Not to Be Cynical, But …

By Ed SimonMay 5, 2021

Not to Be Cynical, But …

Cynicism by Ansgar Allen

Much have I eaten, much have I drank, and much have I mocked mankind.

— Simonides of Ceos


SEVEN MONTHS BEFORE the resignation of Richard Nixon, and a 32-year-old lawyer wrote about money’s corrupting influence on American democracy for the Louisville Courier-Journal. The author declared that “now is the time to begin to reconsider the place of private financial contributions in the political process,” because the need to fundraise had rendered it such that “many qualified and ethical persons are either effectively priced out of the election marketplace or will not subject themselves to questionable, or downright illicit, practices that many times accompany the current electoral process.” Chairman of the Republican Party of Jefferson County, the editorialist presented a sober and reasoned analysis. Such idealism was in keeping with other positions he held. Having grown up in the segregated South, he made overtures to racial reconciliation; having served in the US Army Reserve, he was against the war in Vietnam. Most notably, as the GOP was mired in the ongoing Watergate scandal, the young attorney would come to denounce the rank cynicism that had allowed a nascent demagogue like Nixon to so thoroughly sully the Constitution. Principled, committed, and idealistic. The name of the writer was Mitch McConnell. Years later he would admit to the columnist John David Dyche that the editorial was simply “playing for headlines.” The future Senate Majority Leader had strategically mouthed platitudes while believing in nothing.

There’s no inconsistency here, no devolution of some romantic into an operator. The latter was always the reality, the senator cagily wearing the mask of the idealist when it suited his political purposes, and abandoning it when it didn’t. That all of us know this — his colleagues, pundits, and voters — is a validation of McConnell’s cynicism, a man as powerful as he is unpopular. So when the now Senate Minority Leader rightly declared that Donald Trump was “practically and morally responsible” for the January 6 assault on the Capitol, mere minutes after he voted not to convict that same man, it scarcely registers as even being surprising, much less scandalous. That’s the nature of cynicism: it smirkingly reminds us that the world is just as atrophied as we’d always suspected. When Trump responded to McConnell’s Senate speech as having been delivered by a “dour, sullen, and unsmiling political hack,” it was the rare instance where the former president uttered a truth, if only accidentally. The thin-lipped, corpuscular, goggle-eyed chelonian shamble man who is McConnell appears before the body politic as the veritable incarnation of the concept of cynicism, what Ansgar Allen describes as the ethos of “spin doctors, media empires, social net-working sites, data analysts, politicians, PR firms, image consultants, advertising agencies, and lifestyle coaches.”

Such jaded negativity is the true faith of our fallen world, for we are so far in irony that cynicism will pluck on cynicism. If we see the mere existence of the success of people like McConnell and Trump, wolves who hold faith only in power, and the subsequent havoc which they have wreaked on society, then it seems hard not to hold fast to our own personal fidelity to Weltschmerz, with Allen noting in his short study Cynicism that our society is rife with a common “distrust of collective solutions and institutional interventions, a refusal to invest any hope in social and political reform, and a selective deafness towards all calls to social action and transformation, which are rejected outright and in advance for their futility.” There are to be sure counterexamples, but select idealism alone doesn’t make ours an idealistic age overall. Debate can be had over whether or not our late capitalism is better described as dystopian or post-apocalyptic, but regardless of which, the overall operative mode is certainly cynical. Oscar Wilde defined the type as being a person who “knows the price of everything and the value of nothing,” which nicely sums up both the realpolitik of McConnell and the narcissism of Trump, but also our obsession with Instagram followers and Twitter shares, meaning reduced to views and clicks.

Such cynicism is rather predictably reflected in our pop culture; the preening deep-fried faux-Shakespearean monologues of Kevin Spacey on the television show House of Cards, who while praying says, “There is no solace above or below. Only us — small, solitary, striving, battling one another. I pray to myself, for myself”; the bread-and-circuses of reality television (which delivered us our last president), from The Real Housewives franchise to the abomination of 90 Day Fiancé; and the white trash Gothic horror of Tiger King, which enraptured a quarantine-mad nation (myself included). Today the possibility of actual optimism seems as fake as the crocodile tears rolling down Joe Exotic's cheek. That’s not necessarily to impugn our entertainments that merely convey a sense of our age’s cynical zeitgeist, nor is it to valorize self-consciously sentimental art, as it could be argued that few things are as unknowingly cynical as the saccharine pablum that is The West Wing. It’s merely to note that cynicism has cash value, and business is booming.

