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What is Cynicism?

Michael Pollick
Updated May 23, 2024
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There are actually two different paths to follow when searching for the meaning of cynicism. To the ancient Greeks, Cynicism (capitalized) was a school of philosophy and social criticism founded by a man named Antisthenes. Followers of Cynicism often rejected the material comforts and social practices of the world around them, preferring to live as simply and as virtuously as possible. Because these Cynics often refused to bathe and were frequently found shouting incoherently in public areas, they were called kuon, the Greek word for dogs. Therefore, these men became known historically as the "dog philosophers".

Perhaps the best known follower of the Greek Cynicism movement was a man named Diogenes. Legend has it that Diogenes wandered the Greek countryside, allegedly on a never ending quest for an honest man. Honesty and virtue were key elements of the original Cynicism philosophy. The problem was that in the Cynics' eyes, few Greek politicians or prominent members of the ruling class had either of those qualities. Society in general was ruled by thoughts of personal gain, political corruption and meaningless rituals.

In the modern sense of the word, cynicism is a personal belief that people are motivated primarily by their own self-interests, and the natural order of things leans towards disintegration and corruption. Those who embrace cynicism often separate themselves from the rest of society, believing that society-at-large has largely abandoned its core value system. Politicians only take action when there is personal gain, and the corporate world is primarily motivated by greed and corruption. From the viewpoint of cynicism, these circumstances will not improve because the people capable of making these changes are stymied by apathy and fear.

A modern cynic may see himself as a social critic, whose negative opinions do serve a valid purpose. Cynicism is not without its constructive aspects, since political and social leaders do need to understand the negative aspects of their intentions or actions. But those who embrace the most extreme elements of cynicism run the risk of losing their credibility as "devil's advocates." When cynicism is coupled with feelings of bitterness or resignation, a modern cynic could find himself completely isolated from the world around him, including family and friends who can no longer cope with the conspiratorial thoughts and unrelenting negativity associated with extreme cynicism.

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Michael Pollick
By Michael Pollick , Writer
As a frequent contributor to Language & Humanities, Michael Pollick uses his passion for research and writing to cover a wide range of topics. His curiosity drives him to study subjects in-depth, resulting in informative and engaging articles. Prior to becoming a professional writer, Michael honed his skills as an English tutor, poet, voice-over artist, and DJ.

Discussion Comments

By anon971558 — On Sep 27, 2014

It's more difficult to manipulate cynics because they know our true intentions. I prefer to deal with optimistic people.

By anon954140 — On May 30, 2014

When a rich, powerful man gives a dollar to charity and then claims that dollar on his taxes, who does he care about? The wealthy people in charge of this world are self centered. They always have been and always will be. Wealth is his god and greed is his offspring. Call me a cynic. Call me whatever you want; I can read those beady, greedy, arrogant, self serving little eyes, Mr. Money!

By anon340660 — On Jul 04, 2013

Cynicism typically comes from a place of lower possibility. It informally dismisses intelligent argument for selecting an outcome that is naturally unfavorable.

Being a realist can take two or more forms. Depending on where you see something going, you can influence that outcome. Period. No arguing this. It is real. Now, if cynicism is useful, which I would say it is until the point at which, mentally, you can acknowledge a possible reality in which you no longer need your cynical approach.

Cynicism closes you to the moment. The moment is tainted by something being ironically opposed to the love and joy the moment can actually offer you. Fact. I live it. Arguing that is pointless. Now what you intend to do with your cynicism is up to you. I like skepticism more than the vitriol of cynicism. Compassion is a necessary function to improve the quality of any existing system non-mechanical. Context defines possibility, but possibilities also define context.

By anon53158 — On Nov 19, 2009

well cynical or not, a true pessimist is an optimist with experience.

By peace142814 — On Oct 27, 2008

About nihilism and cynicism. You call me negative because I think this way. In taking that position against me, you say that you are positive. that a positive person acts in the way you do. But does it ever enter your mind that thinking positive plays a major role in creating the problems we experience? By thinking that a certain solution will solve a problem, that a bank officer won't issue a bad mortgage, that a politician will produce the change we want, or that we have any knowledge that can make the world better, we create the problems for the next generation. Good luck.

By anon12604 — On May 10, 2008

If every person saw things as an honest person did, there still would be war, hunger, and anger. Also to believe that this would be the answer to all of our problems is truly naive. Kelsey (15)

By anon2480 — On Jul 13, 2007

Given your write up, could you please expansiate in which context cynicism can be seen to be either positive or negative attributes?

By anon2443 — On Jul 11, 2007

what's the connection between not bathing, and shouting incoherently?

By anon2358 — On Jul 08, 2007

I strongly believe that cynicism is the only means by which we can enrich our societies and stop the unending selfishness and corruptions in the world today.

If everyone see things the way an honest individual see them, i feel there will be no homeless people,hungry mouths to feed and above all there will no longer be wars to fight in the world.

Michael Pollick

Michael Pollick


As a frequent contributor to Language & Humanities, Michael Pollick uses his passion for research and writing to cover a...
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