Sunday, February 14, 2010

What Is Cynicism?

Your Host, Rick Bayan
What Is Cynicism? (edits by Jim Weaver)

What Is Cynicism?

First, a few words of welcome. All right, more than a few.

Come in, good visitor, and shut the door behind you. You're in The Cynic's
Sanctuary now, safe from the worldly evils and petty vexations that may have
driven you here. What kind of evils and vexations would drive an otherwise
healthy human being to seek solace among cynics? How about these, for

Unemployment (or Underemployment)
"We'll keep your resume on file"
People whose cell phones ring at movies and funerals
Being ridiculed by your inferiors
Wondering if you're inferior to your inferiors
Going bald, especially if you're a woman
Getting stuck in a bad career
Realizing that a bad career makes a bad life
The demise of Western civilization (Its here)
The triumph of degeneracy, barbarism, evil, and MBAs
Cheesy books that stay on the bestseller list for 187 weeks
Chronic disappointment(Our Current President)
Eating bean sprouts and dying young anyway
Eternal damnation as your final reward

In these congenial precincts you won't be snubbed by snooty high school
cliques or badgered by clueless bosses. You won't have to endure money-mad day-traders or merchandising tie-ins for the latest blockbuster film. Here you'll find no dippy New Age gurus, no surefire diet plans that backfire two months later, no smug certainties of any kind.

If you think of yourself as a cynic -- or even if you're not sure what to
call yourself -- I'd like you to feel at home here. Are you a disgruntled
idealist, a subversive wit, a professional misfit, a skeptical jester, a
curmudgeon, a social reject, a misanthrope, or a secret sentimentalist who
longs for a simpler, sweeter life? Then you're among kindred spirits; you've
found your proper tribe. Are you bitter, alienated, underappreciated or
overwhelmed? Chances are you'll fit right in. Were you born cynical, or was
cynicism thrust upon you? Either way, this site was designed for you. The
cynics who visit these pages are as diverse as dogs, but we're all brethren
under the skin. Something about the ways of the world makes us want to howl.

Instead of baying at the moon -- an activity that could get some of us
carried off by the dogcatcher -- we've banded together here in the grand
tradition of the ancient Cynics. Let me tell you about them.

A brief history of cynicism.

Cynicism is a Greek invention, like the Doric column or the gyro sandwich.
The first Cynics (we capitalize the name when we're talking about the ancient
ones) were students of a now-obscure philosopher named Antisthenes, who in turn was a student of the illustrious Socrates. Like Socrates, the Cynics
believed that virtue was the greatest good. But they took it a step further
than the old master, who would merely challenge unsuspecting folks to
good-natured debates and let their own foolishness trip them up.

The Cynics were more blunt when it came to exposing foolishness. They'd hang out in the streets like a pack of dogs ("Cynic" comes from the Greek word for dog), watch the passing crowd, and ridicule anyone who seemed pompous, pretentious, materialistic or downright wicked. Fiercely proud of their independence, they led disciplined and virtuous lives. The most famous of the ancient Cynics was Diogenes, who reportedly took up residence in a tub to demonstrate his freedom from material wants. This cranky street-philosopher would introduce himself by saying, "I am Diogenes the dog. I nuzzle the kind, bark at the greedy and bite scoundrels." He'd use a lantern by daylight, explaining that he was searching for an honest man. Even Alexander the Great didn't escape unscathed. When the young conqueror found Diogenes sitting in the marketplace and asked how he could help him, the old philosopher replied that "you can step out of my sunlight."

As you might expect, the ancient Cynics' habit of ridiculing their fellow
citizens didn't win them many friends. People generally don't like to hear
the hard truth about themselves, especially in public. But the Cynics felt
they were on a mission from Zeus. As the Stoic philosopher Epictetus wrote
several centuries later, "A Cynic is a spy who aims to discover what things
are friendly or hostile to man; after making accurate observations, he then
comes back and reports the truth."

Cynics have been making those observations and reporting the truth ever
since. The ancient Cynics have turned to dust, but their successors have
carried on nobly in their spirit. Great names like Juvenal, Rabelais, Swift,
Voltaire and Mark Twain have used the classic Cynics' tools -- bitter irony,
biting sarcasm and mirthful ridicule -- to expose the follies of their times
as well as the timeless foibles of humankind. If you consider yourself a
cynic, take pride in your heritage; the world needs you now more than ever.

What cynicism means today, and why cynics need a sanctuary.

