Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Cynicism 101

I recently saw this line on a company's employment site: "Cynics, pessimists and curmudgeons need not apply." Well, that certainly caught me up short. I am a self-professed True Cynic, and I am also hunting for a job, does that mean I need to stop and reevaluate my life? Am I holding myself back by having a "bad" attitude? That's not good!

But wait, is being a cynic a bad thing? Maybe I need to back-up and figure out what the heck a cynic really is.

I hate stories that contain a dictionary definition of a word - that is so lame. However, looking up the word "cynic" returns a rather interesting history. A history that has significantly changed the meaning of the word from it's origins.

It starts in ancient Greece, with a wacky group of philosophers that called themselves the "Cynics". These dudes believed that happiness meant living in agreement with nature, and that this world belonged equally to everyone. Suffering was caused by making false judgments about what was important in life. They rejected *everything* associated with the conventions of their modern society - religion, manners, style, money, power & decency - they believed in only the pursuit of virtue through the most simplistic and non-material living. Wow, that sounds like a barrel of fun, doesn't it?

Historians believe ancient Cynicism gave rise to Stoicism, and may have led to many of the austere aspects of Judaism, the rather socialist ideas of early Christianity, and ultimately to the Vow of Poverty still practiced by many orders of Catholic monks and nuns.

Sometime in the late 18th century, the term cynicism took on a different meaning. It focused on the distrust and rejection of the motives of others, and on the jaded & negative attitude toward just about everything and everyone.

That's pretty much where we are today - a cynic is generally regarded to be someone who questions the motives of others and who looks for the black heart in the silver lining. So, is this bad? And, more importantly, when I call myself a "True Cynic" am I aligning myself with the ancient Greek philosophers, or with the modern pessimistic curmudgeon?

The short answer is both. I look at the world around me and I see plenty of false judgments causing suffering. There is no doubt in my mind that this world would be a better place without the petty power struggles that happen at all levels - from a married couple to entire nations. However, I hesitate when we begin to talk about everyone having an equal share of this world. We may have all been *created* equal, but apparently a huge number of us were dropped on our heads shortly after that. Isn't it possible that many of the "false judgments" made by people are simply because they are stupid? Is it a false judgment if they *thought* it was the right thing to do, but they were just too dumb to see the outcome?

This is also where I begin to part ways with the modern definition of cynicism. I do absolutely doubt the altruistic motives of most people, most of the time. In business, looking for how someone benefits from the position they are expounding is very rarely the wrong path. However, I also think there are many instances when the person is not evil or purely power hungry - they are just plain ignorant. The implication that a cynic always thinks a person generally acts in their own best interest is incomplete - I think a person generally acts in what they believe to be their best interests. That doesn't mean it really *is* in their best interests!

So what am I defining to be a True Cynic? Well, I believe the world really is a very silly place, and most of that silliness is caused by the fact that humans as a whole are a VERY silly species. We are capable of producing individuals that can achieve wondrous things - and we are also capable of creating entire civilizations based on truly idiotic tenets. Therefore, when I call myself a cynic, I am speaking of the world and the human species as a generalization. The trick is to find the subset of our species that was not dropped on its head, and when you do - hang on to them! Call me a cynic, ironic, sarcastic, sardonic - just so long as you call me to dinner.

No comments:

Post a Comment