Manvotional: Cynicism

by Brett & Kate McKay on July 9, 2011 · 41 comments

in A Man's Life, Manvotionals

In my post on the Switch of Nature, I contended that cynicism constitutes one of the greatest threats to manliness. There were a couple of comments in reply which argued that cynicism is not wholly unhealthy. And I agree; I did not mean that cynicism is always bad, rather that it is bad in unhealthy amounts. This selection, from a century’s old Atlantic Monthly article, does a nice job of explaining the need for balancing the strengths and weaknesses of this characteristic. 

From “CYNICISM,” 1904
By Arthur Stanwood Pier

One of the seeming waywardnesses of our human nature is the respect for a cynic that lurks in nearly every heart. The respect is not for his character, certainly not for his disposition; but it goes out to him as a man of intellect, and is often disproportionate to his ability. To hear that a man is cynical is to accept him as of superior intelligence. There is a universal deference to what is universally deemed an unlovely and undesirable attitude of mind. The entrance of the cynic into the drawing-room produces an air of expectant interest; his rancorous comments are received as admirable wit. So, at least, according to the contemporary novels of society; so, even, — though in a somewhat less obvious and artificial manner,—according to one’s own observation. We all find more interesting the person who discusses his friend’s failings than him who dwells upon his friend’s virtues. We do not like the cynic better, but we regard him as the more penetrating and the better informed.

Hence we find him excellent company. For instance: Brown takes pains to make a pleasant impression on those whom he meets, and, in the ordinary relations of life, gets on with his acquaintances and friends very comfortably. When, therefore, the cynical observer shrugs his shoulders and intimates something to Brown’s discredit, the idea has for those who know Brown the charm of novelty, and adorns him with a new interest. Having never before held him in discredit, they feel that his detractor has got below the surface. The conviction is strengthened by the cynic’s air of mental reservation, his unwillingness to utter definitely what he knows, his manner that implies, “Oh yes, all very well, but I could tell things if I would.”

This, however, is not the only cause that contributes to the general deference. If one man declares a person to be charming, fascinating, or delightful, and another pronounces him disgusting, repulsive, or intolerable, who makes the more profound impression? The language of enthusiasm is emasculate compared with that of hatred or contempt. A sufficient reason for the undemonstrative nature of the English-speaking race lies in the effeminate quality of the adjectives that denote admirable traits. Some of them can hardly be uttered without a consciousness of a loss of virility. One has only to contrast with them the hearty gusto of our vocabulary of dislike and depreciation to perceive the tremendous advantage that the cynic enjoys.

His very name supports his pretensions to a superior intelligence. “Cynic,” for all that it meant originally “doglike,” is an aristocratic word. One is not prone to think of coal heavers, sailors, miners, as cynics; it has probably occurred to but few that their grocers and butchers are cynics. The word is erudite and Greek; the presumption is that the man designated by a term of such distinguished lineage is of education and intelligence. We have a habit of deriving ideas in this illogical way. The cynics in the humbler walks of life are not regarded as cynics, but as men soured and disappointed. And when we hear of one that he is soured and disappointed, we do not instinctively pay tribute to his intelligence.

Is there, then, no wisdom in cynicism, no virtue in disbelief? Does the undoubted suggestion of intelligence which the word implies rest entirely upon such trivial and empty grounds? Unquestionably the inner respect which persists, notwithstanding the superficial condemnation, proceeds from a dim recognition of certain useful services that cynicism does perform. An attempt to discover these and set them forth fairly need not disturb even the most believing.

A reasonable cynicism affords recreation to the mind. A man may always, with advantage to his mental health, indulge in a cynicism as a hobby; he may, for instance, be cynical of women, or newspapers, or party politics, or the publishers of novels, and be the better for it. But he is in a serious state if his cynicism includes women and newspapers and party politics and the publishers of novels. Then, indeed, is his outlook bleak and barren, and in all probability he lives and works only to malign ends.

