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figure 1

 

cynic. One disposed to distrust or disbelieve in the sincerity or goodness of human motives and actions.”reference 1 Cynics often express their pessimism sarcastically and condescendingly. Oscar Wilde's description of the cynic as “a man who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing”reference 2 elegantly describes modern usage.

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The original cynic was Diogenes of Sinope (ca. 412-403 to ca. 324-321 BCE). In David Mazella's treatise, The Making of Modern Cynicism, he states that “Diogenes was called ‘the Dog’ for the meanness of his physical existence and for his barking ridicule of vice and absurdity, but just as important was his conscious refusal of conventional Greek attitudes of shame (anaideia) for their arbitrary and unnatural basis in human convention. Consequently he performed natural acts like eating, urination, defecation, or masturbation in public with the shamelessness of a dog.”reference 3

The word comes from Cynicism, a school of Greek philosophy founded by Diogenes. Views on the school and its tenets have varied over time. Most everyone seems to agree that Cynicism was different then than it is today. Mazella describes the disparity he sees between ancient and modern cynicism as “striking.” “The largest difference lies in the modern cynic's evasion of the demands of either philosophical reflection or moral self-regulation, demands that were paramount for the uncompromising ancient Cynics.”reference 4 Mazella goes on to provide a fascinating and concise analysis of how tracing the OED's etymological sources over time can be used to tell the story of that transition.

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Not everyone is so kind to the Cynics. At the beginning of the 20th century The Encyclopædia Britannica stated that Cynics [were] a small but influential school of ancient philosophers. Their name is variously derived from the building in Athens called Cynosarges, the earliest home to the school, and from the Greek word for a dog…in contemptuous allusion to the uncouth and aggressive manners adopted by members of of the school…From a popular conception of the intellectual characteristics of the school comes the modern sense of ‘cynic,’ implying a sneering disposition to disbelieve in the goodness of human motives and a contemptuous feeling of superiority.”reference 5 The fact that the word “contemptuous” was used twice in the first paragraph should tell us all we need to know about Britannica's feelings about cynics.

Mazella bemoans the caricaturization that has resulted from the meaning now associated with cynicism. Ironically, this is a rather cynical fate for this word, at least as most of us would use it today.

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Worse for Mazella, he sees Diogenes as a social and political radical whose life and ideas have relevance and value today. The Cynics were committed to speaking truth to power which Mazella sees as related (via Foucault) to parrhesia, the discipline of rhetoric which means: to speak candidly. If you like this kind of thing—and I admit that I do despite the jargon—The Making of Modern Cynicism is a conceptually well-constructed text and really will get you thinking about the meaning of ancient cynicism today. And I understand if you take a pass.

One last thing about Diogenes: when asked by Alexander the Great what favor he had to ask, the philosopher replied, Yes, to get out of my sunlight.

1. The Oxford English Dictionary Online. 2005. 3d ed. Accessed from http://dictionary.oed.com.

2.Wilde, Oscar. 1903. Lady Windermere's Fan, a Play About a Good Woman. Paris. 95.

 

 

 

3. Mazella, David. 2007. The Making of Modern Cynicism. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press. 25

 

 

 

 

4. Ibid. 13-14.

 

 

 

 

 

 

5. Chisholm, Hugh. 1910. The Encyclopædia Britannica; a Dictionary of Arts, Sciences, Literature and General Information. 11th ed. Cambridge, Eng., New York,: At the University press. 7:691.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


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About the illustrations: Figure 1 is by Shawn Cheng and originally illustrated a 1999 story in the Yale Herald entitled “Combating American Cynicism.” I think it is a marvelous visual reference for the term. Permission pending.

Figure 2 is from a painting of Diogenes by Jean Leon Gerome. The fact that he is surrounded by his familiars, the dogs, makes this my choice. This image (or other media file) is in the public domain because its copyright has expired.

Figure 4 shows some contemptuous uncouth men with aggressive manners, © 2009 Jupiterimages Corporation.

Figure 3 is the Daily Show's News Team. No doubt there are many that view the satirical fake news show on Comedy Central as cynical. However, let's face it, Jon Stewart is not a good enough actor to fake his obvious and visceral commitment to speak truth to power. The I.F. Stone of his day, Stewart sifts through the prepackaged news of the mainstream and exposes its blatant contradictions, often without more commentary than a silly facial expression. I am not sure that Mazella would agree, but perhaps Stewart is the kind of neo-Cynic that he advocates. Certainly Stewart provides barking ridicule of vice and absurdity. This image is excerpted from a publicity picture on Comedy Central's web site, and the copyright for it is most likely owned by either the publisher or the creator of the work depicted. I believe that the use of such images to provide critical commentary on the subject in question qualifies as fair use under United States copyright law.

  Last updated: August 9, 2009
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