On Becoming & Unbecoming a Cynic

 

Antisthenes, founder of Cynic philosophy

I’m tired of cynicism. Now, to be clear, I am not speaking specifically of the Cynical philosophy of Antisthenes and certain ancient Greeks. I am talking about the modern cynicism which believes people and institutions are generally selfish and dishonest. To borrow from Flannery O’Connor’s insight about nihilism, cynicism is the air we breathe. It is everywhere. Looking back, as a young man I had an unshakeable idealism. I believed that our leaders were honest, our country was upright, our families were inviolable and our friendships were true. Virtues were real, honorable and worthy of our aspiration. Vices were real, nefarious and deserving of our disdain. Good was good and evil was evil. There was no middle ground much less obfuscating about whether good or evil exist. Ah yes, there was something romantic and simpler about those days.

But then, I grew up. I listened to my schoolteachers tell “the dark side of history”. I started to see leaders say one thing and then do another. My country made this mistake or that. My parents divorced and certain friendships fizzled. Before long, I was watching the “can’t miss” news shows, subscribing to too many “smart” magazines and gathering with like-minded, newly disillusioned friends to lament what was wrong with the world. With eyebrows cocked, brows furrowed, smirk at the ready… I had become a cynic.

To be honest, I quietly relished this cynicism. Why? Because it gave me a smug sense of righteous indignation. All of the ideals I was aspiring to in my life, my family, my leaders and my country were being dashed. A sense of fairness was being violated. An entitlement was undelivered. In time, I would watch the shows, read the essays and talk with the people who reinforced my preconceived notions and biases. And, needless to say, the cynicism would only compound itself. More negativity. More frustration. More disillusionment.

And so, I turned it off. After a particular issue that I had gotten quite wrapped up in went sour, I simply turned it off. I stepped away. I realized that I was getting too engrossed in these matters for my own good. Shows were missed. Subscriptions were cancelled. Conversations were avoided. And before long, I began to feel better. And I started to look at the world anew.

To avoid cynicism – the air we breathe – requires work. Hard work. Because it is fashionable to be a cynic. It is trendy. Naysayers always seem hip because they invariably shock the senses by saying something snarky at the least or downright hurtful at the most. To be an idealist is to be naive and foolish, but to be a cynic…well, that is to be wise and seasoned. Pick any established institution (the Church, government, family, to name a few) and criticize it with wry wit and you will instantly find yourself with a following. Champion the same institutions and you will quickly be reviled as a dupe or automaton. After all, cynicism, we are led to believe, is little more than intelligently being a realist. However, having been a cynic, I would beg to differ. Being cynical isn’t being realistic…it’s being cynical.

Let me explain.

Let’s take a look at history. There are innumerable examples of lofty speeches in American history given by august figures in trying times. In 1776, Thomas Jefferson penned the Declaration of Independence in which he declared,

 

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness. Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.”

In 1865, Abraham Lincoln offered this sober and brief Second Inaugural speech near the end of a brutal Civil War,

 

“With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.”

In 1940, Franklin Roosevelt witnessed the ravaging of Europe and the bombardment of Great Britain from across the Atlantic Ocean and offered these thoughts in one of his fireside chats,

“We must be the great arsenal of democracy. For us this is an emergency as serious as war itself. We must apply ourselves to our task with the same resolution, the same sense of urgency, the same spirit of patriotism and sacrifice, as we would show were we at war…We have no excuse for defeatism. We have every good reason for hope-hope for peace, hope for the defense of our civilization and for the building of a better civilization in the future.”

Weren’t these men politicians? Weren’t they operators and manipulators? Didn’t they all have skeletons in their closets – Jefferson’s Sally Hemings, Lincoln’s two-faced campaigning, Roosevelt’s Lucy Mercer? And did they really believe this rhetoric they were proffering? These are the questions raised by and insisted upon by the cynics.

Now, I am not saying that one should ignore some of the darker elements of history. But for a complete picture, we shouldn’t ignore the lighter elements either. This is the problem with cynics. Their arrogance and narcissism is all about knocking people or institutions off of pedestals without giving the credit for the heroic words or deeds that are equally or more important than their flaws. As a former cynic, I have a newsflash for cynics: We are all flawed. To a newspaper inquiry asking famous authors, “What’s wrong with the world today?”, G.K. Chesterton briefly responded,

“Dear Sir,

I am.