In almost all modern contexts, “cynicism” is taken to mean this pose of worldly dissatisfaction, a misanthropic perspective that, as Allen explains, is “contemptuous, if not mocking, of noncynical natures,” whereby “human sincerity and integrity” are treated with scorn, both understood as simply a “cover for self-interest […] [as] all human motives are basically selfish.” To such a cynic, reform is an illusion and progress a chimera. In short, McConnell acts cynically, and such behavior justifies our own cynicism regarding the possibility of societal redemption. Yet as Allen makes clear, there is a crucial typographical distinction between contemporary cynicism and philosophical Cynicism, with his book an explanation of the word’s devolution from the latter to the former. Of all the foundational traditions of post-Socratic Hellenistic philosophy — Stoicism, Skepticism, Epicureanism — Cynicism is possibly that which has descended the most from its origins in fourth-century BCE Athens, to the point that it’s worth questioning how much the word today has to do with the “school” associated with its most celebrated adherent, Diogenes of Sinope.

Those ancient philosophies have been (rather cynically, one might say) commandeered to bourgeois enthusiasms, which have little to do with Axial Age concerns. Stoicism was once a rigorous ethical method by which men reconciled themselves calmly to circumstance. Now it’s a popular resource for tech-bros to brag about how centered they are. Skepticism was a radical epistemological position which elevated doubt to a position higher than mere knowledge. Now it’s a cudgel for bullies like Michael Shermer and Richard Dawkins who spend their time proving to a child that Santa Claus isn’t real. Epicureanism was a lifestyle based in sober rationalism while promoting virtues of parsimony and simplicity. Now it’s something that hedge fund managers call themselves while on a Napa Valley wine tour.

But of all of these, Cynicism has been the most maligned; one of ancient Greece’s most radical traditions reduced to a personality type synonymous with “asshole.” It was not always such, as Allen reminds us. “Ancient Cynic philosophy was committed, politically engaged, and joyfully affirmative, even at its most dissenting […] a positive, life-affirming disposition rather than as a sign of social decay.” Almost none of these ancient traditions bear much connection to the disciplinary practice of philosophy in the modern academy, but even by the standards of alterity that define ancient philosophy as a unique mélange of ethics, religion, and rhetoric, Cynicism stands alone. Arguably more of an anti-philosophy than a philosophy, its most famous proponent Diogenes leaves us no writings (it’s arguable whether he even produced them in the first place), and his teachings are more about what he disbelieved in.

Cynicism didn’t just choose not to offer a positive philosophy, it outright denounced such a thing as mere emptiness, rather embracing an all-consuming lifestyle based on a rejection of societal virtues in favor of radical poverty, radical behavior, and most of all radical speech (parrhesia). Allen writes that by “rejecting the consolations and comfortable illusions of intellectual culture, by risking social marginalization, alienation, and political retribution, by actively seeking destitution and physical hardship, the Cynic discovered the world through a series of practical confrontations with it.” The result was a critique so potent that it was as lived dialectic, deconstruction made flesh.

Etymology is helpful. The tradition’s name comes from the Greek kynikos (“dog-like”), an evaluation of Diogenes’s behavior. We’re told in several sources that a group of respectable men were throwing bones at Diogenes, so the philosopher took a piss in their direction, declaring that if they would treat him as a dog, then as a dog he shall be, hence the origin of “Cynicism,” which rejects the emptiness of the philosopher for the freeing wisdom of the canine. His actions are recorded by later commentators such as Plutarch, Diogenes Laërtius, Stobaeus, and Philo. Allen takes pains to explain that Diogenes’s teaching has long been slandered as at best madness and at worst nihilism, when in reality the philosophy asserts that “an entirely different order of existence is available to us. […] By pursuing a mode of life that is radically opposed to its surroundings, Cynicism exposes those surroundings in all their constraint.”

Diogenes’s anti-system is synonymous with his biography, the recondite sage who lived as a transient in an Agora storage jar, publicly masturbating with the justification that he wished it would be as easy to dispel hunger by simply rubbing his stomach, telling Philip of Macedon that he was an observer upon the ruler’s “insatiable greed,” and later informing Philip’s son, Alexander, that the only thing which the most powerful man in the world could do for him was to get out of his light. Such blunt speech was a way of using honesty to puncture civilized hypocrisies, not out of a misguided romantic notion of returning to nature, but as a form of radical analysis. Diogenes Laërtius (of no relation to the Cynic) writes that “Plato had defined Man as an animal, biped and featherless, and was applauded. Diogenes plucked a fowl and brought it into the lecture-room with the words, 'Behold Plato’s man!’” If Socrates could smugly declare himself to be a gadfly, then Diogenes was a fat, black horsefly drawn to the shit which respectable Athenians thought that they had disposed of.