Telling the truth can get you into hot water. As much as the world needs its
cynics, it still doesn't REALIZE that it needs them. Cynics today are
habitually castigated by politicians, corporate chieftains and other
productive citizens with tidy lawns; they know that we're on to them, so they
lump us with the lowest of the low. We're generally cast as the heavies in
the black hats, counterproductive miscreants who broil babies when we're not spray-painting obscenities on public monuments. We're portrayed as masters of chicanery and intrigue, untrusting and untrustworthy. Since we're neither leaders nor followers, we're expected to get out of the way -- and the
tidy-lawn folks get furious when we don't. Nobody loves a cynic, except maybe another cynic.

Even the dictionary definition of a cynic makes us look like scoundrels:

"a faultfinding captious critic; esp. one who believes that human conduct is motivated wholly by self-interest."

Aside from casting us in a negative light, Webster & Co. miss the point by
half a mile. Where's the hint of lost ideals, the rueful humor, the wounded
childlike soul that lurks behind the cynic's sarcasm?

What a sadly maligned and misunderstood tribe we are! Cynicism, after all,
springs not from cruelty or viciousness, but from precisely the opposite: a
fatal love of virtue. If we were mere realists, we'd have no need for
cynicism; the world would never disappoint us because we'd expect so little
of it. But the best cynics are still idealists under their scarred hides. We
wanted the world to be a better place, and we can't shrug off the
disappointment when it lets us down. Our cynicism gives us the painful power to behold life shorn of its sustaining illusions. Thus my own definition of a cynic:

"an idealist whose rose-colored glasses have been removed, snapped in two and stomped into the ground, immediately improving his vision."

If we were activists, we'd do something constructive about our discontentment. But we're smart enough to know that we won't prevail, and
probably a little too lazy to attempt any labor that's predestined to fail.
So we retaliate with our special brand of wounded wit. If we can't defeat our
oppressors, at least we can mock them in good fellowship. That's about as
much justice as a cynic can expect.

Why I built this site, and what you'll find here.

I created The Cynic's Sanctuary in 1996 with the intention of hawking my
estimable and woefully underexposed book of disgruntled definitions, The
Cynic's Dictionary. A cynical motive? Not really. The Web was relatively
new, and I jumped at the chance to proclaim my book throughout the land, and unto all the inhabitants thereof.

But as I started building The Cynic's Sanctuary it took on a life of its own,
far beyond my original blueprints. It evolved into a one-stop forum and
amusement center for the world's cynics, a place where they could gather to
rant or reflect, laugh or frown as the spirit moved them... where they could
read about the great cynics of history and test their own cynical
credentials... where they could meet their fellow cynics, bicker with them,
trade quips, and enjoy their virtual companionship. Yes, I've sold more than
a few copies of my book, though I don't make a profit on them. And I've had the satisfying opportunity to sound off in my dark-humored monthly tirades. But what I've enjoyed most of all is watching the place come alive with the personalities who inhabit it. I invite you to become one of those resident cynics who breathe life into this electronic sanctuary.

Here's what you'll find in The Cynic's Sanctuary:

How to Know if You're a Cynic. Take this quick quiz to test your cynical

714 Things to Be Cynical About. My extensive (but hardly exhaustive) list
is an invaluable reference tool for cynics and aspirants to that status.

What Are YOU Cynical About? Add your own two cents to this lively public list.

Cynic's Message Board. The main hangout: a place to rant at length and
meet your fellow cynics.

Rick's Notebook. Still addictive after all these years.
Check out my dark-humored monthly tirades and weekly columns.

Cynic's Dictionary Sampler. Enjoy a random selection of "disgruntled
definitions" from one of the great undiscovered works of Western civilization, along with the latest cynical definitions from the mind of Rick.

Order The Cynic's Dictionary. Nobody's forcing you, but you can get your own autographed hardcover copy here for just $10.99 (or $7.99 in paperback) -- with free shipping, yet. You won't find it in stores any more because they had to make room for the 27th volume of Dr. John's Bathroom Reader.

Cynic's Hall of Fame. Read about the great curmudgeonly sages through the ages, as well as the honorable mentions and "world-class wise guys."

Other Sites for Cynics. You want links? I've got links!

Cynic's Mailbag. Feel like dropping me an e-mail? Be warned: you might
actually get a reply.

Spread the Word. If you enjoy this site, use this e-mail form to tell your
friends about it. SOMEBODY has to tell them... it might as well be you.

NEW! Positive Cynicism. No, you're not hallucinating. I'm developing a new philosophy for those of us who feel that traditional cynicism can be a little too, um, negative. As a Positive Cynic, you can keep your integrity and critical faculties intact without making yourself miserable. Read about it here.
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