Although it is often mistaken for intelligence, especially by those who practice it, cynicism is, in fact, a mask of disappointment. It is toxic to the soul of the individual and to the soul of the community, so we should get rid of it. Here’s how we can do that.
We all have at least one friend we know is a critic. Any discussion with them invariably gets to the point where they start complaining: about the traffic, the weather, their colleagues, their bosses, the baker, the political class, dishonest people, foreign exploiters, terrorist refugees, maybe even an international conspiracy.
The subject changes quite often. What does not change is the attitude of this one friend, which is one of eternal irritation regarding the environment in which they are forced to live, be that a micro or a macro-environment. They do not always say it in so many words, but you know that their conclusions about the world are the basis of every conversation with them: you can’t trust anyone; all people are hypocrites; all will deceive you the first opportunity they get; all see strictly to their own interests.
Usually, this kind of friend sees themselves at the opposite end of the spectrum: they are good people, with pure intentions, who have no hidden interests, who are transparent insofar as this is not a danger to them. They are not corrupt or unjust, and most of all, they are intelligent and wise enough to realize all these things and tell you about them as well.
How many of us do not make the mistake of trying to prove them wrong in our conversations with them by arguing against everything they tell us? And how many of us are not tempted to do this with the best of intentions, to make sure that our friends do not end up fed up with life by their own making?
I, however, understand two things: 1) Most of the time, trying to change a cynic’s mind using ARGUMENTS is a war one loses from the start—and I’ll tell you right away why. 2) Society is NOT to blame for its cynics, at least not because of the desperate reasons cynics invoke—and I will also come to that in a minute.
First of all, since we are talking about cynicism, I would like to make sure that we all understand what we mean by the term.
According to Luis Navia, author of Classical Cynicism: A Critical Study, cynicism is an attitude characterized by a general distrust of others’ motives. It means doubting any ethical and social values that someone (individual or institution) claims they have and a rejection of the need to be socially involved.
We must be careful not to confuse the cynic with the sceptic. Scepticism is a functional doubt (“I doubt it, so I think”), but they do it in order to reach the truth, which will be useful to them. A cynic only claims to be doubting to think when they are actually “thinking to doubt.”
A still very popular cliché, despite scientific allusions to the validity of the opposite, claims that smarter people are more inclined towards a depressed attitude than less intelligent people, who would be more inclined towards optimism. This is the classic image of the pessimistic genius, lonely, and troubled by existential anxieties.
In extenso, cynicism, as a form of pessimism towards humanity’s ability to make the right ethical choices, would in turn be a testament to intelligence. However, cynicism is not pessimism in the true sense of the word, because its antonym is not optimism, but naivety. Then, in principle, we would be wrong to assume that an optimistic person is less intelligent than a pessimistic person because it is possible that the optimist can afford to be optimistic because they visualize solutions that help them imagine a bright future, while the pessimist hasn’t found them yet. But let’s get back to the cynics.
Behind the shield of blazing
Cynicism looks cool. You have to be a tough and strong person to be able to survive in a world where you can’t have high hopes and you see that everyone who seems to be doing something good is actually motivated by selfish desires (to stand out, to feel good, etc.). Here, however, is the tipping point. Cynicism is related to frustration, disappointment, disillusionment. Sometimes the higher the expectations we have in others—people or institutions—the more cynicism is rooted in who we are.
Modern cynicism is, first and foremost, a form of protection against suffering
Philosopher Alain de Botton summed up this finding in the Book of Life by saying that, “beneath their gruff surface, cynics are afflicted by a near-hysterical fragility around the idea of expecting anything which turns out to be less impressive than they’d hoped. And so they twist their mental apparatus to secure themselves against the eventuality of any discouragement. They disappoint themselves before the world can ever do it for them at a time and in a manner of its own choosing.”
