of what would become modern cynicism, engaged directly with Diogenes, who famously walked around with a lit lamp during the day, looking for “a good man.” In The Gay Science, Nietzsche writes about a “madman who entered the marketplace with a lit lamp on a bright morning seeking God.” The same madman, in Nietzsche’s telling, announces that God is dead.
The world Nietzsche predicted has largely come true. However, the Nietzschean project—to create our own values—has also failed. Man invented new gods, but the new gods died. In 2022, the madman walks into the marketplace, face lit only by the light of his phone, and tweets snarkily about the scene in front of him. Then he goes home and refreshes his feed, lying down.
A non-cynical mode must first and foremost be active. There are things that can be only understood through the act. Kierkegaard was right: “life can only be understood backward, but it must be lived forward.” Our hesitating stammerers say: “I must first understand.” Yet it is only a short while before, in scattered passivity, they think they do understand, and what they understand is that “Life sucks.”
Life must be lived. But in order to act, we must have a reason to act. Every worldview is undergirded by first principles, priors that operate as a kind of faith. Our lack of an articulated faith has made it difficult to know how—or even why—to live. Paul Tillich, the German-American Protestant theologian, defined faith as “the ultimate concern of the whole personality.” There is no such thing as “not having faith”; there is only unarticulated faith, or faith in something “idolatrous”—that is, an “ultimate concern” in something that is not “truly ultimate.” Modern cynics, initially having insufficient faith, become disillusioned, and their faith becomes much smaller, darker. The cynic is not relativistic—though he often hides behind relativism when pressed. Rather, he is certain that everything has an ultimate meaning—but that the ultimate meaning is bad.
If we want to move creatively toward something new and better, we must find an orienting, self-transcending center. We must replace sneering fear, disdain for creativity, and crumpled ideology with an embrace of Life, in Truth, in all of its apparent contradictions. We must have a faith which includes the valid “reasons” to be cynical, but overcomes them.
Cynicism, in some cases, can be the result of a prideful overestimation of one’s ability, coupled with an impotent desire for power. People become cynical when they have an unrealistic goal, and an incomplete framework for dealing with the pursuit of said goal. “The world should be a utopia” – *world is not a utopia and nothing I do seems to make it a utopia* – “Fwwwuaaaaarrkkkk!” If our goal is to change others, or to change the world, through means that don’t involve changing ourselves, we will invariably become cynical.
Humility is one antidote to cynicism. The things we find so dispiriting in the world are also in us. They come from us. Through the pursuit of dealing with them in ourselves we can come to a new understanding. We can subordinate ourselves to something greater than ourselves, and, through the act of participation, be transformed. We can continue to push the rock up the hill; or we can “pick up our cross and carry it.”
Another antidote to cynicism is responsibility. By adopting responsibility, for ourselves and those around us, we can begin to do the meaningful work of creating the future. Change can start with each person, and spread. But in order to imagine new, creative possibilities, we must find a way to practice self-transcendence.
Other non-cynical attributes that one can grow into include love, generosity, gratitude, and courage.
Our cynical age could be a step along the rocky road to an ever-deeper understanding, a new meaning—one which has moved through modern cynicism and the anxiety of meaninglessness, into something fuller and more alive; or it could be the death knell of a crumbling culture, a descent into ever-more darkness. If we want the former, our method of meaning-making must take cynicism “into” itself, and meaningfully contend with it. It must emerge as a kind of transcendence which has ultimately been strengthened by the collapse of false transcendence.
Cynicism is potent. One can’t simply wish it away. A new, non-cynical mode must not be rooted in cope, or vague optimism, but rather in a kind of brutal ultra-realism, one that acknowledges the valid reasons to be cynical, yet still sides against it, not primarily through abstract sentiment, but through choices made in articulated faith. We need an embodied faith—one which may lead to hope, but which takes seriously man’s finitude, alienation, and despair. It must “Yes, and” the cynical critique.
We should embrace truth as opposed to safety, growth as opposed to stagnation, Life as opposed to Death, and we should accept the challenge posed by cynics: not ultimately with arguments, or essays, but with our lives.
In The Brothers Karamazov, a woman who has lost her faith cries out to Father Zossima—“How can it be proved, how can one be convinced?” She has heard people talking about how faith is a “phenomena of nature,” that there is “nothing to it at all.” She is in despair—“It’s devastating, devastating!”
Father Zossima replies, “No doubt it is devastating. One cannot prove anything here, but it is possible to be convinced.”
“How?” she asks. “By what?”
“By the experience of active love. Try to love your neighbors actively and tirelessly. The more you succeed in loving, the more you’ll be convinced of the existence of God and the immortality of your soul.”
We can defeat cynicism by living as if we’ll live forever. It is a choice that one can make.