In Diogenes’s behavior there is far more of the punk rock provocateur G. G. Allin — masturbating and self-mutilating on stage while he smears feces on himself during his musical set — then there is of Mitch McConnell; more of Pussy Riot in his gambits than there is of Aristotle. Ancient Cynicism was vehemently opposed to the hierarchies of the world, a perspective embellished by an impoverished weirdo who threw away his drinking ladle when he was shammed by seeing a child who had the ingenuity of drawing water with only his cupped hand. For the Cynic, Allen writes, dialogue “is replaced by diatribe and insult, or it is suspended altogether […] causing deliberate offense. While Socratic irony seeks to create a sense of existential doubt among friends and acquaintances, the Cynic gives cause to riot.”

Who then would be the modern manifestation of true Cynicism? The thuggish alt-right gleefully spreading their excrement on the walls would love to claim the blunt honesty of parrhesia, as perhaps might their supposed polar opposite of the “woke,” who believe that they’re somehow laying power low in social media ratios. But there is an error to see Diogenes as either the first troll or SJW, for what he was after was all the stranger and more mysterious than simply trying to piss people off or to enlighten them. Rebellion for its own sake is simply a branding opportunity, for capitalism is able to endlessly appropriate any challenges to it. After all, you can buy a rare copy of Rock ’n’ Roll Terrorist by G. G. Allin on Amazon for the bargain price of $902.81.

Actual Cynicism was always dangerous, persecuted by Emperor Nero, attacked by the Christian apologist Justin Martyr, and tamed into milquetoast lifestyle adage by the Emperor Julian the Apostate. But there is a greater gulf between what’s possible today and Diogenes’s mission than at any other time in Western history, the ultimate victory of lower-case cynicism. Four centuries before the Common Era and Diogenes gained a reputation for uncommon wisdom; today if you scream obscenities at Jeff Bezos and jerk off in Whole Foods it’ll only get you a psych-eval (a best-case scenario). Meanwhile, the very word used to designate such an anarchic movement as Cynicism is now redefined to mean the most abject of conservatisms, the smug neutered perspective of the worldlier-than-thou commentator who rejects out of hand the possibility of a better world. Contemporary cynicism is “enlightened false consciousness,” writes Peter Sloterdijk in Critique of Cynical Reason. “Well-off and miserable at the same time, this consciousness no longer feels affected by any critique of ideology; its falseness is already reflexively buffered.” How did we get to this point, from directly challenging Alexander the Great in the Agora to being catty on Twitter, all the while suspecting that since things will never get better, we’ve got no responsibility to even try?

Sloterdijk argues that it’s literature’s fault, since writers like the second-century Roman satirist Lucian transformed the Cynic into a mere character type in dialogues like The Runaways and the Passing of Peregrinus. Rather than living the life of the Cynic in reality, Lucian was content to imagine the life of a cynic in his writing. The result was a schism in the term, and ultimately the gestation of the contemporary pose which preserves all the misanthropy but jettisons the subversion. “Every city is filled with such upstarts,” bemoans Lucian in The Runaways, condemning the itinerant Cynics whom he saw as fit only for the gutter, those who “enlist in the army of the dog.” By contrast, Lucian advocated for a more genteel cynicism, a cultured, lettered, privileged, and distanced position. Drawing inspiration from the satirist Menippus, a student of Diogenes whose works are lost, Lucian turned cynicism from critical method into “a function of literature,” as Sloterdijk writes, with the ramification being that its original manifestation would be forever foreign to contemporary experience. Rather than being in the Agora, cynics would now be found in the books of “Desiderius Erasmus, Thomas More, Francois Rabelais, Jonathan Swift, Henry Fielding, and Denis Diderot,” as Allen enumerates, all of whom for their many writerly virtues of wit still lack the pungent stink of Diogenes’s radicalism. Lucian effectively domesticated cynicism. In a perverse (and perhaps inadvertent) way, it was no longer the feral canine biting the hand of the master, but the trusted guard-dog of the powers-that-be, since the defeatism of knowing literary cynicism is de facto an argument for the status quo. As such, “cynicism” in the popular meaning of the world would naturally exert an influence on political thought, the neutered Diogenes limping through the pages of Niccolò Machiavelli, Thomas Hobbes, and Bernard Mandeville. Regardless of whether it is on the left or right, such cynicism is by definition conservative, so that “the problem with contemporary cynics is that they lack a political imagination,” as Allen argues.