Here, contemporary cynicism meets historical cynicism—the cynicism of the great Greek philosophers. Of course, when they say “Greek cynicism” everyone is thinking of Diogenes and his famous barrel, which he lived in on the streets of Athens. But Diogenes was not the only one. Peregrinus was also well known for having a tumultuous life. In order to prove himself in control, but also to teach others how to despise all norms and overcome all limits, he set himself on fire in a public square.
The Greek prose writer Lucian of Samosata, a satirist, wrote a work that mentions Peregrinus—being the only source we have about his life. Lucian mocked Peregrinus for setting himself on fire just to cause a scene. This is very interesting and sad at the same time: a cynic treated with cynicism.
Cynicism is therefore a form of isolation from pain. That is, what causes it is not—as the cynics imply—experience and depth of understanding, nor intelligence, but psychological trauma. In every cynic’s soul is in fact a person who has seen their hopes shattered without any warning and without the possibility of recovery, Botton said. A cynic will not admit this, but they will gather whole encyclopaedias of strident examples of corruption and manipulation, greed and abuse, inequality and injustice, to represent a world in which psychological trauma is not a bad surprise, but a norm that we learn to cope with.
Although any cynic would prefer to pass off as intelligent, sociologist Peter Berger said in Invitation to Sociology that “this cynical stance is in itself naive and often enough grounded more in a lack of historical perspective than anything else. Cynicism about society is not the only option besides a credulous conformity to this social aeon or a credulous looking-forward to the one that is to come.”
Cynicism is toxic to the soul of the individual and to the soul of the community, and you don’t have to be a sociologist to realize that. You might as well be a musician. Composer and conductor Leonard Bernstein was convinced that “we must believe, without fear, in people” (“in their song,” he said on another occasion). Bernstein died in the late 1990s, at 82. He was born exactly at the end of the First World War, so at the end of the Second World War he was 27 years old. He was old enough to understand some things.
“Everyone born after 1945 when that bomb went off is a completely different kind of person from those who were born before them,” Bernstein said. This is because they grew up in a world where the possibility of global destruction was a daily reality, to the point where they didn’t even think about it. But it changed the way they lived…
“Anybody who grows up—as those of my generation did not—taking the possibility of the immediate destruction of the planet for granted is going to gravitate all the more toward instant gratification—you push the TV button, you drop the acid, you snort the coke, you do the needle… and then you pass out in the bed…and you wake up so cynical…Anything of a serious nature isn’t ‘instant’—you can’t ‘do’ the Sistine Chapel in one hour. You can’t ‘do’ the Sistine Chapel instantly—you have to lie on your back and look up at that ceiling and contemplate. And we’ve already lost a whole generation of kids who are blind to anything constructive or beautiful.”
An inclination towards the negative
Sometimes our cynicism is the result of a controllable negative predisposition. We can choose to see things one way or another. We can choose to assume the existence or absence of meaning. The old saying, “You get to choose your attitude,” is also valid in dealing with the circumstances around us. It is true that, most of the time, we cannot change our circumstances, but we have full freedom to change the way we relate to them, in a way that sustains our mental state, that would not demoralize and thus embarrass our souls.
Therefore, cynicism does not mean intelligence. Cynicism is an attitude by which we try to hide our fear of being severely disappointed (again). At other times, on the contrary, cynicism may be the result of ignorance regarding the way other contexts, similar to our own, have functioned in the past. In other words, we can be cynical even out of a false experience. However, there are a few more causes for cynicism, and here I am approaching the answer to the question I asked at the beginning.
Perhaps the most treacherous and unexpected cause is guilt. Unresolved guilt can disgust us with the world, either because we tend to see others as we really are, to project our weaknesses onto them, or because we are unwilling to deal with our own guilt, we throw it at others to lighten our burden. Guilt causes fear and anxiety, and an anxious person will be very reluctant to see anything good in everything around them because they are in a state of permanent internal and external conflict.
This does not mean that all cynics should check their consciences and expect to surely find irregularities there. That would be useful too, it would be a good filter, but I don’t think that’s enough.
