Part I—What is a Cynic?

George Carlin-Cynic Today when people think about the word “cynic” they typically understand it to be negative as it is often used in that connotation. To some degree this accusation has some merit. According to Merriam Webster the modern definition of cynic is:

“a person who has negative opinions about other people and about the things people do; especially: a person who believes that people are selfish and are only interested in helping themselves.” Or, “a faultfinding captious critic; especially: one who believes that human conduct is motivated wholly be self-interest.”

However, it is also a Greek philosophical ideology which holds that:

“Virtue is the only good and that its essence lies in self-control and independence.”

Ultimately, cynicism is the idea that one must control various appetites and emotions (often lumped into “appetites,” but commonly referred to as “passions”) in order to attain the appropriate level of various virtues. The definition of virtue is often misconstrued and very convoluted itself. For the purposes of this particular blog I will not address what virtue is—otherwise, I will be up all night—we’ll save it for another. Being a cynic also means that, those who embrace the label believe that human beings are motivated by self-interest (the merits of which are also very debatable on its own). While it may seem entirely negative, it is not as a whole. A cynic understands the humanistic flaws we all carry. We humans are not perfect, nor will we ever be. In understanding our faults, the cynic can see the holes in certain theories where others can be blinded by their own confirmation biases. That does not mean, or even that I believe, that a cynic is more correct than any other particular way of thought. I merely point out that, while others see ALL negativity, others see it as being more realistic—embracing the fact that we have biases, that, for example, we cannot possibly know the “mind” of God because we, ourselves, are not “all knowing” (which is 1/3 of the definition of how we define the Almighty), and choose to focus on what we, as an individual actually have control over. Now, in the wake of political furor as of late I have seen a number of people post things online that speak to the idea that one ought to “think for themselves” rather than letting mass mainstream media dictate to them and have made accusations that those who do not do this are “sheeple.” That sentiment alone speaks to the idea that “Cynics [seek] self-sufficiency and [reject] the social and religious values of civilization. Group thinking is thought of as herd-thinking.” http://philosophy.lander.edu/ethics/stoicism.html (emphasis added). If that thought or idea has been in your head or come out of your mouth, well then: how very cynical of you! Unfortunately, cynicism is a little more complex than what I have described because there are branches of it—sort of like a spinoff from your favorite television show and the further down the line it goes, the more complex and distorted from its original path it becomes. For example, some follow that seeking out individualistic pleasures that are not harmful to others, even if wrought with self-interest, is a good thing and if it is good then it is virtuous. This falls closely in line with cynicism, but because it can be argued that this thought removes the “self-control” piece it becomes hedonism instead. I have often been accused of being a cynic and have decided to embrace it. I do value my independence immensely, and strive for self-control over my passions or appetites (some days this is easier said than done, especially when it comes to CHOCOLATE!). However, as mentioned above, relative to complexity, I am not wholly a cynic all the time in everything. I confess, there is a hopeless romantic lurking in me somewhere. My father once told me that a “cynic is a brokenhearted idealist.” I do not know if that idea is wholly his own or of someone he was quoting. Regardless, I think he may be on to something. For if a certain ideal is held closely in the heart and mind of the individual it could, quite possibly, be heart breaking, especially with a hopeless romantic, when one realizes that the ideal is not what it seemed and/or that the world just cannot live up to its expectations. Including the idea that: “Virtue is the only good and that its essence lies in self-control and independence.” Especially considering humans have, now and through the ages, had an extremely hard time defining and agreeing upon what virtue is and seem to choose to redefine it as it suits us in a given time (my long-held belief is that truth is only a matter of dates, but I digress) and are self-control challenged every single day (anyone who denies the struggle with controlling various passions and appetites is lying) and we don’t always know what independence really is or what to do with it (though independence tends to be in the “eye of the beholder,” that is, subjective). So then, it would make sense that a “broken hearted idealist” would become more negative in their reasoning when realizing that their idea of what is good, moral, ethical or virtuous turns out to be something else entirely. As the saying goes, “if the shoe fits,” and so with cynicism, like I wear many hats, I have many shoes and will wear it. With that I bid you goodnight. “Sleep tight for me, I’m gone.” p.s. Apparently, after a bit of research, it was George Carlin who claimed cynics were disappointed idealists–I think “brokenhearted” is more fitting. Image credit: http://imgur.com/9X6rQuS

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About Jan Rain

See the About page. View all posts by Jan Rain

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