Come in, stranger, and shut the door behind you. You’re in The Cynic’s Sanctuary now, safe from the worldly vexations that may have driven you here. What kind of vexations would drive an otherwise healthy human being to seek solace among cynics? How about these, for starters:
"We’ll keep your resume on file"
Politicians and other liars
Feeling like an alien in your own country
Feeling like an alien in your own family
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 decline of Western civilization
The triumph of cockroaches and investment bankers
Ugliness everywhere you look
Cheesy books that stay on the bestseller list for 187 weeks
Realizing that everything you like to eat can kill you
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 MBAs, belligerent activists 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 and 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. In fact, the early Cynics admired dogs for their freedom, their playfulness and joy, their simple morality and even their shamelessness about bodily functions. The ancient Cynics embraced poverty but led fiercely disciplined lives. They took pride in their independence and integrity.
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 sunning himself in the marketplace and asked how he could help him, the old philosopher curtly replied, "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.
The varieties of cynics.
Like dogs, cynics come in all shapes and sizes. We have virtuous cynics, sarcastic cynics and wicked cynics... born cynics and midlife converts. Here’s a brief but valuable guide to the breeds of cynic you’ll encounter today. Which kind are you? (Be aware that there are plenty of "mixed breed" cynics, combining two or more of the traits listed below.)
Born cynics. Some of us are just skeptical and irreverent by nature, and these people seem to slide effortlessly into lifelong cynicism. It’s their birthright. Examples: George S. Kaufman, Groucho Marx, Bill Maher.
Snarky cynics. They can’t resist mocking anyone less hip or astute than themselves, and their relentless sarcasm can irritate the bejesus out of me. But I have to confess that they add spice to our tribe. Examples: Dorothy Parker, David Letterman, Stephen Colbert.
Merry cynics. They positively relish their cynicism and manage to turn it into a lively one-ring circus. Examples: Rabelais, George Bernard Shaw, H. L. Mencken.
Angry cynics. Their cynicism has made them bitter and curmudgeonly. They suffer inwardly but often entertain and enlighten the rest of us. Examples: Ambrose Bierce, Lenny Bruce, Richard Pryor.
Misanthropic cynics. First cousins to the angry cynics, they gain whatever comfort they can from despising their fellow humans. Examples: Jonathan Swift, Friedrich Nietzsche, Florence King.
Wounded cynics. These good-natured folks started out expecting the best from life and, somewhere along the way, had the rug pulled out from under them. They discovered to their dismay that the world doesn’t reward goodness or integrity, though in their heart of hearts they still cling to both. Examples: Samuel Johnson, Holden Caulfield, Rick Bayan (yep, that’s me).
Alienated cynics. They’re a breed apart: vaguely depressed, withdrawn, prone to morbid thoughts, nihilism and despair. Think "emo." Examples: Edgar Allan Poe, Charles Baudelaire, Morrisey.
"Social" cynics. They lead dutiful, productive and often happy lives but will strike a cynical pose in public for its entertainment value. Examples: Jay Leno, Jerry Seinfeld, Ellen DeGeneres, Chris Rock.
Wry cynics. More reflective than bitter, they quietly challenge conventional values with their quirky ideas. Examples: James Thurber, Bill Watterson ("Calvin and Hobbes"), George Carlin.
Contrarian cynics. They can’t abide smug certainties of any kind, so they develop the habit of questioning all accepted wisdom... a valuable trait, up to a point. Examples: La Rochefoucauld, Christopher Hitchens, Penn Jillette (of Penn and Teller).
Distrustful cynics. True to the current dictionary definition of cynicism, they suspect everyone’s motives, believe that all human behavior is governed by selfishness, and (as H. L. Mencken observed) look around for a coffin whenever they smell flowers. Example: Your neighbor down the street with the hidden cache of weapons and survival supplies.
Calculating cynics. They continually look out for #1 and never hesitate to stab a neighbor in the back. These so-called cynics are often castigated by politicians and CEOs who want to look virtuous by comparison. But I hesitate to include them in our tribe -- not simply because I dislike them, but because I don’t believe they’re true cynics. They’re just crass opportunists -- the kind of people who turn other people into cynics. Examples: Josef Stalin, Gordon ("Greed is good") Gekko, Bernie Madoff.
Positive cynics. An oxymoron? I don’t think so. You can use the tools of cynicism (outrage, disobedience, mockery) to fight the evils of the world and, in your own fashion, make it a better place for the rest of us. Examples: Socrates, Jesus, Voltaire, Thoreau.
Former cynics. Yes, some cynics get their fill of cynicism and move on. This can actually be a good thing. I advocate cynicism as a necessary station-stop along the road to enlightenment, but I don’t believe it has to be your life’s work. Cynicism gives you the perspective you need to grasp the often sad realities of the universe. Armed with that knowledge, you can proceed to re-engage with life and make a difference. Examples: Lord Byron, Benjamin Disraeli, Al Franken, Sidney Carton (hero of A Tale of Two Cities).
The pros and cons of cynicism.
Experts are divided on whether cynicism is good or bad for you, so of course the real answer isn’t simple.
First let’s look at the negative side of the ledger:
Even the author of The Cynic’s Dictionary has to confess that too much cynicism can be hazardous to your health. (I recommend cynicism in moderation, like alcohol and saturated fats.) For example, medical experts claim that cynics keel over from heart disease at three to four times the rate of non-cynics. If true, this shocking statistic can probably be attributed to the cynic’s inborn suspicion of medical experts (like the ones who issued the report about cynics and heart disease), his nonchalance about diet and smoking, and his indifference to exercise.
Cynics who fight the world (or disengage from it) can end up lonely, hostile, anxious and depressed, which probably wouldn’t bode well as a longevity indicator. I also wonder if the cynic’s perpetual opposition to the ways of the world eventually saps his vitality and will to live. After all, we cynics are prone to believe that nothing we do makes a difference, so maybe our brains send subliminal "abort" signals to our bodies.
Our cynicism can trip us up in our social and professional lives, too. We’re not "team players," after all, and our chronic negativity can send the wrong message to non-cynics who expect us to cooperate. We’re left with two viable options: grit our teeth and go along... or drop out and find fellow cynics who think the way we do.
Finally, a world full of cynics probably wouldn’t accomplish a whole lot. Yes, we’re an essential part of the mix, but even I will admit that civilization needs its forward-thinking types who actually go out and do things.
Now let’s look at the positive side of cynicism:
A true cynic typically demands truth and fairness from acquaintances, public figures and institutions alike. In a notoriously corrupt world, this can only be a good thing. Cynics help keep everyone honest. We see through sham and hypocrisy, deplore disingenuous euphemisms, hate bullies and snicker at fools. We’re the boy who cried out that the emperor has no clothes; the world needs us more than it knows.
But what does our cynicism do for us, other than dispose us toward depression and premature heart disease? Plenty. A good cynic refuses to be a passive victim. When the world tries to dismiss us or stomp us underfoot, we don’t just wail and gnash our teeth; we retaliate with our special brand of cynical wit. We mock. We sneer. We laugh. We commiserate with our cynical peers. We start cynical websites. By doing so, we take control of a predicament that would otherwise make us feel helpless.
Probably most important, our cynicism helps us keep our integrity when the rest of the world is selling out. Sure, we might not reap the same rewards as the go-along types. But we’re rewarded with a clear conscience, a reliable moral compass and an intact sense of self. That, my friends, is nothing to sneer at.