Yours,
G.K. Chesterton”

It is a tiresome fad to point out the flaws of everyone and everything as cynics are pleased to do. It is granted. But what isn’t granted, is the virtue and heroism that is abounding if we are only honest with ourselves and the figures and institutions before us (for more on this please see my previous piece, The Tiresome Fad of Giant-Killing). You see, the cynic can tell me all that is wrong with Jefferson or Lincoln or Roosevelt. And I can nod. Then I can tell the cynic that the words of Jefferson helped found a nation, the sentiments of Lincoln helped to heal a union, and the resolve of Roosevelt helped to topple a tyranny. A continuous thread of hope linked our nation under Jefferson to that under Lincoln to that under Roosevelt. It was a hope that inspired people to do great and heroic things. And while these men offered hope and other men felt called to respond, the cynics made their smug objections known.

Do you remember their names?

Me either.

Cynics don’t have their eyes wide open. Their eyes are narrowly fixed on the negative. I know because I’ve been there. And I found it not only dark and depressing, but dishonest as well. The fuller view takes into consideration the virtue in the story, just as much as the vice. It recognizes the dignity championed by Jefferson, the charity offered by Lincoln and the courage modeled by Roosevelt.

Perhaps it was J.R.R. Tolkien’s brief dialogue between Sam and Frodo during a particularly harrowing experience in The Two Towers that best illustrates why we are called to something better than cynicism.

Frodo: I can’t do this, Sam.

Sam: I know. It’s all wrong. By rights we shouldn’t even be here. But we are. It’s like in the great stories, Mr. Frodo. The ones that really mattered. Full of darkness and danger, they were. And sometimes you didn’t want to know the end. Because how could the end be happy? How could the world go back to the way it was when so much bad had happened? But in the end, it’s only a passing thing, this shadow. Even darkness must pass. A new day will come. And when the sun shines it will shine out the clearer. Those were the stories that stayed with you. That meant something, even if you were too small to understand why. But I think, Mr. Frodo, I do understand. I know now. Folk in those stories had lots of chances of turning back, only they didn’t. They kept going. Because they were holding on to something.

Frodo: What are we holding onto, Sam?

Sam: That there’s some good in this world, Mr. Frodo… and it’s worth fighting for.

Becoming a cynic was clearly a transformative experience. But unbecoming a cynic was infinitely better.

 

  • http://PilgrimofLogos.blogspot.com C.M.C. Fulmer

    Cynicism may not have always been my main process of thought, yet it is truly something easy to be absorbed in. Like Sam in “The Two Towers” I was/am honest with the darkness of the “long defeat,” though I emphasize the good that outshines it, if we only look to heaven rather than the mire of our world.

  • Slocum Moe

    Institutions are not necessarily selfish and dishonest. The Catholic Church is not and is made up of wonderful people all over the World. Those wonderful people are not it’s priests, however. For the most part and to a very great extent the priests need to go, sooner rather than later, far away from the rest of us.

    • Des Farrell

      Please go meet the parish priests who do so much for the sick and the elderly in their communities. I have informed myself on the 2 percent of priests who caused so much havoc. I respectfully suggest that you inform yourself on the work and character of the other 98 percent.

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  • Des Farrell

    An excellent article, a road taken similar to my own. Until one truly runs out of hope it can be difficult to see that being a cynic is really an adolescent pose. Believing in hope, in decency, doesn’t mean that one is willfully naive. And to be truly without hope, the final destination of cynicism, is to be incapable of real empathy, real passion, anger and motivation. But I do understand why people become cynical and admire that better part of themselves that they try to bury.

  • Victoria DePalma

    Are you
    *currently* being sent into Hell forever … automatically
    excommunicated (outside) of God’s Catholic Church ?

    Answer:
    Yes you are … you can reverse it … please continue.

    Council
    of Florence, Session 8, 22 Nov 1439 — infallible Source of Dogma
    >
    “Whoever wills to be saved, before all things it is
    necessary that he holds the Catholic faith. Unless a person keeps
    this faith whole and undefiled, without doubt he shall perish
    eternally.”

    You must
    believe the Catholic Dogma to be in the Church … Dogma you have
    *never* seen.

    Site >
    Immaculata-one.com … infallible Dogma throughout.

    The
    Catholic Faith *is not* Bible interpretation … it is the Catholic
    infallible Sources of Dogma. The Catholic Church didn’t even define
    the Bible’s New Testament Canon until 397 A.D. at the Council of
    Carthage.