Not all is degenerative about cynicism in its popular form, however. Despite its pessimism and its anti-utopianism, it does do something politically and psychologically useful in the most perilous of extremities. Allen spends a portion of Cynicism describing the widespread malaise and despondency that permeated the Eastern Bloc in the twilight of the Soviet Union, often accompanied with that characteristic sense of Slavic black humor, whereby communism sustained itself despite widespread lack of faith in the official ideology because paradoxically the system’s “stability was reflected in the fact that few believed the Soviet political order would end.” This is the bleak Soviet experience where people read Pravda (“Truth”) precisely because they know the title of that newspaper was a paradox, and can joke that under capitalism man exploits man but under communism it’s the exact opposite. Widespread disbelief in the official system combined with a sense of that same system’s inertia was an obvious recipe for cynicism. Whether or not that cynicism hastened the collapse of the Iron Curtain, or was merely evidence of the rot that had taken hold deep within, Allen argues that it at least gestured toward a different way of doing things. He explains that that the “success of Soviet ideology did not stand or fall on its ability to secure the widespread support of a populace that believed in it, at least not in its twilight years,” because regardless of widespread disaffection, communism’s “continued existence seemed inevitable.”

Ironically, he nearly describes a mirror-image of what philosopher Mark Fisher termed “capitalist realism”: the parallelizing sense that, even while we know the official way of organizing society isn’t working, it’s impossible to envision an alternative. Yet could the cynicism which such a situation engenders not serve as midwife to a better world? Witness the widespread cynicism in American society, perhaps not unlike that which foreshadowed the collapse of the Berlin Wall, and consider that the divisions which mark our society might just be the final confrontation between two polarized segments of the populace who still believe in something. Conservatives have faith in the market even while most of us are overworked and underpaid; liberals hold hope in a gauzy and unified city on a hill (to be featured in a Jeep ad with the Boss), even while our history belies such utopianism. Both dimly intuit that things aren’t working as they’re supposed to, while the rest of us know that they’re working exactly as intended. This ever-spreading loss of faith is possibly a gesture toward some new world waiting to be born. Cynicism may not be an end unto itself, but perhaps a means unto an end, a ladder we ascend and then kick over.

Still, there is something unsatisfying in desiring Diogenes’s subversions but only being able to afford Twitter snark. The full magnitude of Cynicism’s transgression seems inaccessible to us, living as we do under a system where even the most potent of rebellions will ultimately be reconciled to capitalism’s hegemony. “Deviance has become legible to power — it has been given its place,” Allen writes, and of course he’s correct. Mammon is a dark god, and the manner in which he’s combatted must always be through resolutely transcendent means, in the realm of meaning, something the materialist left blanches at as sacred deviance is sublimated back into the market. “From Cynic humiliation to Christian humility,” writes Michel Foucault in The Courage of Truth, there is “an entire history of the humble, of disgrace, shame and scandal through shame, which is very important historically.” Allen gives a perfunctory overview of the relationship of Cynicism to religion — briefly countenancing the hypothesis that Diogenes may have had an influence on Christ — but more of a consideration of the theological would have been welcome, as counterintuitively it’s only among the religious where the possibility of a genuine counterculture exists (as it’s always been).

The connections between Christianity and Cynicism are probably more of the nature of false cognate than of genealogy, but it speaks to something universal about Diogenes’s antinomianism. We see traces of the Cynic’s holy blasphemy across religious history — as Symeon Stylites baked atop his desert column, when Al-Hallaj declared himself to be God, after Sabbatai Zevi uttered the ineffable name of God, or while Abiezer Coppe ranted in the backstreets of 17th-century London. They offer as true a form of subversion as any that’s ever been proposed, and surely more than the anemic methods of rebellion available to us in Mammon’s court. Perhaps what we need more than mere Cynics are heretics.

Diogenes supposedly wandered with a lamp through the crowded marketplace during the day, trying to find “an honest man.” He’s looking still.


Ed Simon is a staff writer at The Millions.

LARB Contributor

Ed Simon is the editor of Belt Magazine, a staff writer for Lit Hub, and an emeritus staff writer at The Millions. He is a frequent contributor at several different sites including The Atlantic, The Paris Review Daily, Aeon, Jacobin, The Washington Post, The New York Times, Killing the Buddha, Salon, The Public Domain Review, Atlas Obscura, JSTOR Daily, and Newsweek. He is also the author of several books, including Devil’s Contract: The History of the Faustian Bargain, which will be released in July 2024. He holds a PhD in English from Lehigh University and an MA in literary and cultural studies from Carnegie Mellon University.


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