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Cynicism and the Modern World

Cynicism is a worldview and attitude characterized by a general distrust and skepticism of others’ motives. It is often associated with a belief that people are primarily motivated by self-interest and that society is inherently flawed. The evolution of cynicism can be traced back to ancient Greece, where it was first developed as a philosophical concept.

I am a citizen of the world (cosmopolites)

Diogenes of Sinope
Diogenes Sitting in His Tub by Jean-Léon Gérôme (1860)

The Cynics were a group of philosophers in ancient Greece who advocated for a way of life that was characterized by simplicity, self-sufficiency, and a rejection of material possessions. They believed that by living in this way, one could achieve a state of inner freedom and detachment from the world. The Cynics influenced many other philosophers and thinkers, including the Stoics, who also advocated for a way of life that was characterized by simplicity and self-sufficiency.

Early History

In ancient Greece, the philosopher Diogenes of Sinope was considered to be one of the most prominent figures of cynicism. He rejected the traditional values of his time and advocated for a simpler, more ascetic way of life. His quote “I am a citizen of the world (cosmopolites)” and the way of life he advocated, which was characterized by self-sufficiency, simplicity, and a rejection of material possessions. He believed that by living in this way, one could achieve a state of inner freedom and detachment from the world.

Another ancient Greek philosopher, Antisthenes who was also considered to be a key figure in the development of cynicism. He was a student of Socrates and is said to have developed the concept of “cynicism” from the Greek word “kuon,” meaning “dog.” He believed that people should live like dogs, who are self-sufficient and unencumbered by material possessions. He advocated for a way of life that was characterized by simplicity, self-sufficiency, and a rejection of material possessions.

Antisthenes, part of a fresco in the National University of Athens

Not to unlearn what you have learned is the most necessary kind of learning.

Antisthenes

Cynics and Stoics

The Cynics and Stoics were not only philosophers but also social critics. They were critical of the society of their time, which they saw as decadent, corrupt, and overly focused on material possessions. They believed that people were too focused on wealth, power, and status. That this was leading to a decline in moral values and a lack of true happiness. Their ideas have had a lasting impact on Western thought. Their ideas influenced many other philosophers, such as the Epicureans and Skeptics, who also had a critical view of society but advocated for different ways of living.

Crates disposes of his wealth. From the Allegory of the Hill of WisdomSiena Cathedral. Floor mosaic by Pinturicchio (c. 1505).

In the Modern World

In the modern world, cynicism has become a prevalent attitude and worldview. Many people have become disillusioned with the political and social institutions that are supposed to serve them. They have lost faith in the government, the media, and other institutions that are supposed to represent their interests. They see these institutions as corrupt and self-serving, and they believe that they are being manipulated and controlled by powerful interests.

Trust and Cynicism

This cynicism has led to a lack of trust and a lack of engagement in the political process. Many people feel that their voices are not being heard and that their interests are not being represented. They believe that the political system is broken and that it is not capable of addressing their needs and concerns.

This cynicism has also had an impact on the media. Many people have become skeptical of the information they are being presented with and have started to question the motives of those who are presenting it. They believe that the media is controlled by powerful interests and that they are not getting the full story.

This cynicism has also had an impact on the way people view themselves and their place in society. Many people have become disillusioned with the materialistic values that are promoted by society.

Conclusion

Even with its impact over the world, the word cynic’s meaning has become blurred. People often associate it with scepticism. Its seen as “an inclination to believe that people are motivated purely by self-interest”. This shouldn’t be taken for the ancient philosophy of cynicism which advocates differently. It is “the pursuit of virtue in accordance with a simple and natural way of life.”

If I gained one thing from philosophy is that at the very least, I am well prepared to confront any change in fortune.

― Diogenes of Sinope
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