Nearly all sane, normal people, however, enjoy one cynicism by way of diversion. It is, indeed, essential to character to have some object at which to scoff, swear, or sneer. Cynicism is never a native quality of the mind; it always has its birth in some unhappy experience. The young man finds that the girl who has gathered up for him all the harmony and melody of earth rings hollow at the test; and he drops his lyrical language and becomes cynical of women. The citizen of Boston has naturally grown cynical of newspapers. The candidate for public office who has been definitely retired to private life by being “knifed” at the polls distrusts party politics. A man reads the advertisement of a novel, then reads the novel, and thenceforth is cynical of the publishers of novels.

Yet these misfortunes have their salutary aspect. The disappointed lover, generalizing bitterly upon the sex, is not always implacable; a cooler judgment tempers and restores his passion, gives it another object, and so guides him to a safer, if less gusty and emotional love. The citizen of Boston, the betrayed candidate, the misled and disappointed reader, all have for their condition, even though they know it not, a valuable compensation; for the very experience that has brought them to this pass of reasonable cynicism has stirred their indignation; yes, in spite of their seeming inertness, indignation is now smouldering. And this is a great force; slow though it may be to start the wheels of machinery, it is still an important fuel in keeping alive the fires under the boilers of civilization. The faculty of it becomes dulled by disuse, and is the more alert and righteous for a little rasping. How impressive and commanding a quality in a man is that of a great potential indignation! It is essential to the chieftain. He may never show more than the flash of an eye, yet that will serve. And such power of indignation never came to one who had not penetrated some large bland sham, and learned thereby to hate and disbelieve all its seductive kindred…

[Cynicism] is a means toward sturdiness and independence in a man; it quickens his activities, and prevents a too ready acceptance of existing conditions. It is almost necessary to important achievement. The reverential frame of mind is inefficient when confronted with the world’s work; too much in the problems of life demands not to be reverenced, but to be cursed. There can be no useful and permanent building up without a clearing of the site; old foundations and debris have to be swept away. The man of reverential mind, who has no touch of cynicism, is unfit for this work…

In one’s own experience it is not difficult to note the efficiency which a vein of cynicism, properly combined with other qualities, gives a man. Those who are regarded as successful, or as being on the road to success, are cheerful, hopeful persons, with just this slightly cynical outlook. Those who have failed, or are failing, are just as surely the utterly cynical, the decayed, querulous, and embittered, or the supremely reverential, who have too much respect for things as they are to undertake any alteration. These are the indolent; they may work hard all their lives, yet are they none the less indolent mentally, and unalert…

…one’s cynicism must always be tempered in its sentiment and limited in its scope. A man may profitably be cynical of women, yet his faith and loyalty to at least one woman — his mother, or his sister, or the woman he loves — must be unswerving and unquestioning. A man may not be cynical of children or with children. He cannot be cynical of friends and keep them. He must not grow cynical of himself, for then nothing remains.

And the danger of cynicism is that once admitted into a man it may grow, appropriating one after another of his channels and outlets, narrowing his hopes and enthusiasms, until finally it rots the man himself.

 

{ 41 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Dave B. July 10, 2011 at 1:45 am

An interesting read. You seem to have quite the knack for turning over curious articles and passages.

I’m not sure I completely agree with the author, however, on a couple of points. Firstly, he states that cynical statements have stronger reception than others. While it’s true that people are drawn to ideas that do more than peruse the surface of a topic and to ideas that are somewhat accusatory, the latter type will touch the speaker with the brush of guilt as well. In my experience, a comment that both delves into the heart of a topic and puts it in a positive light will be received as profound and constructive; the issue therein is that such a comment is usually harder to come by, but it also shares some of its brilliance with its speaker.

Secondly, the author’s insistence that cynicism is a critical aspect of a healthy person’s psyche is suspect. It’s certainly true that people can make meaningful advances through thoughts that are bleak and unforgiving, and no significant progress can be made by a totally complacent mind. My contention is that skepticism and criticism are more important to this end. It’s the skeptical mind that questions the framework of the structure and the critic that tests the welds, so to speak. The person who simply states it will fail does little to change it.