The desire for power
Philosopher Bertrand Russell wrote an essay (“Youthful Cynicism”) on cynicism which is a very instructive reading. I believe his diagnosis can be applied very well, especially to those who are cynical towards institutions: “Belief, however, as modern psychologists never weary of telling us, is seldom determined by rational motives, and the same is true of disbelief, though sceptics often overlook this fact. The causes of any widespread scepticism are likely to be sociological rather than intellectual. The main cause is always comfort without power”.
What does this mean? He goes on to explain: “…the holders of power are not cynical, since they are able to enforce their ideals. Victims of oppression are not cynical, since they are filled with hate, and hate, like any other strong passion, brings with it a train of attendant beliefs. When the Czarist government killed Lenin’s brother, it did not turn Lenin into a cynic, since hatred inspired a lifelong activity in which he was finally successful.”
Sometimes, cynicism towards a certain structure is a result of the desire to have more power in that structure, but also to maintain the comfort of a position with less power. In general, however, the leading position is incompatible with the idea of comfort and the desire for an advantageous balance between the two most often generates conflict.
The triple antidote treatment
Is there an antidote to cynicism? I believe that not only one exists, but three. Among these one of them enjoys an excellent reputation in the intellectual circles of all ideologies, especially in Christianity.
A well-known cultural blogger from the USA, Maria Popova, sounded the alarm about cynicism, but she also accompanied this by what she saw as a remedy: “Today, the soul is in dire need of stewardship and protection from cynicism. In its passivity and resignation, cynicism is a hardening, a calcification of the soul. Hope is a stretching of its ligaments, a limber reach for something greater.
“The best defense against it is vigorous, intelligent, sincere hope—not blind optimism, because that too is a form of resignation, to believe that everything will work out just fine and we need not apply ourselves. I mean hope bolstered by critical thinking that is clear-headed in identifying what is lacking, in ourselves or the world, but then envisions ways to create it and endeavors to do that.” She also pointed out, however, that “hope without critical thinking is naïveté.”
Nevertheless, I said there would be two more antidotes. I found them in a place where, traditionally, men are especially looking advice for a successful family life. This is a famous passage from the Bible, often recited during religious weddings: the first epistle of the apostle Paul to the Corinthians, chapter 13. This biblical passage sets a valuable triad based on hope, faith, and love, which can prove to be effective in the most unexpected ways.
You can’t be cynical when you have faith in God. A Christian who looks at Christ as a role model will find that the One who knew the depths of human corruption best did not convey a trace of cynicism through His words and deeds, as Norel Iacob mentioned in one of his editorials, “Cynicism as helplessness”. On the contrary: Christ is the supreme anti-cynic, the God who does not allow things to degenerate as they naturally degenerate as a consequence of sin, but took the matter into His own hands and went so far as to sacrifice Himself. How many cynics are willing to sacrifice, earnestly, and at the risk of not being recognized and applauded by others?
Love, in its turn, is an antidote too, and is actually the most effective way to change a cynic’s mind. Why? Because, as I said before, in many cases, the essential motivation of cynicism is not a rational one, but an unresolved, oppressive pain, which the cynic tries to disguise by dressing it up in a kind of resignation they needn’t feel ashamed of. To come up with counter-examples for a cynic who is just telling you why they think things are so bad in the world does nothing but hurt them, because they will interpret this as an attack on their form of protection.
Love, however, works differently. Love is first and foremost protective; it is a balm. Love heals. It can restore faith and rebuild hope in the heart of a person who can no longer believe. Therefore, above all rational argument, the thing that can change a cynic’s mind is what changes each of us in our spiritual stubbornness: love. This is the method the Christian God applies.
Alina Kartman majored in Communications and Public Relations, but opted for a career in journalism. Having published more than 1,500 pieces of writing over her 13 years of media activity, Alina has senior editorial experience. She is part of the team who advanced semneletimpului.ro, the platform for the Signs of the Times magazine in Romania. She is currently pursuing a Master’s degree in Programs and Investment Management.