I cannot get though a week of the current political campaign without someone decrying the ‘cynicism’ of the American electorate. But, they use cynic to mean ‘Bad voter. Bad!’ Or they use the word to say nothing but to intimate undefined failings. I am not a Cynic. But I respect them. And they have some very good points.
Cynic means dog. One can learn a lot from dogs. Dogs know what is real: Love, devotion, pleasure, pain, hunger, satiation.
Cynics believe that when one is being told of higher level abstractions, one is being manipulated. ‘When someone speaks to me of my honor, I feel for my wallet.’ as the sage said. When people describe socialist justice or historical necessity, for two, they are often trying to convince you of things for which they have no cogent argument. When someone claims something is settled science they have two choices: Either they show you the math, do the calculations, and make a prediction. Or they wave their hands, make personal attacks, and argue from the authority of an absent other. When a famous scientist copyrights his data and won’t let it be seen. Well then, he …. Basta.
Cynics believe in extreme simplicity. Diogenes had only one change of clothing. He had a cup until he saw a dog drinking and abandoned the cup. I didn’t understand that until Thoreau explained it. Thoreau said that the cost of something is really how much of your life the possession costs you. I find my automobile useful, but the cost of fuel, maintenance, and repair can be daunting. I had an ill friend once who offered me his yacht. Even free – and the conversation didn’t go far enough to verify that – I couldn’t afford it. Not to mention the likelihood of a landlubber like me simply finding it an interesting form of suicide.
Diogenes felt that anyone with substantial possessions was less the possessor than the possessed. Such a man could not be honest. He cannot speak the truth lest he lose his things. The only free man is he who has noting to lose. That’s why he did the silly stunt of walking in the broad daylight with a lamp to search for an honest man. True honesty is something a prosperous man can seldom afford.
‘Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose.’ – Kris Kristofferson
I am not a cynic because I aspire to things beyond the phallus and the belly. But – but, there is a certain truth there. Many people have sold their lives for things that don’t exist. Gratitude for one.
It is said that when Athens was conquered, Alexander sought out Diogenes. Alexander found him sunning himself.
‘I am Alexander the great king.’
‘I am Diogenes the dog.’
‘I can do great things for you. What do you want.’
‘You can get out of my light.’
Consider the freedom in that exchange. No wonder that Alexander said that if he could not be himself he would want to be Diogenes.
Cynicism is a philosophy for oppressive regimes. One cannot be easily bribed or punished. The more that is taken, the more free the Cynic feels.
When people attack cynicism I feel they are manipulating us all.
Or they don’t know what it means.
* * * * * * * *
A bit over a century ago there was an American vogue for cynicism. Ambrose Bierce wrote a famous dictionary of cynical definitions called The Devil’s Dictionary. How can I fail to include a few?
APPEAL, v.t. In law, to put the dice into the box for another throw.
APHORISM, n. Predigested wisdom.
The flabby wine-skin of his brain
Yields to some pathologic strain,
And voids from its unstored abysm
The driblet of an aphorism.
—”The Mad Philosopher,” 1697
MAUSOLEUM, n. The final and funniest folly of the rich.
MESMERISM, n. Hypnotism before it wore good clothes, kept a carriage and asked Incredulity to dinner.
MYTHOLOGY, n. The body of a primitive people’s beliefs concerning its origin, early history, heroes, deities and so forth, as distinguished from the true accounts which it invents later.
REASONABLE, adj. Accessible to the infection of our own opinions. Hospitable to persuasion, dissuasion and evasion.
RELIGION, n. A daughter of Hope and Fear, explaining to Ignorance the nature of the Unknowable.”What is your religion, my son?” inquired the Archbishop of Rheims.
“Pardon, monseigneur,” replied Rochebriant; “I am ashamed of it.”
“Then why do you not become an atheist?”
“Impossible! I should be ashamed of atheism.”
“In that case, monsieur, you should join the Protestants.”
FUTURE, n. That period of time in which our affairs prosper, our friends are true and our happiness is assured.
CONJUGAL, adj. (Lat. con, mutual, and jugum, a yoke.) Relating to a popular kind of penal servitude — the yoking together of two fools by a parson.
YOKE, n. An implement, madam, to whose Latin name, jugum, we owe one of the most illuminating words in our language — a word that defines the matrimonial situation with precision, point and poignancy. A thousand apologies for withholding it.