About Cynicism

(Note: this concerns “cynicism” as it is popularly used.  When I wrote this down, I did not mean any philosophic definition, but merely that creeping attitude we know by either pain or boredom.)

The struggle against cynicism is the fight for genuine adulthood.  That struggle is inevitable, because even the one who answers that cynicism is the mere condition of adulthood betrays that he has lost a struggle, since what is cynicism but to confess that cynicism is itself the final truth?  Cynicism is always circular like this, fearing and hating and ultimately affirming itself.  Its two key tenets are that “childhood” is an idyllic state, characterized by hope, pure joy, goodness, wonder, and especially ignorance of the cares of the world; and that adulthood is characterized by knowledge of more worldly truth, and therefore necessarily cynical.  The adult, according to the cynic, inevitably loses his hope and pure joy, because these are mere corollaries of ignorance.  Such ignorance is usually called “innocence” and its eventual passing away is considered all but a fact of psychological nature.  A mentally handicapped person, of course, may remain “innocent,” but all increase in knowledge and responsibility leads toward a coming-of-age into cynicism.  Illusions, cynicism tells us, cannot be removed without disillusionment.

But again, cynicism proves itself to be a spiritual struggle or trial.  If we boldly step out into knowledge and responsibility and are not beaten into despair we have both avoided the state of cynicism and proven the tenets of cynicism wrong in ourselves.  Thus it becomes a struggle for each individual.  No one’s testimony aids us here, nor whether adults we know seem cynical or not.  If cynicism is right, then the seemingly innocent adults we encounter are either deceiving us or caught in an illusion themselves.  And if we have reached that conclusion, we have lost the struggle.  We are convinced.  And how can I will myself back into innocence now that I know it is all an illusion?  There is no going back.  Meanwhile if we have decided that we don’t agree then the innocence of some others must be deemed genuine, though there is always the temptation to think not–but that is the entire point.  That is the struggle.

Likewise, the “sage advice” of a cynic when we are in the midst of the struggle is no good.  He sighs that we may as well give in because there is no use; but when we are in the midst of fighting against that very conclusion, the sage–be he ever so experienced/educated–can be nothing but a demon and a servant of the enemy, doing only what he sees his infernal father do.

Finally, to the question of cynicism, we can never say, “Who knows?  Maybe it is so.”  The only way to do so is to stand at the door forever, never barging cheerfully into adult life as we would like to, but instead granting that whether or not life is meaningful is an inconsequential question–this itself is the deep, self-referential creed of cynicism.  Again we lose.  This monster wants us, and it will do no good to sit quietly and feed ourselves to it, feigning indecision.

The strange, surprising lure of cynicism is the worship of childhood.  Remember that the purity of youth is the first tenet.  Thus cynicism always paints dazzling pictures of the innocence of the young and covets their lack of experience.  The real story of Peter Pan warns of this, and yet that character is invoked to affirm the mystical supremacy of childish vision and childish existence.  Some special “wisdom” is sometimes ascribed to children, although this is a self-conscious fiction, since it is an oxymoron to say that a child is wise.  What is really pointed to here is the truth that the very young have not yet done battle with cynicism.  To be free of that temptation is indeed a blessed state, since in truth the adult faces it, not once, but many times throughout life, especially if there are many sorrows.

But some–tempters, remember!–do preach that childhood is the best state in life, when in actuality it is better to stand victorious in the land of the real future, which is adulthood.  Jesus did not preach this false doctrine, despite misunderstanding of his command to “receive the kingdom of God as one of these [little children].”  What Jesus meant was to pass through the fire of life still bearing the fruit of holiness.  Jesus explained that, when the Word is planted, the sprig of faith shoots up fast, but the cares of life and the deceitfulness of riches often choke it out.  Jesus is not concerned with imaginations of forever remaining the green sprig.  Rather he wants mature trees that produce more life, just as the seed did at the start–only more!  Twenty, fifty, and a hundredfold!  Jesus urged, not a hunt for aqua vitae, but a drink of aqua viva (see John 4) to grow into a mature plant, lively (like a child) in the sense of yielding life (see also Psalm 1).  We must endure droughts of care and temptation and yet be as untouched as a child is.  Jesus’ mandate was itself the struggle against cynicism, a fight that is not impossible with God.

Strange to say, cynicism lures, not only with the purity of childhood, but with the sophistication of despair.  The nihilist earns respect because, in the economy of cynicism, he is the true prophet.  It is not only moody philosophers who follow that route, but young people who choose the wrong company.  Naivete runs in two directions at once, both pretending not to hear the two tenets of despair, and at the same time chasing the treasures the nihilist has no scruples about collecting, since they are the small joys punctuating a meaningless life.  The Book of Proverbs calls such a person “the fool,” the one who rejects wisdom.  But he cannot remain simple forever.  His experience will bring him into conflict with cynicism, he will give in, and his nature (now hardened to true wisdom) will seek the counsel of the wicked instead.  This is how sin festers–beginning with irresponsibility and growing into a bitter loyalty to darkness.


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