It’s never a good idea to read philsophy in the privacy of one’s own bathroom. Firstly, one’s attention should be diverted elsewhere and lumbar musculature tends to complain on prolonged inactivity. Secondly, it provides a window for a period of (often lengthy) introspection. My stay there today was fruitful, in more ways than one.
I may have inadvertently discovered my ‘tribe’- those called, quite cruelly, I think – ‘cynics’ in the gentlest and least toxic sense. I asked myself “Am I a disgruntled and misunderstood idealist, a subversive wit, perhaps a professional misfit, a sceptical jester, almost a curmudgeon, or, a secret sentimentalist who longs for a simpler, sweeter life?” I humbly answered ‘Yes’. It seems that cynics are as diverse as dogs, but all brethren under the skin. Something about the ways of the church or even the world makes us want to howl. Epictetus the Stoic wrote that “a cynic is a spy who aims to discover what things are friendly or hostile to man; after making accurate observations, he then comes back and reports the truth.” It seems I am in good company. Think of Voltaire and Mark Twain, the bitter irony, biting sarcasm and mirthful ridicule, exposing the follies of their times like open sores as well as the fatuous, vacuous and timeless foibles of mankind.
What a sadly maligned and misunderstood tribe we are!
Cynicism, after all, springs not from cruelty or viciousness, but from precisely the opposite: a fatal love of virtue. If we were mere realists, we’d have no need for cynicism; the world would never disappoint us because we’d expect so little of it. But the best cynics are still idealists with a wounded childlike soul under their scarred hides. We wanted the world to be a better place, and we find it so difficult to shrug off disappointment when it lets us down. Our cynicism gives us the painful power to behold life shorn of its sustaining illusions. Thus, my own definition of a cynic:
“an idealist whose rose-coloured glasses have been removed, snapped in two and stamped into the earth, immediately improving his vision.”
If we were activists, we’d do something constructive about our discontentment. But we’re smart enough to know that we will never prevail, and probably a little too lazy to attempt any labour that’s predestined to fail. So we retaliate with our unique brand of wounded wit. If we can’t defeat our oppressors, at least we can mock them in good fellowship. That’s about as much justice as a cynic can expect.
This post was written to cheer those who know me well, and to feel better about themselves in consequence. You know who you are.