Yesterday someone accuses me of being cynical. I don’t think of myself as a cynic. I think of myself as someone who has a very clear understanding of the world I live in. And a willingness to share that insight. Does my inability to wear rose tinted spectacles make me a cynic?
The Cynics as I understand it were an ancient school of Greek philosophers. They believed that the purpose of life is to live a life of virtue in agreement with nature. They rejected all conventional desire for wealth, power and fame by living a simple life free from all possessions. They believed that the world belonged equally to everyone. That suffering was caused by false judgments of what was valuable. And by the worthless customs which surrounded society.
None of that really explains the negative connotation the word cynical currently has. Half a second on the internet and Dictionary.com will tell you”cynical” is…
- Believing or showing the belief that people are motivated chiefly by base or selfish concerns; sceptical of the motives of others: a cynical dismissal of the politician’s promise to reform the campaign finance system.
- Selfishly or callously calculating: showed a cynical disregard for the safety of his troops in his efforts to advance his reputation.
- Negative or pessimistic, as from world-weariness: a cynical view of the average voter’s intelligence.
- Expressing jaded or scornful scepticism or negativity: cynical laughter.
Could the negative emphasis the word cynic now has be a response the Cynics themselves? The ideal Cynic would evangelize. They saw themselves as the watchdog of humanity? It was their job to hound people about the error of their ways. They would dig-up and expose the pretensions which lay at the root of everyday conventions. Those who were unable to answer the Cynics criticisms simply shot the messenger? But that explanation presupposes the criticism is delivered by a true Cynic; someone who lives a life of virtue in agreement with nature. The negative connotation that hangs with the word hints that the criticisms were in fact delivered by the less virtuous. It could be the negative connotation is actually an accusation of hypocrisy.
I’m no hairshirt wearing evangelist. But neither do I think of myself as a hypocrite. I do think the world we have created is too materialistic. Then again I have no real desire to shed the material comforts. I like electricity as much as the next person. I think relatively cheap, readily available food is a good thing. I like being able to get in the car and drive wherever I want. But I can also see untold amounts of suffering caused by the worthless customs and conventions which surround society. I see marriage as a mechanism designed to enslave women. I look at our obsession with celebrity as an anesthetic. And I have a real problem with the way in which the progeny of rich are routinely given the opportunity to do their ten thousand hours before anyone else.
As I say in my profile “I am by nature a deconstructor.” So I naturally find myself trying to dig-up and expose the pretensions which lay at the root of everyday conventions. I don’t see such endeavors as hypocritical. But the irony of living in a materialist world and being a deconstructor is not lost on me. I must therefore accept that an inability to wear rose tinted spectacles does in fact make me a cynic.