All that aside, a good read. It certainly pays to consider the consequences of our actions- or lack thereof- and examine the path that led to them. There can be no doubt that a man living in complete acceptance of his reality is doomed to a malaise for which there’s no parallel. Conversely, as the author states, a man cannot become so entrenched in his condemnation of reality that he has nothing in which to place his faith, for he will become despondent and listless. I am sure that your intention in posting this read was to illustrate the pitfalls of both extremes, but I suspect that the latter is the one a greater concern to us today.

2 Naka July 10, 2011 at 2:02 am

It boggles my mind that intelligent articles like this were found in the newspaper, and presumably were common. Although I don’t agree with all of the author’s sentiments, he argues them with logic and without being too aggressive. What has our media come to now?

3 Kyle F. July 10, 2011 at 2:03 am

Hmmm, quite enjoyed that read. It’s always interesting to see what you two turn up. I’m really looking forward to the book.

I do think it is true that cynical comments are unfortunately seen as more interesting. For instance people will find the person who skewers a movie more interesting than the person who just says it was lovely and engrossing.

And I do think it is true that a little bit of cynicism is good for a person as long as the indignation it creates leads to action. If it is simply an indignation that find no expression other than cankering the soul, then that will inevitably, as the author puts it so well, rot a man out.

4 Leonard Maxwell July 10, 2011 at 4:20 am

I think Dave B makes an excellent point but I think it may be more of a problem with definition. After all, aren’t skepticism and criticism both aspects of cynicism? Without the negative outlook attached of course which is the real issue here I think. Still, regardless of how logical or fair one might try to be, people are not creatures of logic but of emotion. One is infinitely more driven to be skeptical and critical if it’s personal than otherwise. Powerful emotions are key motivators and can take our abilities far further than we might regularly be able to push them or even hinder them, a fact that is apparent to me every day when I go weightlifting. To push myself past my limits lifting, it is often necessary for me to make myself angry. The subject doesn’t matter, just the anger. Emotion is intimately tied with our abilities and sometimes it pays to be cynical, negativity and all. Trouble is, when does that negativity stops being productive and cumbersome, a crutch rather than an asset? When does it stop driving someone one forward and begin to hold them back? Hmmm.. I’m at a loss as to how to answer that. How can you at the same time use your feelings to push you which is natural but not be blinded by them?

5 Leonard Maxwell July 10, 2011 at 4:22 am

whoops, “becomes” belongs between “and” and “cumbersome” My hand accidentally hit the insert key which messed things up

6 Jacob Young July 10, 2011 at 6:29 am

As others have stated, I found the article helpful with a few disagreements here or there. As a Christian, I se no health in making allowances for singular cynical veins in one’s heart to grow (i.e. cynical of women or politics or novels, etc.). Jesus calls us to be discerning and charitable – knowing ourselves to not be God and therefor, unable to make the judgment over all or many, and unable to see the heart. Yet, we are called to discern what the evidence is, and extend the grace we ourselves have been drenched in.

Even still, the one true vein of cynicism that is righteous to indulge is that of cynicism towards cats. It is merely a fact that cats are, though cute, the minions of Satan himself.

7 Billy Harris July 10, 2011 at 8:05 am

Guess this depends on what one means by Cynicism.
Technically, it’s the belief that the only thing that matters in the pursuit of a good life is to live virtuously, and that most of the things we think of as good (comfort, the admiration of others, wealth etc) are in fact wothless. Less than worthless, as they often distract us from what is really important in our lives, which is to live according to our own, god-given and inherently virtuous nature. It’s this that led the ancient Greek Cynics to the scornful rejection of many of the things regarded as good by society, and to seek out a more ascetic and self -denying lifestyle, without the distrctions of luxury or seeking the good graces of others. Zeno (the founder of the Stoic school) studied under the Cynic Crates, and it’s the basis of the Stoic conception of indifference.
I’d like to put it to you that Cyncism in its purest form is anything but a threat to manliness. I accept that this is not the target you are aiming at here, but the Cynics contributed much of value and I’d hate to think of their work being forgotten simply due a change in the common usage of the word.

