The other day, my wife and I were having lunch, and an acquaintance from our kid’s school came by. The first words out of her mouth were: “How unusual, a husband and wife actually sitting together and talking with each other.” The next day, talking with some parents at a little league tryout, one of the parents said how. “By this age, kids don’t even notice when grown ups say something,” while the other parent nodded in agreement.
These are not uncommon sentiments. You probably make statements like these from time to time without thinking. But as a habit over time they can be poisonous to your happiness. There is a philosophical school that they reflect.
They are the Cynics.
Their founder was Antisthenes (446-366 BC), who was a follower of Socrates. Socrates believed that if a person knew Truth, then he or she would naturally choose the Good. The task became then to find Truth at all costs; the rest would take care of itself.
The big idea of cynicism is that all of the institutions, the social conventions and mores, the structures that human beings have created in order to function well, are impediments to Truth. Therefore, in order to come to know Truth, one has to reject these institutions, social conventions, and mores. By doing so, presumably, one gets a glimpse into Truth, and will therefore be happier.
I find this a patently silly approach to living well.
Part of a cynic’s behavior is marked by a sarcastic and condescending view of those who accept and live within the conventions of a society. This means that if you have created a happy life for yourself using the opportunities that such a framework provides, then you are, in the cynic’s view, deceiving yourself, and deserving of ridicule.
So to a cynic the idea that one can be happily in love and married, or happily enjoying a good relationship with one’s children – particularly if they are teenagers, is a ridiculous and stupid idea. If one enjoys one’s work, loves one’s country, is willing to support institutions that one finds useful, then, to a cynic, one is fooling oneself.
It is hard to see how a person can, without great contradiction, be optimistic, grateful and fully engaged in work and relationships – pillars of a happy life – while also being cynical.
Cynicism is the dominant philosophical undertone of the twentieth century. It allows for such other philosophical ridiculosities as the post-modern deconstructionist philosophies, Marxism, and the hippie and drug culture epitomized by Timothy Leary’s advice to, “Tune in, turn on, drop out”.
In psychology, a common view is that there is a deeper and wiser sense buried in your unconscious, and a therapist can help you to dig it out. This is fine on the face of it. There is more to us than meets the eye, and there are certainly elements of myself – feelings, hopes, dreams, wishes, strengths and shortcomings – that I get to know better as time goes on. I support wholeheartedly your effort to know yourself better.
But the cynical view joins in this search for self and adds the idea that because there are elements of myself that are unknown to me, then if I don’t know them I am not being real; and if I immerse myself in my unconscious flow of a world, then I am somehow more real. In my years as a therapist, however, I have not found that therapists in general are any more or less real than someone who studies any other profession. More in touch with emotions, perhaps, but then often more ruled by them as well; more fussy and self-indulgent.
In politics, Marxism asks people to accept that there is a kind of human nature that is different from what we see, and have seen for millennia. The true human nature that can be realized if only the dictatorship of the proletariat is allowed to take power and make it so; the politically enlightened person will understand this (on faith) and work to make it so. Those who do not understand this are ignorant and deluded by the establishment.
People use drugs primarily to escape into an easy state of euphoria for a time, even when the cost in terms of their overall happiness is dear. This practice has been given an aura of self-exploration by the 60’s drug culture that advertised a deeper communion with Truth through hallucinogenic drugs. Those who did not “turn on” were not in on that Truth, and were often treated with condescension. I know several people whose lives were destroyed by this drug culture. How about you?
Cynicism is the foundation of the attitude of “cool”. The beatniks and the hippies had a way of being that they felt was more real than the establishment and particularly those who like the establishment and the opportunities of civilization that it provides. When people are being cool – copping an attitude of disengaged and smug superiority – the true description for what they are being is cynical.
But let’s look at what might be useful about cynicism: It is important to question established rules and conventions, so that we can learn whether or not, or to what degree they are of value. Do they help us to live happy, successful, and engaged lives? Or do they serve to entrench outdated ideas that actually interfere or undermine the good?
It is extremely useful for us to re-evaluate the assumptions by which we live, so that we can be open to the feedback of the world that we need to improve.
That said, there is no value in the sneering sarcasm and condescension that is one of the hallmarks of cynicism. It is possible to question, to evaluate and re-evaluate the usefulness of conventions, to be dynamic in your own growth and exploration, while also holding an optimistic, grateful, and benevolent spirit.
Happiness is an action. It is based upon taking action in the world as it is, in relation to human nature as it is, and the institutions, conventions, mores, and other structures that are available. There are good things in the world, structures and institutions that make life better. There are good elements of human nature. It is in our interest to identify what these are, and what it is about them that work. It is in our interest to support those things; and on the other hand, to identify what does not work, and seek to improve it or to minimize its impact.
But cynicism is fundamentally a helpless and passive stance. It is a stance of disengagement from the world as it is. The cynic observes and ridicules, mocking those who live according to established ways. The bitterness, the sarcasm, the biting comments, come not from a position of active engagement in making things better, but from a position of anger and resentment that things are not the way one would wish.
I write every week about what you can do to bring yourself more happiness. Being cynical is not among these.
When you see somebody happy in their marriage, with their kids, in their work, with their country, watch yourself for that sarcastic remark, or that mildly cutting barb. When you find yourself listening to such comments from others, notice how you feel when you accept those comments as accurate, versus when you reject them as just a cynical view.
Cynicism is not a path to Truth; it is the enemy of happiness. Enjoy and love your life, your family, your work, and your country. These are what a good life is made of. That is what is real.