Monday, February 20, 2012

Barking and Nothingness

One day last week I had to drive into town and pick up my wife from
her work. I was listening to Radio National, and as usual I was
subjected to the views of some sort of a political pundit. I was a bit
surprised when the pundits were happy to call themselves cynical. This
got me thinking and looking stuff up, both on the internet, and also
using something rather old fashioned called books.

Normally one would write this sort of an essay using a historical
method, that is one would start off from the origins of the words and
concepts and then move to the present. Instead I want to turn things
over and look at the current idea of Cynicism first. In the dictionary
I consulted, it defined Cynicism as misanthropy, that is a hatred for
humanity. This can be accepted without too much controversy. The
dictionary had a second definition which may cause more interest. A
Cynic is one who thinks that all human activity is based on self
interest. The point that I found interesting in this definition is the
fact that it is a commonplace thought that we are all self
interested. Indeed this is the philosophical underpinning of all
market economies. It is the basis of our modern world, all our rights
and our legal framework are based on this idea of self interest. So
when a person calls themselves a Cynic and then says his or her
opponent is only acting on self interest, how can this even be a
critique in a market based economy?

Of course it can not be, unless of course one is making their critique
from a left wing position. By left wing I mean a position that holds
that if all things are created socially they must be appropriated
socially. It would be more instructive, and maybe even closer to the
truth to say that the modern Cynic is in fact no more than a
nihilist. Our modern Cynics would say, for example, that the big banks
and corporations are all greedy bastards who are out to get us, and
steal our money. Sadly our modern Cynics also see to sya that if
someone tries to protest against this exploitation, for example, as the
occupy movement has tried, then the Cynic will in all likelihood brand
them lazy lay-about hippies who just want a hand out. So you can
easily see that this sort of Cynicism leads us into a position where
we are unable to act, as all action is futile and self centered. In a
word nihilism.

So if our modern Cynics are in fact nihilists, what is a 'true'
Cynic. As Plato would say a Cynic is Socrates gone mad. Some
commentators note that Jesus was a type of Cynic, I am not able to
comment on this point, but I happy to point out the relationship
between the Cynics and the early monastic movement.

Cynicism is an old movement, which did have a basis in the philosophy
of Socrates. More than a sect it was a way of life, a mode of thinking
and acting. There are various arguments as to the origin of the name
Cynic, but all the various view points agree that the term comes from
the Greek word for dog (kuon). Some would say that it is simply that
they met in at an Athenian gymnasium called the White Dog Gymnasium,
in a similar way to the Stoics were given their name from the
colonnaded building where they used to teach. Others say that it is
because a dog will guard his or her home with all their ability, in
this case the idea is that Cynics closely guarded their ideas, and
their program. My personal opinion is that the name comes from the
idea that the dog is the most shameless of the animals. The dog will
go anywhere, eat anything, have relations in the street and
more. Seeing how the original Cynics lived rough it is easy to see the
relation to dogs and Cynics.

So let us return to the contrast with Cynics as a movement, and the so
called cynics who dominate our present mutual discourse. Cynicism for
the ancients was informed by two quotes from the Delphic Oracle. Know
Thyself, and Debase the Current. There is some argument over what was
meant by Know Thyself (gnothi seauton). Some commentators would say
that it meant to know your place in the face of the Apollonian oracle,
I reject this idea. The verb gnothi for the Greeks as well meant to
have sexual relations, in the way that we say that a if person knew
someone carnally, we would say know them in the Biblical sense. So the
oracle could be telling people to 'F*** themselves.' Amusing as this
idea is, I think we can safely reject it as well. Which leaves us with
the simple injunction (for the form of the verb is the aorist
imperative) to have knowledge of yourself, to be self aware. Or as a
Marxist would say self consciousness.

The other important phrase is the idea of 'debasing the currency.'
Poor Diogenes took this too literally and did in face debase the
currency (mixed another metal in with the silver used for making
coins.) This caused him to have to flee his home town of Sinope. This
can also be seen to mean debase the current. To; as Nietzsche would say,
revalue all values. This can mean little else than to look at all the
current socially accepted values, and then try to understand them, and
overturn them if required. This is NOT what most of the current cynics
attempt to do.

A third major idea of the Cynics is the idea of being
cosmopolitan. Where in our current multicultural society this may seem
like a trite truism, but for the Ancients to leave one's city meant to
loss citizenship, the ability to take part in political life, and
meant that certain roles and jobs were not available to such a
person. To be a citizen of the world in ancient Greece was to make
oneself an outsider.

In our day when the pundits we see on television or hear on the radio,
who have a career earning good money, who have the ability to persuade
many people, call themselves Cynical, we can rightly call them as no
more than liars. While I am happy to see words change over the years,
as this represents the genius of a people, and the flexibility of
human thought, there are times when we have to nail certain definitions
to certain words to allow us to communicate properly. When there are
perfectly good words to describe the jaded nihilistic speech of our
moulders of ideology, why make up a word when one has no idea of what
they are talking about. To me this sort of caper does nothing but
muddy the waters, and gives trite ideas a fabulous dress which it has
no right in wearing.

So what should we mean by Cynicism? A Cynic is a person who is able to
look at themselves, and the world around them, and to see that so much
of it is a failure and a confidence trick. A Cynic is a person who
rejects the goods and wealth of society, who attacks the accepted
norms of that society. A person who understands that they are a
citizen of the world. A Cynic is not a person who uses glib sarcasm,
not one who accepts the general malaise of the bought and sold media
to make smug comments which do not extend our knowledge, but only
cause more despair by pandering to the lowest common denominator. A
Cynic is not someone who parrots falsehoods in a attempt to pander to
wealth and to promote their own career. This sort of person is no more
than a bourgeois nihilist, and should be called such.

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