8 Steve July 10, 2011 at 8:22 am

MY TWO CENTS:
Love these old articles you find. I think the problem is that we simply have a hard time at balance. Some cynicism is good because it pushes us to challenge things. The issue arises when we become overly cynical. Then we become stagnant and don’t move forward to change the things in our lives that need changing.

9 adomas July 10, 2011 at 8:52 am

The idealistic explanation of cynical moods is that the cynic has unusually high motives or insight. He is better able to see behind false appearances, and he is more shocked and disapointed to discover the low motives of others. (…)

The cynical explanation of cynical moods is that the cynic has unusually low motives or ability. He can better see low motives because he has them in spades, and the cynic complains to belittle the success of others. That is, if he cannot win in some area then the cynic will complain that the game is unfair, or that those who succeed are not really very praiseworthy. Most people dislike cynics because cynics are losers.

The cynic’s conundrum is that while a cynic might prefer that others believe an idealistic theory of his cynical mood, his own cynical beliefs should lead him to believe a cynical theory of his cynical mood. That is, cynics should think that rude complainers tend to be losers, rather than altruists.

Furthermore, the meta-cynical theory, that cynics tend to be losers, seems to better explain the patterns that cynics are rude, and that people don’t like to be around cynics or having their children trained in cynicism. If idealism correlates with more attractive features, then people and institutions would naturally try to appear more idealistic.

From “Cynic’s Conundrum” by Robin Hanson, 2005

http://hanson.gmu.edu/metacynic.html

10 Ryan Barnaby July 10, 2011 at 9:07 am

I remember watching Conan O’brien’s final show and how impacting his words on Cynicism were. Give a watch, true class.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=isfHFfI81xU

11 Kevin W July 10, 2011 at 9:51 am

The arcane and formal language in this article makes it ridiculously difficult to understand. I had to read the first paragraph at least 3 times before I could stitch together what was being said. Please use stuff like this as source material for your own article instead of just reposting.

12 Mato Tope July 10, 2011 at 10:52 am

Well done for unearthing another gem of wisdom from antiquity.
I think a possible antidote to excessive cynicism is simple discrimination. That is; to take what is good out of a situation and leave behind what is not useful. The parable of the Fisherman in the Gospel of Thomas clearly ilustrates this use of discrimination;

“The Man is like a wise fisherman who casts his nets into the sea;
he drew it up from the sea full of small fish.
Amongst them he found a single large and good fish.
That wise fisherman, he cast all the small fish down to the bottom of the sea,
he chose the large fish without difficulty.
He who has eras to hear let him hear!”

Also, one of Marcus Aurelius’ meditations starts off as cynical yet counters it with reason and a love of humanity, thereby remaining staunchly unaffected by any cynicism encountered.

“Begin each day by telling yourself: Today I shall be meeting with interference, ingratitude, insolence, disloyalty, ill-will, and selfishness – all of them due to the offenders’ ignorance of what is good or evil. But for my part I have long perceived the nature of good and its nobility, the nature of evil and ite meanness, and also the nature of the culprit himself, who is my brother (a fellow-creature similarly endowed with reason and a share of the divine); therefore none of those things can injure me, for nobody can implicate me in what is degrading.”

13 Levi July 10, 2011 at 10:54 am

“We all find more interesting the person who discusses his friend’s failings than him who dwells upon his friend’s virtues.”

Wow, sounds like high school, where your popularity seemed to be directly related to how well you could tear other people down.
Really enjoyed the selection!