    - – - -

    Can a
    group which enforces the opposite, the opposite, and the opposite of
    the Catholic unchangeable Dogma be the Catholic Church?

    No, it
    cannot possibly be the Catholic Church … and promotion of the
    opposite of the Catholic Dogma is exactly what the vatican-2 heretic
    cult does … and has been doing since it’s founding on 8 December
    1965 at the Vatican.

    The
    vatican-2 heresy does not have the Office of the Papacy … only the
    Catholic Church has the Papacy.

    The Dogma
    cannot “change” or be “reversed” … God does not “change”.

    The
    founding documents of the vatican-2 heretic cult … the “vatican-2
    council” documents … have well over 200 heresies *against* prior
    defined unchangeable Dogma. Every (apparent) bishop at the “council”
    approved the mountain of heresy, which caused their automatic
    excommunication, see Section 13.2 of the below site.

    - – - -

    Section
    12 > Anti-Christ vatican-2 heresies (50 listed) … followed by
    many Catholic corrections.

    Sections
    13 and 13.1 > Photographic *proof* of heresy at the Vatican.

    Because
    of … the Catholic Dogma on automatic excommunication for heresy or
    for physical participation in a heretic cult (such as the v-2 cult) …

    … we
    were all placed, body and soul, *outside* of Christianity (the
    Catholic Church) on 8 December 1965 … the close date of the
    “council”.

    Section
    13.2 > Catholic Dogma on automatic excommunication for heresy or
    participating in a heretic cult such as … vatican-2, lutheran,
    methodist, evangelical, etc.

    Section
    107 > St. Athanasius (died 373 A.D.) … “Even if the Church
    were reduced to a handful …” – - during the “arian” heresy
    … we are there again, but worse.

    Section
    13.3 > Matt 16:18, Gates of Hell scripture … is *not* about the
    Office of the Papacy … four Dogmatic Councils defined it … that
    heresy will not cause the Dogma to disappear.

    Section
    13.4 > The vatican-2 heretic cult does not have the Office of the
    Papacy only the Catholic Church has the Papacy.

    Section
    13.6 > The Catholic Dogma on Jurisdiction and Automatic
    Excommunication for heresy define that … God has allowed Catholic
    Jurisdiction … for Mass and Confession to disappear from the world.
    There is no such thing as Catholic Mass outside of the Catholic
    Church.

    Non-Catholic
    heresies such as “vatican-2”, “sspx”, “sspv”, “cmri”,
    etc. … do not have Catholic Mass.

    Section
    19.1 > Dogma on Abjuration for *re-entering* Christianity (the
    Catholic Church) … after being automatically excommunicated. A
    Formal Abjuration is provided here also.

    Section
    10.2 > Returning to a state of grace, in places and times when
    Confession is not available, like now.

    - – - -

    Second
    Council of Constantinople, 553 A.D. — infallible Source of
    Dogma >
    “The heretic, even though he has not been
    condemned formally by any individual, in reality brings anathema on
    himself, having cut himself off from the way of truth by his heresy.”

    Blessed
    John Eudes, died 1680 >

    “The
    greatest evil existing today is heresy, an infernal rage which hurls
    countless souls into eternal damnation.”

    Everything
    you must know, believe, and do to get to Heaven is on > >
    Immaculata-one.com.

    Victoria

    Our Lady
    of Conquest

    Pray for
    us

  • Antiphon411

    I think that perhaps you are confusing cynicism with nihilism. The cynic has one fixed transcendent value by which he judges everything in the world. For Diogenes of Sinope that transcendent principle was virtue (or nature, for Diogenes viewed the natural as the virtuous). The nihilist has nothing (Latin “nihil”). Everyone and everything is worthless. There is no value and no good.

    It has been my experience that true cynicism goes well with the Catholic Faith. We take that Faith, the teachings of Our Lord, as the transcendent. They become the touchstone upon which everything is tested. To take your examples: against the Faith the Liberalism of Jefferson, the tyranny of Lincoln, and the fellow-traveling of FDR all become clear. Put not your faith in princes, my friend. The Faith alone as preserved and taught by Holy Mother Church is the only guiding star in the sky.

  • ichen

    Thank you for the reminder that we need not fall prey to cynicism. As a college student, I’d say that is one of my biggest challenges.


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