Cynicism from Diogenes to Dilbert by Ian Cutler
You already know the cynic: sarcastic and sardonic, the cynic delights in shooting down every trace of idealism, in wrecking every noble initiative, in questioning every sincere utterance. The cynic is the social toxin, ceaselessly criticizing, undermining and destroying. "Virtue? A fig!" - Iago's signature on behalf of cynics rings across the ages. Yet, of all old philosophies, none appears more attuned to our times than cynicism. Whether listening to politicians, observing the latest prize-winning artistic masterpiece, or merely masticating the daily content of the media, many of us adopt the stance of the cynic, suspecting hidden scenarios and ulterior motives. Cynicism has emerged as a cool choice of attitude in response to spin, sensationalism and manipulation.
It is natural that there is a resurgence of interest in cynicism. Some commentators have castigated it as a social pathology of our times - a chic nihilism that poisons everything. Others have sought to defend it as an efficient defence against the lies and disappointments to which we are daily exposed. Yet others have seen in it a rudimentary form of resistance and even rebellion against a culture of hype and simulation. A different class of commentators have sought to elucidate the nature of 'it', the phenomenon of cynicism, looking for historical continuities and fissures, mutations and cross-fertilizations. To the outstanding works of Luis E. Navia and Peter Sloterdijk, we must now add the present volume by Ian Cutler, which offers a far-reaching re-evaluation of cynicism through the ages, a veritable archaeology of a body of ideas and practices that has proven resilient as well as capable of surprising transformations. Both sympathetic and critical, Cutler's work reveals the remarkable ability of cynicism to transubstantiate across discourses and epochs without betraying its unique qualities. Each chapter of the book represents such a transubstantiation of cynicism. The book also reveals the complexities and ambiguities of cynicism that are lost in those commentaries which view it as pathology, defence or resistance.
Cynicism undoubtedly started as a philosophical school. In common with Socrates, one of the undoubted sources of their inspiration, many cynical philosophers did not seek to write down their ideas, least of all to develop some cohesive intellectual system free from contradiction and tension. Instead they sought to live out their philosophy. The absence of a large body of written work made cynicism vulnerable to various slanders by opponents who could attribute to them a variety of moral, philosophical and practical failings. On the other hand, the view that a life can be a statement, a political, aesthetic and moral statement, is one to which our times are well attuned. Cutler is right in viewing cynicism as an art, one that requires considerable practice and sacrifice, one that can be practised badly or well, one that can be analysed and studied but cannot be reduced to laws, rules or dogmas. As an art, it is principally a performative art, a fleeting, temporal, yet deeply effective art, that, when well executed, leaves indelible traces. It is not accidental that some of the greatest triumphs of cynicism belong to the realm of the spectacular - Diogenes demanding that Alexander the Great move aside a mite to let the real sun through or masturbating in public and claiming that life would be simple if only he could relieve hunger by stroking his belly. As an art of persuasion based on spectacle, cynicism is particularly compelling at times when faith in rational argument and sensible discussion is tested.
If early cynicism owed much of its notoriety and influence to certain key spectacular interventions, it would be wrong to underestimate the power, originality and pervasiveness of some of its core ideas. Its very unwillingness to engage in a system-building project such as those undertaken by other philosophers grew out of its conviction that theoretical systems are themselves symptoms of an evasion of the fundamental truth that humans are not like animals: they are animals (even if they are not just animals). In elevating themselves above other creatures of the animal kingdom, the cynics believed that humans indulge in a basic self-deception, whose results are deleterious - exploitation of one person by another, submission to the authority of rulers and loss of freedom. By clothing themselves in rags and celebrating stray dog-like existence, the cynics (from kyon = dog) sought to underline their belief that humans are animals in their very essence and that there is nothing wrong or demeaning about this. Even in our post-Darwinian society, with evolutionary theory making inroads in many areas of the social and human sciences, the cynics' insight retains an ability to stimulate and to provoke.
Stray dogs (unlike well-groomed poodles) recognize no masters and no boundaries. The cynics' disdain for the institutions of the state (including borders, laws, currencies, armies and slavery) finds eloquent expression in their proclamation of cosmopolitanism, citizenship of the world. This oxymoronic proclamation (easily shot down by an Aristotle or a Plato in their different ways) signals the cynics' defiant dismissal of boundaries, passports, citizenship and all the privileges and duties afforded by the state. Being citizens of the world enabled the cynics to claim simultaneously all of the privileges of animals, which can live without respect for human law, and none of the responsibilities of human subjects. It also gave them uniquely global qualities which find much resonance in our times, when capital, information and goods move freely across boundaries, while individuals die in their thousands trying to cross national frontiers in search of a better life.
One final invention of cynicism deserves a special mention here. The claim of the right to speak their mind without fear or restraint, parrhesia, puts the cynics as far away from political correctness as can be imagined today. Not for them, consideration for the feelings and sensitivities of their fellow humans, whether they be the privileged and strong or the marginalized and disenvoiced 'others'. Nothing could be further away from the cynical attitude than the moral superiority of victimhood, the narcissism of identity politics or the escape in hedonism. The cynics did not wish to be liked and did not wish to be admired for being victims. Their courage and fortitude expressed itself in snarling, outrageous, "in your face" rebelliousness that refuses to be compromised, refuses to be silenced and refuses to be ignored. Not an easy stance to adopt, and one that requires considerable privations (ponos) and exercise (askesis) to attain. This should act as a warning to those who believe in 'easy' or 'comfortable' cynicism.
The repertoire of practices, aims and ideas initiated by the ancient cynics recur in the pages of this book, as Cutler imaginatively traces them in different cultural and political set-ups, in different discourses and different epochs. It is a measure of their power that they continue to resonate across all these boundaries. And it is a measure of Cutler's success that he has managed to display both the continuity and the richness of cynicism in its different incarnations. As a piece of intellectual archaeology, Cutler combines the obsessive attention to detail characteristic of the detective and the ability to make old themes and old ideas come alive in front of our eyes. The enduring quality of this book is its ability to vindicate cynicism as a defiant and imaginative stance that proudly declines to lapse into narcissism, self-pity or martyrdom, a stance from which we can learn much today.
This is a reproduction, by kind permission of the publisher, of Yiannis Gabriel's (Professor of Organizational Theory at the Royal Holloway University of London) review of Ian Cutler's Cynicism from Diogenes to Dilbert.