14 Mato Tope July 10, 2011 at 10:55 am

Apologies for typo error.
Should have read “ears to hear…”

15 Ilana July 10, 2011 at 12:23 pm

On a very light and only marginally related note …

“Jack: For heaven’s sake, don’t try to be cynical. It’s perfectly easy to be cynical.
Algernon: My dear fellow, it isn’t easy to be anything nowadays. There’s such a lot of beastly competition about.”

(From Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest)

16 jared July 10, 2011 at 3:13 pm

Tyler burden:a useful cynic

17 jared July 10, 2011 at 3:14 pm

Oh I hate you autocorrect if I wanted the d to be a bi would have typed it that way

18 Kerry Adams July 10, 2011 at 4:14 pm

Billy – my thoughts as well.

I would be interested to know how/why the common understanding of the cynic changed.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cynicism

19 David Nystrom July 10, 2011 at 5:07 pm

The trouble with cynicism is it is easy to be a cynic. And with that, it can become a habit that creeps into every facet of your life, a habit that is easy to justify, as in “Oh, I’m not a cynic; I’m just careful, cautious, realistic…” Having faith and optimism is often more difficult, but worth it in the long run. In the words of the teacher and motivational speaker Jim Rohn, “Cynicism is easy. Don’t alway do what is easy. Sometimes it is better to do what is difficult.”

20 Taylor S July 10, 2011 at 5:08 pm

@ Kevin W

The language of this article is hardly archaic. Good grief, it’s only 100 years old! Just as a tip, it’s easier to read things like this if you practice reading similar material. The problem is that most people are unwilling to do the mental heavy lifting required, which is why we are becoming a generation of intellectual lightweights.

21 Grace July 10, 2011 at 6:04 pm

This is a thought provoking read.

The study of the root meaning of words is interesting. Language and communication are perceived by each of us. Language does not serve us as maths and science do. Some have come to give a collective interpretation of a word based on it’s use. An interpretation of the wikipedia page on cynic highlights the perception issue. Adherants to the philosophy of cynacism believed virtue was attained by dropping all “man-made” prescriptions for life. This meant rejecting all conventional desires for wealth, power, health, and fame, and by living a simple life free from all possessions. The ‘cynic’, in ancient Greek times, was characterised as an evangelist; as the watchdog of humankind. They saw it as “their job to hound people about the error of their ways.” Cynics would “dig-up and expose the pretensions which lay at the root of everyday conventions.”

A cynic therefor, had an idealistic view of how to live; what a man should be and they didn’t hold back on telling other non-followers the error of their ways. They probably were not very popular in an advancing society let alone society in general.

The modern day cynic is characterised in mostly negative terms. This could be linked to the style in which the philosphy was preached. This is where the study of words and language gets more interesting still. The negative connotations to words and their meanings has come to rule the way some people form thoughts. Cynacism can be useful when navigating a path to meaningful existence. At what expense? A common judement? The judgemental individual being scorned upon, left to cower and hide? I will keep my judgement thanks.

An understanding of this term will serve best. There are positive and negative attributes. Interpretation along with effective communication will produce true intentions. Intentions make the man. Ask for help. Clarify things. Give help when asked. Seek challenges.

My 3 year old nephew has a new habit. He asks questions of everything. “What is that?” “Why is it that way?” It’s great to see and teaches me a lot.

Question everything!

22 Brucifer July 10, 2011 at 9:38 pm

Perhaps Brett should next undertake an article examining why chaps like Mr. July above, cannot fathom plain English, unless it is dumbed-down .. and stuff. And yes Taylor S., I believe Mr. July meant *archaic*, when he instead wrote “arcane.” At least, he should have. But yes, as with Naka’s lament above, with current media ‘standards,’ we are indeed producing a generation of literacy lightweights. Is it thus, any wonder that I am cynical about our future?

