A cynic is a man who, when he smells flowers, looks around for a coffin. – H.L. Mencken
Feeling cynical? It’s a rare person, one would think, who doesn’t at some point toward someone, something, or even life in general. My bet/hope is that despite occasional forays into feeling despondent others or situations, most recover to regain their more positive if not optimistic attitude.
Perhaps the level of one’s cynicism depends on her essential nature. Some are born sunny Annies, who happily shovel through the manure in search of that hidden pony. Others learn to be cynical after life filled with a series of continuous blows. For others still, cynicism is bred into them.
Cynicism arises from frustration, which in turn arises out of continual disappointment. It can arise from an initially overly optimistic desire for an outcome that one discovers from perspective wasn’t warranted. In other words, putting too much faith or confidence in mere imperfect mortals, who might be, ironically, cynical themselves. The old vicious downward spiral.
Merriam-Webster defines the cynic as one who is “contemptuously distrustful of human nature and motives,” who “reflects a belief that human conduct is motivated primarily by self-interest.”
Cynicism was a minor philosophical school in fourth-century BCE Greece. It was founded by Antisthenes who taught “desire leads to pleasure and pleasure to the misery of insufficient and temporal happiness.”
“Only virtue,” he preached, “is sufficient for real happiness, that is well-being,” and that “a virtuous person is sufficient with whatever is present and with future expectations and social conventions.”
That might seem very noble, after all Buddhism teaches similar. But in our American task-oriented, goal-based, materialistic society that is based on responsibility and schedules, one wonders to what extent that is truly achievable. Antisthenes’s most famous student was Diogenes of Sinope who, according to ancient sources, lived in a barrel and roamed the streets of Athens with a lighted lamp in daylight in search for the honest man. The story goes that when Alexander the Great asked him if he had any desire, Diogenes asked that he only step aside given he was blocking the sun.
The problem with feeling cynical from time to time is that if left unaddressed, it can deepen, worsen to where one is left with a jaded view of life, which in turn can lead into a dystopian outlook.
Cynicism is distinct from skepticism, which was also a school of philosophy in ancient Greece. Merriam-Webster defines skepticism as “an attitude of doubt or a disposition to incredulity either in general or toward a particular object.” The key word is doubt, which is the antithesis of hope.
Skepticism is, thus, of the mind, inquiry-based, rather than emotive. Rather than becoming frustrated with people who, for example, might not live up to their commitments, potential, or what one might seem should be their course of action, the skeptic simply shrugs his shoulders and says, “Yep, that’s the way they are.” The downside to that is the skeptic doesn’t offer or perhaps is incapable of offering solutions to the human condition.
My definition: The cynic is one who intrinsically believes in the eventual perfectibility of humans but runs smack into the reality that it cannot be perfected.
Thought exercise aka journaling: Think and write about the time/times you have felt feeling cynical about _?_. Reflect on the reasons, roots, etc. Then, consider whether you’re one, who when smelling the flowers, looks around for a boxed cadaver.