Better Living Through #Cynicism

Good. Better. Best. Choice. In consumerist cultures we learn to make choices but are discouraged  from thinking through to the ultimate value of things.

For example, last weekend, the center-left Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi resigned after a resounding defeat at the polls. The victors were populist parties such as the Five Star Movement, led by former comedian Beppe Grillo whose catchphrase is, “Vote with your heart, not your head.”

“Vote with your heart, not your head.”

There’s a lot of choosing going on. Yes, we can vote with our hearts; we can choose our news stories with our hearts; we can choose our religion with our hearts . . .

Reason is on the ropes these days, not only from the political and religious right, but also from science itself. We know now—it has been experimentally proven—that human beings often (usually) aren’t reasoning when we think we are. It may be that our “reason” only operates as a way to argue for our dumb moves after the fact.

We know this about ourselves because of studies in behavioral economics—studies that hone strategies to encourage consumers to buy with our hearts, not our heads.

A little Cynicism—with a capital C—might be good for us all. An early philosopher in this tradition named Pyrrho taught that the reason for human unhappiness is because we place value on the wrong things.  

The story goes that Pyrrho was walking down the road one day and saw his old philosophy teacher Anaxarchus thrashing in a lake, clearly about to drown. “Pyrrho! Help me!” Anaxarchus cried.

Pyrrho glanced his teacher’s way . . . and went on walking.

A few weeks later Pyrrho was out walking and who should he meet coming the other way but his old teacher Anaxarchus. “Oh, you got out,” said Pyrrho.

“Yes,” Anaxarchus responded, “and you are clearly my greatest student. You live the highest standards of Cynicism!”

Whether or not this is a true story, the Cynics taught that the value we put on things determines our happiness or our discontent in life.

If you want to live a happy life, the Cynics said, you’ve got to think through the pragmata—life’s little things that add up: what do you value and what does it mean that you value that and not this other thing? Why is “good” not as good as “best” and why are you bothering with the distinction in the first place?

Like the Daoists, the Cynics taught that we must look closely at nature and learn from nature. What does nature value? Well, said the Cynics, it appears from the evidence that nature values everything that exists equally. So, it is the value that we human beings falsely give to things and events that makes us happy and unhappy.

The Cynics recommended that we be adoxastous. “Doxy” means “belief” in Greek. “Orthodox” means you believe the right way. A-doxy means you don’t choose among beliefs. You don’t put value anywhere more than anywhere else. There’s no “good, better, best.” Like nature.

Had he jumped in to save the life of his beloved old teacher, Pyrrho would have been interfering in the natural course of events, and he would have been valuing saving his teacher over getting to where he was going, and he would have been ignoring the sequence of events that led to his teacher falling into danger.

We know that living this way is absurd, but Western thinking gets abstract in order to make a point. The Cynics are there with their extreme example to underline that old saw about life being about choices—we choose this instead of that. And with each choice we make, we are assigning value to things.

We must remember that the sort of reason recommended in the Ancient West was not what we nowadays think of as the scientific method. That didn’t come along for another thousand years after the time when most Western philosophical ideas developed. (We see that played out in the debates between the scientists and philosophers as to whether philosophy is outmoded today.)

The “reason” that the Cynics promoted is what we would nowadays consider meditation or mindfulness: getting into the moment; focusing; gaining the power of reflection; then acting in a way that is both moral and useful.

Reason is a form of meditation or mindfulness, and I think we do well to use this emotion called reason in our decisions about religion and politics.

Soap. Clothing. Toasters. All our choices are based in our values—or in our misinterpreting or ignoring our values.

How are we assigning value? There’s no doubt that the Western World is good at consumerism. Can we learn to look behind “good, better, best” and ask, “Why are you selling me this?”IMG_3804

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