23 Xlar July 11, 2011 at 7:58 am

Great article, thanks for sharing it :)

24 Brian July 11, 2011 at 10:02 am

I believe that cynicism almost always comes from a place of inaction and is representative of destruction versus creation. The most successful people I know have a belief that anything is possible. They take action, and they create. That creation may be in business, music, philosophy, etc.: They find that when they take action, and take the time to learn (with an open mind) and create, they are rewarded with success. The cynic tends to tear down or destroy, which takes no time or effort and requires no action. A cynic will listen to band that has put time, sweat, and tears into their music, and in one quick swipe tear that band down with an offhanded, “That band sucks,” or “They’re a ripoff of so and so.” A cynic will hear of a business that was built from the ground up by men or women of ambition and determination and quickly dismiss the business as “corrupt” or “a product of nepotism.” It’s easier to smash a sand castle than to build it up. In all cases, the cynic takes the stance of inaction and destruction, because it is easier to dismiss somethig than to actually take the time to take action and create. I believe cynicism comes from an unhealthy place: the self-hatred one has for himself for his own inability to create, to produce, to take a stance and defend it . . . to take action. The most successful people I know view cynicism, and cynical people, as cancerous because of it’s destructive, vs. productive, nature.

25 Ian July 11, 2011 at 10:41 am

Good read. Thanks for posting this.

26 Some guy July 11, 2011 at 10:41 am

Cynicism is a consistent questioning of others overt purpose. Why is this person doing this thing? What is their expected outcome? Who are they modeling their behavior after? When do they expect a result from their effort? Simple, questions only asked when someone confronts another with a their plans and wants that other person to participate or make a critical view of their actions. A cynic isn’t a negative person, despite the connotation of the word, but a rationalist who has a world view cast from life experiences that have forced introspection and judgment of others. Sometimes the cynic is just a devil’s advocate who is called on by someone who wants support in a different way but doesn’t express it and thinks the cynic failed them; which is pretty cynical in an undisciplined way.

27 Wayne Levine July 11, 2011 at 12:07 pm

Robert Bly speaks of the naive male. The naive male is certainly without a necessary touch of cynicism. Good read. Just as valid today.

28 Mark Thomas July 11, 2011 at 1:40 pm

This was a thought-provoking article. I must disagree, however, with the main premise that the cynic is immediately assumed to be more intelligent. This is at least not true in our modern age.

If cynicism is birthed from negative experiences as the article suggests (and I happen to agree with), then the cynic is someone who has chosen to be passive in conquering their world and instead has been conquered by it. Hard times come and, instead of being actively intelligent enough to find happiness through it, the cynic becomes jaded and untrusting. Cynicism can be a sign of laziness in that instead of engaging the world and all of it’s troubles and negativity head-on, it chooses to be passive and sit on the sidelines of life in the name of safety and caution. Passivity is one of the greatest threats to men.

Those who will truly display intelligence do so by finding happiness in the midst of troubles. Having a positive outlook shows that one refuses to be ruled by circumstance. This person will be more active and take more risks and, therefore, reap greater reward.

Negative influences will turn the cynic inward, reinforcing selfish passivity. The same negative experiences will turn the optimist outward, reinforcing the desire to conquer and not become jaded by them.

I urge you, therefore brethren, conquer and be not conquered.

To borrow a phrase from the 17th century Puritan author and theologian, John Owen: “Be killing [cynicism] or it will be killing you.”

29 Iosephus July 11, 2011 at 10:38 pm

As Dave B. , Billy Harris and Grace wrote above, there is an issue here with the meaning of the word cynic. It is ambiguous and perhaps vague: Some commenters above have taken the word in its ancient greek sense; some others, as well as the author (in my perception), praise the critical aspects of the colloquial sense of cynicism. It is interesting to note that in the English language there are at least three dictionary definitions of the colloquial use of the word (versus the philosophical definition). Thus, in English, a cynic can be a person who turns criticisism into pessimism, or it can be a person who believes that no human action has any sincere motivation, and by extension, someone who acts only in their own interest.
It is also interesting and telling to compare what the word means in other languages. For instance in Spanish, a “cínico” is someone who brags about his (moral) faults as means of selfindulgence / justification. In German, a Zyniker is a person who recklessly criticizes or even mocks human frialties and problems. And in French, a “cynique” is someone who affectedly pretends impudence or spite of social conventions and morals.
What I’m heading at with all of this, is that the uses of the word “cynic” in modern languages (including English) seem to refer to a superficial (negative) trait of the ancient cynics, who, as Grace above states, just pursued a virtuous, simple life.
So, as others have noted, we have better modern words to designate a healthy critical attitude, such as “skepticism”, which lacks the poisonous connotations of bitterness, passivity and pessimism.

30 walkaboutdoug July 11, 2011 at 10:47 pm

I see a confusion between cynicism and skepticism. A good man keeps a healthy skepticism, knowing the ways of the world; and this is informed and honed with experience.

But cynicism? Cynicism is smooth cowardice; it is giving up; it is cheap politics. Stand away from cynics, they are poisonous isotopes of personal failure. “Dear Mr. Brown, you have a real talent for getting a laugh. You’re nobody’s fool; you don’t approve of anyone or anything. But honestly, what have you built? It’s easy to tear down, and sure it’s hilarious, I get that. But what would you build? To replace what you rip up? If I put you in charge of the world right now, what would you build?” (The comeback is of course “another stiff drink” — but the point stands.)

All that said, a sneering cynicism brings in the ladies, who confuse it with power.

31 walkaboutdoug July 11, 2011 at 11:39 pm

[While I stand by my comments in terms of modern execution, I am also intrigued by the thoughtful posts regarding the metamorphosis of the word and its implication. Imagine my surprise -- both catharsis and a broadening perspective within the space of ten minutes. Well done, gentlemen. Drinks all around.]

32 Andrew G. July 11, 2011 at 11:59 pm

Great point Naka, it would be a treat to find articles like this in a modern newspaper. Luckily we’ve got AoM to fill the void left by the other publications.

I really like the line “There can be no useful and permanent building up without a clearing of the site; old foundations and debris have to be swept away.” The cynic in me tried to immediately look for an example to refute this point. I’ll definitely be re-reading this one.

33 Brett McKay July 12, 2011 at 12:36 am

What great comments and discussion! Like many commenters, I don’t precisely agree with everything the author said, but I thought it was excellent food for thought, and hoped that people would take the time to chew it over. Which has certainly happened and I’ve definitely gotten some good food for thought from the discussion itself.

@Naka/Andrew-
The Atlantic Monthly remains a really excellent publication. I subscribe and really enjoy it–the articles aren’t quite like this, of course, but there are always some excellent and interesting ones.

34 JK July 12, 2011 at 3:05 pm

The word “cynicism” began to be used as a derogatory term due to the opposition of its proponents to greed and materialism. For all intents and purposes, the term has been “Fox News”ed over the years to become the negative connotation that it is now. The original Cynics were people who recognized the poisonous nature of seeking man-created ideals like fame and wealth. Can we honestly claim that those who are the wealthiest or most famous are the most virtuous? There are some who will claim just that and it is those people who the true Cynic opposes.

Some claim that cynicism is destructive or non-productive by nature. But by what standard? One who embraces greed or materialism will surely view an opposing viewpoint as counter-productive, yet the Cynic views the “productivity” of the world as an illusion that enslaves people by motivating them to seek the validation of others through their efforts. A true Cynic would not criticize a musician but he would criticize an “entertainer” whose body of work does little to improve the human condition. Not everything that is produced is productive. A Cynic seeks to shed all things that makes a person a slave to his/her desires. Especially in this world in which people seek constant validation, it takes courage to shun popular opinion and strive to become emotionally self-sufficient. That is the true pursuit of a Cynic.

35 Mike July 12, 2011 at 9:22 pm

I definitely agree with the author that respect for a cynic lurks in many a heart. I know it is this way with myself, and it seems by the outward appearance of much public discourse that the phenomenon is widespread.

The evil of cynicism that the author describes is the malignant (probably unconscious) impulse of the average cynic to destroy and annihilate. His cynicism is his modus operandi to this end, but it also acts to reinforce those dark motivations which point him in that direction. There is a greater theme related to this discussion I think: The wider issue of our frighteningly magnetic attraction to the destroying and corrupting side of human nature. We seem to be drawn to darkness.

I thought this as I read the author’s words about the seemingly insipid nature of loving and constructive deeds, words and attitudes, when compared to what appears to be a more powerful will to rebellion and hatred.

This is a struggle I encounter as I try to apply my Christian belief to the way I conduct my life. My desire is to follow the Way of Christ, which dictates that I must attain to the perfect love of God, in my relationships with friends, family and neighbours, and in my devotion and worship to God. However, I am plagued the belief (which comes into my head unbidden) that living my life according to my own agenda will be easier, more effective, make me more powerful and produce a better end result in the final analysis. This belief is utter delusion, but it spreads like a cancer.

When the dust settles on this inner conflict, I remember I can only rely on God’s grace to strengthen me by reminding me of the reality:
That even when it seems meek and frail on the surface, in truth, the power of love is a consuming fire. And while hatred and selfishness so often seem to tower over all, they will, in the end, result only in cold nothingness.

It is along these lines that I totally agree with the seriousness of the threat of cynicism to manliness.

*And this response is assuming the modern connotations of cynicism. The archaic meaning begs a different discussion.

36 Gil July 13, 2011 at 2:20 am

Excellent read. Was I the only one who read it with the voice of a besuited professor with the hint of an upper-class English accent? It amazes me how far the writing style of today has fallen. On the topic, I believe the author is right on. A good dose of cynicism goes a long way, today more than ever. True, it does need to be tempered, but it definitely makes for more lively debate.

37 Kyle July 14, 2011 at 1:34 pm

Wow, thanks for the great read. This was a breath of fresh air for me. I recently moved from small-town Georgia to a huge urban area and cynicism has definitely crept in on me. I always just figured it was a sort of change in personality sweeping over me but this has really opened my eyes to a lot.

One of those last lines, “He must not grow cynical of himself, for then nothing remains,” really hit me. Awesome, thanks Brett!

38 Evan G July 14, 2011 at 3:06 pm

I just discovered this website last week and boy am I glad I did. This site has incredible articles. I can’t wait to find free time in my days so that I can read another blog and hear all of the responses. The articles are amazingly witty but the real wisdom is in all of the comments you guys leave afterwards.

39 Paul Hakel July 19, 2011 at 7:14 pm

Men need cynicism more today. Either we have men who are mindlessly and weakly “positive” or positive in affirming horrific abuses of power. A good man can cynically doubt the stupidity of the world and yet affirm the valiant, the honourable, no?

40 Gregg Hake July 27, 2011 at 10:23 pm

In my observation the honest skeptic balances cynicism with optimism. He is cautious in the placement of his faith and support, yet not so jaded that he cannot give the full force of his agreement and energies where it is merited. The cynic and the optimist are like blinders on a horse, the former being prejudiced based on the past and the latter being unrealistic about the future. The honest skeptic sits with poise on the saddle, his hands seized upon the reins, ready for anything, surprised by nothing.

41 Phil July 11, 2013 at 5:46 pm

Being cynical is a positive value. It is a must have for life in the 21st century. Lets take a look at the world of social media. You have no idea of who you are visiting with no matter how realistic their avatar, or what they type.

Twitter for example. Allows for people to start rumors which travel around the world in a few mouse clicks. The people sending the lies have no care to fact check question what is delivered to them so speedily.

All people, corporations & govenments are untrustworthy until proven otherwise. Remember that trust has to be earned. Be realistic & quietly and politely expect the worst out of people. That way if you are proven wrong its a nice bonus.

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